The Dangers of Safety

We had a pre-existing condition, but we didn’t know it. Before the days of COVID, I was aware that I was in a safety-based culture. We could think of the expansion of insurance (I bought a phone recently and was automatically involved in an insurance plan for it without being told). We could think of all the talk of “prevention,” prevention of any and all evils. We could think of all the schools and other institutions who make incredible decisions of policy and finance based on safety. An obsession with safety was very present and made itself felt, though it did so quietly.

And now more recently, the pre-existing condition now reveals itself. It has breached the surface just as an incubating virus finally yields its first symptom. The many policy, financial, and family decisions that were taken so regularly, unconsciously yet obsessively based on safety, have now stepped into the open and made themselves visible to all. The days of the greeting “Pax et Bonum” have been replaced by “Stay safe.” Is safety our biggest wish for our brothers and sisters?

(As a brief tangent, though perhaps relevant, receiving this new greeting is a new pet peeve. It irks me, and I’m not a person who is generally irked. I have developed the return, “Stay healthy. Stay holy.”)

It is more than just an obsessive focus on safety, it has begun to do harm to people. The lack of Sunday ritual by staying at home for safety reasons too easily leads to spiritual sloth in reengaging with the sacraments in general at the appropriate time. There is family strife when an elderly parent decides to go to Mass and younger family members are frightened on this person’s behalf — there could even be the refusal of aiding the elderly in attending Mass, a possible human rights violation. With so much of pastoral ministry being hunting down people who have fallen in the cracks, the concerns of safety frequently deepen those cracks and make those people more and more inaccessible. While some parishes may have used this time to increase sacramentals, we have generally scaled back on their uses for safety reasons and, as a result, have missed their great benefit, especially in the domestic church.

In this article, I would like to highlight the dangers of a safety-based culture. Safety is something to desire and to fight for. It is a key concern for the common good of any society. Therefore, my critique is the overvaluation of physical safety to the demise of any spiritual and eternal good. I’m not criticizing any single example of its manifestation, though that could be worthwhile. My purpose, rather, is to help form the consciences and awareness of pastors, who can then help their flock.

I do not intend that this be an exhaustive list of the dangers, but hopefully it follows the larger veins of experience. I will group them in two categories: spiritual dangers for persons and spiritual dangers for communities.

Spiritual Dangers for Persons

1) An obsession with safety is an obsession with fear. There is a flow from fear to safety. The experience of fear (the presence of a threat) creates the urge to get rid of that threat. That’s not complicated. The pursuit of safety is one way of eliminating the fear, and it can be done by eliminating the threat’s proximity or power. When the response to fear becomes obsessive, the time for a restoration in fortitude has come. Fortitude would guide the person to persevere on the good course in the face of threats, and it would also lead to moderately moving towards the elimination of that threat in accordance with right reason. This right reason would mean that prudence would guide the moderate applications of resources to the threat’s elimination, or it would propose simply to withstand the threat’s continued existence.

I was surprised to see a quote from Tertullian: “Fear is the foundation of safety.” I don’t have the context for it, but I believe it doesn’t have to be interpreted as an explicit negative association of fear with safety. We build houses, a very reasonable project, because of a fear of exposure to the elements, a very reasonable fear. We have a fear, and that offers us a motivation to find security. If the fear is reasonable, it’s a reasonable motivation. If the fear is an unreasonable fear, either in degree or in a false perception of the threat, then we would call it an unreasonable motivation.

2) A focus on safety smothers a focus on peace. Safety has become the new desire of the heart, but it is a desire that greatly lacks. While peace is a substantial reality, safety is merely the freedom from or the absence of evil, the absence of all threats or risks. If we are free from evil, what are we free for? What does safety allow us to pursue? Even in situations of safety, the Augustinian insight remains valid: “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.” As pastors of souls, we need to proclaim the beauty of Christ’s promises, that the peace in the soul of a martyr is more profound than the safety and security of those who have closed themselves into their homes. While it might be a factor at times, safety is not and cannot be peace, especially “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

3) The universal ignorance of spiritual threats. The martyrs knew the great physical risks they accepted by following Jesus Christ. They also knew the spiritual risks they would have accepted if they failed to follow Jesus Christ. Their stories need to be told as heroic stories. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Just imagine if the world believed in the eternal risks they faced in the world on a daily basis — the overturning of the world that happened with COVID-19 would look like nothing. The penance of the city of Nineveh would look like child’s play, as their fear was merely temporal destruction. Yet, if we truly knew the glorious grandeur of heaven (let alone on Earth with the indwelling of the Holy Trinity!) that we risk when we flirt with mortal sin, we would likely see a very different world!

Pastoral Dangers for Communities

1) Safety keeps the Church on maintenance, not on mission. I mean this in two ways. The first regards keeping safe what it owns. One great risk the Church faces being so extended and expansive is that it tends to have many resources, and a fallen interpretation of stewardship concludes that what one owns, one must maintain. The illness that can result is a belief in the necessity to maintain these possessions. Such maintenance may be helpful much of the time, but it may be harmful as well. We risk the belief that if the Church owns, the Church must continue to own. We must keep it safe. In fact, we must direct resources towards maintaining our current resources, and maybe even accumulating more resources for the mission. The Church is safer that way. Yet Christ “charged them take nothing for the journey except a staff” (Mk 6:8). It is worthy to meditate on the two greatest evangelizers of history, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis Xavier, who renounced all possessions. But following Jesus literally, as the most effective evangelizing saints did, is unfortunately not always so simple.

