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Catholicism: “Safety Third”

February 12, 2021


For several years, television and podcasting personality Mike Rowe has been sharing the slogan “safety third,” which he developed while hosting the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs. Rowe notes that, in practice, the ubiquitous “safety first” is never true. At best, it’s third. For most jobs, government policies, domestic activities, and even leisure pursuits, there is always a balance of risk versus reward. In 2020, Rowe put it this way on his blog:

Here’s an honest question—would you be OK if the government reduced the posted speed limits by 50%, required all motorists to wear helmets, and outlawed all left turns? If not, why not? Doing so would save almost 40,000 lives a year.

Rowe has received some blowback for perceived insensitivity during our present virus crisis; but at some level, everyone operates in the world as if Rowe’s analysis is basically correct. For the Catholic evangelist, “safety third” is just as important as it is for an Alaskan crab boat captain. In fact, it’s about time for all Christians to recalculate risk and reward in our own lives, and step out a bit more in faith.

But first, here’s what not to do. There is a certain type of Christian who sees every act of defiance in the face of wicked secular authorities or errant Church hierarchs as akin to a holy martyrdom like St. Stephen’s in Acts 7. Every cantankerous Catholic YouTuber imagines himself the heir of St. Maximus the Confessor, who in the seventh century stood up to both Church and state, losing his writing hand as well as his tongue in defense of orthodox doctrine. People certainly do die for the faith in our world today; and a day may come when it happens in North America and Europe. But imagining this scenario often lets us off the hook for real risk-taking for the sake of the Gospel in our ordinary lives.

Cardinal Francis George, the late Archbishop of Chicago and grandfather of the Word on Fire movement, once said,

I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.

The first sentence is usually misconstrued, and the second is usually omitted. Cardinal George was certainly concerned about the state of society, but he was not foreseeing a Christian bloodbath at the hands of the secular world. Cardinal George said about his own remark, “What I said is not ‘prophetic’ but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.”

It is entirely possible that in the next few years, we will hear of very ordinary Catholics being fired from very ordinary jobs for expressing even the mildest contra-thought on social media regarding homosexuality, transgenderism, or abortion. We’ve already seen some rancor amid the Church’s efforts to work with civil authorities in allowing for the people of God to gather to receive the sacraments during the pandemic. 

But living riskier lives of faith can play out much more quietly too. A young man pursuing a vocation to the priesthood or a woman or man discerning the monastic life are all considering a less “safe” path than what the world offers with approval. So is the single person living an ordinary life in the world while forgoing the expected promiscuity of her peers. In the eyes of the world, safety means going with the flow: chase, achieve, indulge, consume. Sleep around, go to brunch, take selfies.

Catholics should be different. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man,  “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” 

Every time a Catholic couple struggling with infertility dismisses out of hand the idea of IVF to an incredulous doctor, they are actively giving witness to Christ and his kingdom. The victory is doubled when they adopt a child who might otherwise have died in the womb. “Safety third” may mean that a Catholic family thwarts the two-income norm and lives much more modestly than their neighbors so that one parent can stay home. Likewise, a “safety third” ethos defies a world that says large families are irresponsible. Every time a giant van full of kids, with bumper stickers of rosaries and JMJ, pulls up in the parking lot of a chain restaurant or a store, Christ wins. Homeschooling, or otherwise rejecting the technocratic educational paradigm, may be a subtle way to walk a riskier but better path than the one the world offers too.

“Safety third” for Catholics, then, should mean that we are willing to sacrifice income, prestige, or even just the appearance of being “normal” in a world that may misunderstand us. “Safety third” is echoing Our Lady’s fiat. “Safety third” is also emulating the Apostles in their mission to teach the Gospel and baptize the whole world into the Church. Similar to Mike Rowe’s observations on factory floors and construction sites, Christians know we are first of all alive in order to get a job done, to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We may be hindered in some ways within modern liberal society, but on the whole, we are still perfectly free to evangelize. We can bring as many new “weirdos” into our weird community as we want. And with the world feeling more far-flung and less safe all the time, maybe more people will be drawn to the Body that never said the world was otherwise.

We want to flourish in the world and be at peace with our neighbors. God forbid we lose our reputations, our livelihood, or even our lives—but we may. And we remember with St. Paul that “living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil. 1:21). In any case, Christians aren’t anxious. St. Peter admonishes us, “Do not fear what they fear” (1 Pet. 3:14), and St. Paul reminds us how our Lord has equipped us for our calling: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Let’s be safe; let’s be respectful and look out for the well-being of others where that is prudent; but let’s not also forget to be signs of contradiction in an increasingly lockstep world and live life, come what may, for Christ and his kingdom, keeping “safety third.”