Of Witness and the Only True Safety

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Popular processions and pilgrimages are among the most beautiful Catholic practices all over the United States and the world. (I myself, along with 300 others, walked the thirty miles of an Order-of-Malta-sponsored Advent Pilgrimage from Jacksonville to St. Augustine, Florida, last weekend – about which more, much more, in the future.) These types of events have a long history and great spiritual value, properly done, because they differ from the demonstrations and marches for specific causes, important as those are. They simply witness that the Church – and God – are present in the world, not only within the walls of church buildings but in our common public life.

Of course, opponents and outright enemies of that presence don’t like it. At all. Though religious voices have a right to exist in the public square as much as secular voices, we see increasing efforts to curb religious expression, as if, by its very nature, it doesn’t belong in civil society – or is even dangerous. And that’s true not only of America, but many other places in the world.

Today, December 8, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Many churches in America will hold special celebrations to honor the Theotokos, the Mother of God. In Nicaragua, however, the vaguely Marxist but definitely criminal regime of the Ortega family has banned the traditional public procession.

The Church in Nicaragua has often opposed injustices by the regime, which has responded by expelling the papal nuncio, placing a bishop and priests under arrest, closing Catholic media and organizations, and generally enforcing a system of religious repression. According to the regime, however, the reason for banning the procession is that it’s “a threat to public safety.”

This is the rankest lie, of course, but it’s not only in the world’s dictatorships that “safety” has become an idol to which we all must bow down. Prestigious universities and some of the most powerful corporations and news organizations in Europe and America now claim that students or staff don’t “feel safe” when some un-woke opinion or activity manages to break through current secular orthodoxies.

The alleged threats rarely materialize, but the very notion of “safety” is an ever-ready – and mostly effective – weapon for quashing dissent.

Sad to say, the safety shibboleth has even infected the Church. In recent days, the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska was threatened by a pro-abortion group, which sent a message to the priest who runs the center reading:

If our right to abortion in Bellevue is taken away due to the attempt to pass an abortion ban and it gets passed[,] we will shoot up your Newman center with our new AR-74 rifles. Sincerely, Jane’s Revenge.

The note ended with a slogan used by several radical pro-abortion groups, “If abortion isn’t safe, neither are you.”

This sort of thing has become all too common in American society anno Domini 2022. The university’s Department of Public Safety [sic] and local police say they are investigating – though a Federal response to the threat of a hate crime, as with the many other threats and actual attacks on religious institutions, seems to be missing.


But the “safety” meme, unfortunately, did not end there. The priest in charge of the Newman Center slipped into the current cant as well, saying in a public statement, “Our number one priority is the safety of our students.”

It would be wrong to criticize someone who, in the heat of the moment, says something that on later reflection he might wish he hadn’t. But it’s telling that this particular phrase came from a campus chaplain, of all people.

Is it even remotely true that the “number one priority” at a Newman Center is the “safety” – in the current ideologized sense – of its students? The whole history of Christianity, from the time of Jesus and the Apostles, the early martyrs, the missionaries who went out into a quite hostile world, down to the confessors and martyrs who stood up to Nazism, Communism, and Fascism in our own times tells a different tale. And there are new chapters to be written of heroic sanctity even today in the face of dangers in China, Nigeria, Ukraine, Iran, India, and many other nations.

In ordinary daily terms, there’s only a relative degree of safety in any of our lives. And in a Catholic perspective the only real safety is the hope of eternal salvation in Heaven promised to those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ, through all persecutions and challenges.

The threat at the University of Nebraska Newman Center is just one of a series of threats to traditional Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and even secular institutions that stand up to the abortion, euthanasia, LGBT+ mentality that is dominant virtually everywhere now in our main culture-forming institutions. And from which there is no place of refuge, let alone safety.

We even have a former First Lady and candidate for president suggesting that pro-lifers in America – who make up nearly half the population – are on a spectrum with the Iranian regime, the Taliban, and Russian rapists in Ukraine.

Hilary Clinton graduated first in her class at Wellesley and met her future husband when they were both students at  Yale Law School. Yet she doesn’t seem to have learned much about first-order reasoning in either of those places. Rather, she honed rhetorical skills in pursuit of public influence – as her shifting position on many topics over the years demonstrates.

These wild generalizations have to be corrected, of course, by public argument and action. For centuries, one of the greatest services that the Church has provided to the world has been education in the first things that constitute life as a rational being.

But such charges also have to be met by a fearless witness and public presence. The kind that gave us Stephen, Polycarp, Lucy, Becket, More, Fisher, Pro, Stein, and many more. The witness that says, we’re here, we follow the Truth, and – do what you will – we’re not going away.

*Image: The Embrace at the Golden Gate by Ambrosius Benson, ca. 1528 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]. The painting depicts Saints Joachim and Anne. They have met at the eponymous gate in Jerusalem. Anne tells her husband that she is pregnant.

You may also enjoy some of our most popular columns from the last dozen years:

Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s  Priests without People

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s Benedict XVI: Prophet

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.