In September 1939, 19-year-old university student Karol Wojtyła saw his homeland become a battlefield. Germany invaded Poland from the west and the Soviet Union from the east — each fueled by totalitarian ideologies that would cost millions of innocent lives in the years that followed.
Amid the brutality of World War II, Wojtył‚a joined the underground seminary and resolved to serve and defend human dignity as a priest. Eventually, he was elected pope in 1978, and played a pivotal role in the collapse of Soviet communism. Pope John Paul II understood, however, that while the gas chambers and gulags of the 20th century were gone, the philosophies that inspired them were not. In 1991, he convened a consistory of cardinals at the Vatican to discuss contemporary threats to human life.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, spoke at the meeting of the roots of the Nazi regime in his native Germany. He also noted a contradiction in modern democratic culture, which both affirms universal human rights and “disposes of the life of its weakest members, from an unborn baby to an elderly person, in the name of a public usefulness which is really only the interest of a few.”
The cardinals unanimously asked Pope John Paul II to reaffirm, in a magisterial document, the value of all human life. After consulting with bishops around the world, the pope issued the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) on March 25, 1995, the feast day of the Annunciation.
In the encyclical, Pope John Paul II not only affirmed the dignity of human life in all its stages, while clearly stating that practices like abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are violations of social justice. He also proclaimed that the Church’s perennial teachings on the sanctity of life are inseparable from the Gospel itself: “The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel” (2).
What follows are excerpts from this landmark document, in commemoration of its 25th anniversary.
CALLING FOR A NEW CULTURE OF LIFE
The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message (1). … Today this proclamation is especially pressing because of the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenseless (3). …
To all the members of the Church, the people of life and for life, I make this most urgent appeal, that together we may offer this world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love (6).
Here though we shall concentrate particular attention on another category of attacks, affecting life in its earliest and in its final stages…. It is not only that in generalized opinion these attacks tend no longer to be considered as “crimes”; paradoxically they assume the nature of “rights,” to the point that the state is called upon to give them legal recognition and to make them available through the free services of health-care personnel. Such attacks strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any means of self-defense (11). …
This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable “culture of death” (12).
RIGHTS, TRUTH AND FREEDOM
On the one hand, the various declarations of human rights and the many initiatives inspired by these declarations show that at the global level there is a growing moral sensitivity, more alert to acknowledging the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class. On the other hand, these noble proclamations are unfortunately contradicted by a tragic repudiation of them in practice. ... How can we reconcile these declarations with the refusal to accept those who are weak and needy, or elderly, or those who have just been conceived? (18) …
What are the roots of this remarkable contradiction? We can find them in an overall assessment of a cultural and moral nature, beginning with the mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it…. Freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth (19). …
In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life. … To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom (20).
THE ‘ECLIPSE’ OF GOD AND MAN
We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism… (21).
Once all reference to God has been removed, it is not surprising that the meaning of everything else becomes profoundly distorted. Nature itself, from being “mater” (mother), is now reduced to being “matter,” and is subjected to every kind of manipulation. … By living “as if God did not exist,” man not only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of the world and the mystery of his own being (22). …
The so-called “quality of life” is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions — interpersonal, spiritual and religious — of existence. … The criterion of personal dignity — which demands respect, generosity and service — is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they “are,” but for what they “have, do and produce.” This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak (23).
THE GOOD NEWS
The blood of Christ, while it reveals the grandeur of the Father’s love, shows how precious man is in God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life. … Precisely by contemplating the precious blood of Christ, the sign of his self-giving love (cf. Jn 13:1), the believer learns to recognize and appreciate the almost divine dignity of every human being…. It is from the blood of Christ that all draw the strength to commit themselves to promoting life. It is precisely this blood that is the most powerful source of hope, indeed it is the foundation of the absolute certitude that in God’s plan life will be victorious (25). …
[H]ow many initiatives of help and support for people who are weak and defenseless have sprung up and continue to spring up in the Christian community and in civil society, at the local, national and international level, through the efforts of individuals, groups, movements and organizations of various kinds!
There are still many married couples who, with a generous sense of responsibility, are ready to accept children as “the supreme gift of marriage.” Nor is there a lack of families which, over and above their everyday service to life, are willing to accept abandoned children, boys and girls and teenagers in difficulty, handicapped persons, elderly men and women who have been left alone (26).
“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves ‘the creative action of God,’ and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being” (Donum Vitae, 5). (53) …
Faced with the progressive weakening in individual consciences and in society of the sense of the absolute and grave moral illicitness of the direct taking of all innocent human life, especially at its beginning and at its end, the Church’s Magisterium has spoken out with increasing frequency in defense of the sacredness and inviolability of human life (57). …
Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an “unspeakable crime” (58). …
I [also] confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person (65).
LAW AND LIFE
The value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes. Of course, values such as the dignity of every human person, respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights, and the adoption of the “common good” as the end and criterion regulating political life are certainly fundamental and not to be ignored.
The basis of these values cannot be provisional and changeable “majority” opinions, but only the acknowledgment of an objective moral law which, as the “natural law” written in the human heart, is the obligatory point of reference for civil law itself (70). …
Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. … In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it” (73). …
To refuse to take part in committing an injustice is not only a moral duty; it is also a basic human right. … In this sense, the opportunity to refuse to take part in the phases of consultation, preparation and execution of these acts against life should be guaranteed to physicians [and] health-care personnel … (74).
SUPPORTING MOTHERS AND FAMILIES
By virtue of our sharing in Christ’s royal mission, our support and promotion of human life must be accomplished through the service of charity, which finds expression in personal witness, various forms of volunteer work, social activity and political commitment. … To this end, appropriate and effective programs of support for new life must be implemented, with special closeness to mothers who, even without the help of the father, are not afraid to bring their child into the world and to raise it (87). …
Within the “people of life and the people for life,” the family has a decisive responsibility. This responsibility flows from its very nature as a community of life and love, founded upon marriage, and from its mission to “guard, reveal and communicate love.” … As the domestic church, the family is summoned to proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life. This is a responsibility which first concerns married couples, called to be givers of life, on the basis of an ever greater awareness of the meaning of procreation as a unique event which clearly reveals that human life is a gift received in order then to be given as a gift (92). …
In order to fulfill its vocation as the “sanctuary of life,” as the cell of a society which loves and welcomes life, the family urgently needs to be helped and supported (94).
AN EDUCATION OF LOVE
[T]here is a need for education about the value of life from its very origins. It is an illusion to think that we can build a true culture of human life if we do not help the young to accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and in their close interconnection. Sexuality, which enriches the whole person, “manifests its inmost meaning in leading the person to the gift of self in love.” The trivialization of sexuality is among the principal factors which have led to contempt for new life. Only a true love is able to protect life. (97). …
In a word, we can say that the cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to adopt a new lifestyle, consisting in making practical choices — at the personal, family, social and international level — on the basis of a correct scale of values: the primacy of being over having, of the person over things (98). …
The Gospel of life is not for believers alone: it is for everyone. … To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good (101).
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