In praise of a Church willing to take risks

In praise of a Church willing to take risks Careful now! A pedestrian braves the snow last week.
Christianity isn’t a ‘snowflake’ religion, writes David Quinn


During the snow of last week, a number of dioceses around the country said churches should close and also advised Catholics that they were released from their obligation to attend Mass on Sunday if they felt it would be unsafe to travel to church. This got me thinking about the role risk plays in our lives, and indeed the role that risk has played in the history of Christianity.

In many ways, we now live in one of the most risk-averse societies ever. I don’t just mean Ireland here, I mean the Western world in general. Health and safety campaigns abound. We are always being told to watch what we eat, what we drink, to take enough exercise so as to cut down our risk of falling into ill-health.

Speed limits are being reduced all the time and the amount of alcohol we are allowed to consume before we drive is also being cut all the time.

Parents are extremely anxious about their children. We have the phenomenon of the ‘helicopter’ parent who is always hovering over their children.

Children are to be seen on the streets far less than in the past. This is only partly the result of game consoles and smart phones. The trend towards children staying indoors or being ferried from playdate to playdate or activity to activity has been in place for years. Parents worry about what might happen to their children if they let them roam the streets unsupervised.

As the Church itself knows very well, adults who have regular contact with children must be closely monitored. This protects the child mainly, but also the adult from false allegations.

The same thing is found outside the Church, in schools, in sports organisations, scouting organisations, care centres etc.

A lot of those safety measures are absolutely prudent, essential even, but a word in favour of risk is in order, because without risk many of the great advances in human life would never have taken place. Also, a society which teaches its members that life is supposed to be safe and risk-free, with few if any set-backs, will raise a generation that lacks resilience, and that does them a gross disservice.

Let’s deal with the second issue first. We hear a lot these days about the ‘snowflake’ generation. The term denotes fragility. The phenomenon seems to be particularly prevalent in our universities with their ‘safe spaces’ and their ‘no platforming’ campaigns.

‘Safe spaces’ are places where you will never hear a word or a sentiment you find offensive. ‘No platforming’ campaigns are aimed at preventing certain speakers being heard on university campuses in case someone finds them offensive.

Again, you note the lack of willingness to ever risk anything, in this case, hearing a view that might make you feel uncomfortable. It turns out that a policy of ‘safety first’ is a threat to free speech.

But schools and universities are also noting the fragile mental health of many of their students, who find it very hard to cope with setbacks. This is very, very bad and it shows that we parents, with our ‘safety first’ mentality, might be doing them no favours.

Role of

Now, let’s look at the role of risk in human history from the big things to the small things. Some risk-takers are, of course reckless. There was a lot of reckless risk-taking during the Celtic Tiger as people over-invested in property. The problem, however, is that in many cases they thought property was a sure thing and they weren’t really taking a risk at all.

But if no businessman or woman ever took a financial risk, we would all still be poor because we need people who are good at making money. They drive the economy. In order to succeed, they have to risk failure, and many business people fail before they succeed, and then fail again, and succeed again.

The role of risk as a driver of social change is even bigger. How many people in history have taken exorbitant risks to stand up to injustice, including risks to life and liberty? Where would we be without those people?

Christianity itself would never have left Jerusalem if the early disciples were not willing to risk martyrdom. They would still be in the upper room, hiding away from the crowd below.

Jesus himself was always taking risks. The ultimate risk was to enter Jerusalem for Passover knowing his enemies were waiting for him and certain death awaited him.

But again and again before that, he took risks in standing up to the religious authorities of his day.

In almost every territory into which early Christianity expanded, missionaries ran the risk of death. Even if they were not violently killed, they risked death from the elements or local diseases.

The same pattern continued all down the centuries. Huge numbers of Irish missionaries died in places like Nigeria because of local diseases they had little immunity to. But they were willing to take this risk.

In many parts of the world today, Christian missionaries are still risking their lives for the sake of the Gospel, and tens of millions of ordinary Christians even take a risk by the simple act of going to Mass on a Sunday. They risk, for example, the suicide bomber, as in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Here in Ireland we used to take risks for our faith. We took huge risks during Penal times.

Going to Mass in those days was a lot riskier when travelling to Mass through the snow. You were literally risking life and liberty. (A safety-first bishop, ca 1680, would have advised them not to take the risk.)

But if our forebears were not willing to take such extravagant risks to keep the faith alive in Ireland, the Penal Laws would have achieved their purpose, namely the extinguishing of the Catholic Church in this country.

So yes, safety is important, but risk is also important. In fact, the world (and the Church) ultimately need risk-takers more than we need ultra-cautious people who put safety-first.