“Be safe.” Good advice. Or is it?
We all want to be physically safe, and we want those we love to be secure. This is part of our animal nature, and it is also reasonable.
But it is not the final word. Christ told us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather be afraid of him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell.” He tells us not to worry about our material well-being, but rather to seek first the Kingdom of God and, as St. Paul says, the things that are above. All the rest will be given to us.
The phrases “right to life” and “pro-life” are aptly descriptive of the obligation to protect the vulnerable. But the blind pursuit of mere survival can lead the uninformed to treasure physical and emotional safety above all else as the supreme principle of our choices.
The Catechism teaches that human life is sacred and must be “respected and protected absolutely from the moment of human conception.” Civil leaders must “help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow [citizens] to grow and reach maturity,” including health care.
But the sin involved with violations of these strictures is not simply death itself. Death is a consequence of sin and a reality for all of us.
The sin against the Creator of life is “direct and intentional killing” of innocents. We might also incur guilt if we act without “proportionate reason” in a potentially risky way that, though unintentional, causes innocent deaths.
We are called to avoid and prevent these acts of killing. We are not called to eliminate every possible risk of death. We have to make careful judgments and choices about the competing goods of life that may conflict with each other, and with life itself.
If life ended with death, preservation of physical life would be the ultimate moral criterion of our choices. But as martyrs and missionaries in dangerous places show us, that is not the case.
So, the Catechism continues, “If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value.” There are higher goods to be interested in as well, or even more interested in, as Christ taught. And a quick look at the Catechism’s index under the entry for “Life” shows that the overwhelming interest of the Magisterium is in “life” as life in God and eternal life, with our physical life as good and sacred both in itself and because it enables the possibility of that ultimate life.
Satan loves it when we value our physical well-being above all else. Two trends in recent centuries have given him a lot of help in pulling us in that direction.
The first is technological. Advances in medicine, transportation, and the means of production let us live longer and in better health, and we can work and travel with less risk of death or injury. Those are good things that we can welcome. Material progress, though, tends to make us think more about temporal life and less about what follows.
The second trend is political. Alexis de Tocqueville, observing 19th-century life in Europe and America, speculated about two seemingly contradictory tendencies in times of freedom and equality – which today we enjoy in unprecedented abundance. The first, he feared, would be a growing self-absorption and individualization that would lead to isolation. The second would be a demand for a powerful central government that would protect us from those around us who might violate our ever-expanding individual liberties. Over time, as the government response to that demand for more rights intensifies, the state takes on the role of a paternal schoolmaster who provides for our every need and want. Government infantilizes us.
As bureaucratic control increases and seeks to allay every danger that might disturb us, a benevolent despotism “reduces each nation to. . .nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” At that point, we have handed our freedom – another important human good – over to an earthly power. We have lost what it means to be human, and Satan has every reason to applaud.
Today we see political programs and even violent protests demanding more of such treatment, and other programs and protests rejecting it.
I was expecting to conclude with a full-throated cry for a return to the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom – the disposition of making good choices as to all earthly goods, whether they be precautions that safeguard life and limb, or freedoms to do as we wish. Prudence avoids demanding too much security and permitting too much recklessness.
But thinking further about the near-term odds of such an essential renewal here in the city of man, I’ll instead just point out two fictional accounts that illuminate the choices we may face.
In a brief dystopic article published not long ago, the author (under the pseudonym “Stay Safe”) describes a world divided between the “Clean,” living in prosperous isolation and near-perfect safety as guided by “The Science,” and the “Unclean” outside the city in the “Freedom Lands,” who exist in relative poverty and insecurity. Which group is really human?
The other example is that old reliable, Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World. Rejected by the secular masters of progress, Catholics in this novel live in enclaves without wealth or many of the conveniences and safety features that modernity has wrought – not abject poverty, but not contemporary material abundance either.
St. John Paul II reminded us constantly that we should be not afraid. “Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that I am with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.”
That’s real hope. But don’t expect it to be safe, in the ways Satan would like.
*Image: The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan by Acisclo Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco, late 17th – early 18thcentury [Detroit Institute of Arts]
You may also enjoy:
Romano Guardini’s The Foundation of the True World
James V. Schall, S.J.’s On the Dullness of the World