The second way safety risks the mission for maintenance is the direct absorption of resources for physical safety. I’ll take Catholic schools who blindly conform to the highest standards of safety as an example. I have not concluded that they err in this, but it is my suspicion. I also note that each school is different. How much money goes in to the fences, the alarm systems, the lock systems, the tornado shelter, maybe even security guards? The administration of school might not even believe the need matches the investment, but the parents do. The parent’s radical orientation to safety draws in the safety-based world into the sanctuary of the Catholic Church’s mission. Schools risk becoming a principal access point for this. Some children grow up in bubble-wrapped homes. The Church invests much money to enforce this form of parenting rather than helping to form parents about the proper balance of risks and freedom and of typical childhood living.

While the school might be able to maintain its share in the Church’s mission of spreading the Kingdom of God, it would lose what in the United States had been its historical, original focus: the support of lower-income families, even having free tuition as it used to be (and might be in some places still). The rise of safety cause the rise of tuition. Of the many factors increasing costs and tuition at Catholic school, one not to be overlooked is a greater orientation towards safety. To be clear, I deeply want absolutely safe schools. I also have a passionate desire to have access of great schools for those who have less resources.

2) A culture oriented towards safety overvalues temporal authority. This is a tendency, more than a rule, but I have observed groups of people who recently had either COVID or the vaccine and will not be with each other unmasked because the CDC had said it wasn’t safe. Most likely, the CDC was simply slow to update its guidelines. I was surprised at their unthought obedience to the letter of the law (guidelines), and I was a fair bit envious of the government, that they commanded the hearts of my people more than God does. When bishops have lifted the dispensation from the Sunday obligation, my understanding is that there is nearly no effect in Mass attendance. I don’t blame the people. I blame the fear that excessive focus on safety creates. It leads people to cling to something they can trust. Maybe this is why the great evangelists of history preached so regularly on heaven and hell, sin and judgment. If they feared that, they would begin to cling to God, albeit in an imperfect way that must be perfected into love.

3) We misunderstand what safety is. People tend to think something is safe or unsafe. There is nothing in the middle. It is a binary. The truth, on the other hand, is that we live with risks of all kind. What we call safe is what we call a situation with minimal risk. What is unsafe is something with intolerable risk. Yet in between, we have the full spectrum of degrees of risk, also known as degrees of safety: “pretty much safe,” “safe enough,” “safe, but be careful,” “enter at your own risk,” etc. The risk is dependent on the person’s vulnerability and the exterior state of risk. The lie of Satan is that something is totally safe or totally unsafe. While he grants a little space to what is safe, he then eats up the rest of the middle ground and takes it for himself. Therefore, people will say it’s not “safe” to return to Mass, while statistically the risk of contracting COVID-19 at a Sunday Mass, for example, is incredibly negligible. We must learn to accept what the pre-safety-based culture knew naturally: it is inherent to being human to accept risk and live.

Conclusion

Where do we go from here? What’s a game plan? Every parish and community is different, but I offer some ways to take step back from a safety-based culture and steps towards something more natural and reasonable.

  • Be direct about the truth that the good of the soul is higher than the good of the body. “What profit has a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
  • Talk about the martyrs. This might be the best way. Within this, we can proclaim the truth about what is truly good and the purpose of life: Communion with God, true peace and joy, the hope of heaven.
  • Talk about spiritual dangers, false prophets, the evils of worldliness in its many manifestations, etc.
  • Talk about the four last things in imitation of Jesus Christ, who talked much about Gehenna and the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • Pause before decisions that regard safety and give them an authentic spiritual discernment.

A safety-based culture is not the greatest of evils out there. Nonetheless, we are seeing that it truly does affect the lives of people and even increases suffering with irrational forms of isolation. We can be merciful and help those who are suffering the greatest to take baby steps into what they would consider “the great unknown” and what we consider to be normal. For some, it might be a psychological inhibition that a counselor could provide support for, but let us be assured that the truth of the Gospel should guide all forms of healing and understanding of authentic safety.

Mary, Refuge of Sinners, pray for us.

Fr. Sean O'Brien About Fr. Sean O'Brien

Rev. Sean O'Brien is a priest of the Diocese of Tulsa. He holds an STL in moral theology and bioethics from the Accademia Alfonsiana, Rome.

Comments

  1. Avatar Janice Arcaro says:

    This is excellent. So much fear all around us growing a culture where physical safety is the only goal for too many.

  2. Avatar Jeanne Breunig says:

    Totally agree. Thank you, Father.

  3. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Sean,

    Good article on the danger of safety. I am one who is taking the safe road now. At 81 with preexisting conditions that put me at risk. An important condition of this decision is the challenge my coming down with Covid 19 would give to my family with whom I live. I agree we are over-concerned with safety.

    The most obvious expression of that in the U.S. is our obsession with guns. Guns are an attempt to be safe. Focus on guns and safety has created a culture of aggressiveness that makes peace in society almost impossible. Why are we unable to even address this serious problem in our Catholic Churches? So many Catholics see the right to own a gun as an absolute human right, that even a simple challenge to that right creates a political argument.

    I agree we all need to take the risk of martyrs more seriously.

    • I TOTALLY agree with you, Tom. Hang in there. And pray which can give your life meaning and purpose in these strange days!

  4. Avatar Bob Greene says:

    Thank you Fr. Sean for a good article. I believe the more we turn from God the greater our fear of death, and rightly so. This fear of death that we are now witnessing is a symptom of the ultimate deadly disease – the rejection of God.

  5. Avatar Alejandra says:

    Excellent article on something that has been troubling me since the very beginning of this pandemic. We’ve become unreasonably obsessed with safety at the HUGE detriment of many other aspects of a full (and healthy) life actually worth protecting and being safe *for*.
    As you noted in the article, Fr. Sean, what are we actually gaining from all this fear mongering into submissive isolation? What are we protecting our lives for if the very lives we are protecting are becoming utterly joyless, faithless, community-less?!

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