On December 29, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr.
St. Thomas Becket, like all true saints, endorsed the Gelasian proposition that the civil authority has no right to interfere in matters conferred exclusively by Christ to the Catholic Church. Although the saint is often commemorated as a defender of “religious liberty,” he was martyred specifically for defending the libertas Ecclesiae, or the liberty of the Catholic Church.
In a statement to King Henry II, St. Thomas asserted that “God willed . . . that those things which must be administered by his Church pertain to his priests, not to secular powers, which if they are faithful, he willed rather to be subject to the priests of his Church.” Furthermore, he declared that the “Christian religion [is] to be ordered and examined” by bishops and priests, not by secular powers. Temporal rulers, he went on, ought to subject their own policy preferences to the bishops of the Church in matters of spiritual jurisdiction. In support, he cited Gratian’s Decretum which set forth that civil authorities “ought not give judgment concerning bishops.”
For St. Thomas, the purpose of the distinction between temporal and spiritual power was to allow the Catholic Church to exercise, without impediment, its jurisdiction over spiritual matters and to direct civil power toward its perfective end, the common good, and to censure its bearers with spiritual and temporal punishments should they deviate from this proper ordering.
The saint was ultimately martyred for defending Gelasian Dyarchy, that is Integralism, from an overreaching civil authority. St. Thomas Becket’s example is critical for us today in a time when liberal regimes worldwide seek to regulate the administration of the sacraments and even define the nature of authentic worship. Just think of all the judges and governors—effectively banning the Mass—telling us that private worship is the same as public worship whilst exempting various secular purposes.
As the Trump administration’s proclamation commemorating St. Thomas’s feast day put it: “A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure—because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the Grace of God.” On this feast day, Catholics, adherents of the true religion and faith, should imitate the example of St. Thomas Becket, who died defending the rights of the Church and subjecting all things, including the political order, to Christ.