The beginning of this new year is a good time to look once more at the 1995 encyclical from Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). The Vatican Press says that “the primary intention of the papal document is to proclaim the good news of the value and dignity of each human life, of its grandeur and worth, also in its temporal phase. The cause of life is in fact at the same time the cause of the Gospel and the cause of the human race, the cause entrusted to the church.”
The core of the Christian message is both a vision of God and a vision of humanity (a theology and an anthropology, to use the language of Pope John Paul II). God choose to become precisely human. At every Mass we say: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The calling of every human being is to become divine, and that is why we cherish every person’s life, from the homeless woman on the street to the rich and famous. (Vat II, Dignitatis humanae 1)
“The Good News of God’s love for humanity, the Good News of the dignity of each human person, and the Good News of life itself are all a single and indivisible Gospel.” (Ev. Vit. 2) One thing cannot be separated from the others. This is why we preach the whole Gospel of Life, not just bits and pieces, not just one “issue”, not some isolated political agenda, but a deeply holy respect for human life from conception, through early childhood, youth, adulthood, old age and forward until natural death.
PART 2: THE HUMAN BEING IS MADE FOR ETERNITY
St. John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children even now. But more than this - what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like God, for we shall see God as he is.” (1 Jn 3:2) Pope John Paul II calls this verse the core foundation of his encyclical “The Gospel of Life”. The Pope wrote, “The human being is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of this earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God.” (Evang. vit. 2)
The Pope calls our life on earth our “temporal phase”. It’s just a phase we’re going through! As we look at big questions of life and death, of grave moral decisions and world changing policies, we must always remember that we are literally “bigger than life”. This does not mean that life on earth is unimportant. Quite the contrary. It means that our life here on earth is not fully ours! Catholic moral teaching has never recognized or accepted the idea of total private ownership, especially not of human life. Pope John Paul II wrote, “After all, life on earth is not an ultimate reality but a penultimate reality. Life on earth is a sacred reality which is entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility.” (ibid.)
The Gospel of life is the joy of the Gospel, and that joy comes from the realization that we are made for eternity. The perspective of eternity influences everything we do on earth.
PART 3: AND NOW THE BAD NEWS
Pope John Paul’s encyclical on the Gospel of Life is, all in all, an optimistic document. But it is also his duty to point out some problems. The Pope points out that, ever since the days of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, the human race has faced great challenges to building a culture of life. For many centuries, the “traditional” list of great threats to human life included:
- epidemics and endemic diseases
- violence and war
- economic injustice
Pope John Paul calls these problems “the ancient scourges”. When we as Catholics seek to counter a culture of death to build up a culture of life, we must start here, with the ancient scourges. Being pro-life means, first of all¸ that one seeks to reduce the pain of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence, war and economic injustice.
On top of these ancient scourges, which still assail us, the contemporary world presents us with new threats, especially abortion, euthanasia, and the refusal of some countries to give up the death penalty. These new threats arise partly because of new technology, but what sets them apart is the desire of some people to make them sound like virtues. For example, says the Pope, some political leaders defend the death penalty as a good thing, even though the Church teaches that it is evil.
In Genesis 4:10, God said to Cain, after he had killed Abel, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth”. From this verse we get the traditional phrase, “the blood curdling sins” or “the sins which make blood cry out from the earth”. In the middle ages, the scholastic theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas listed these sins as: 1) the rich abusing the poor, 2) the parents abusing their children, 3) citizens abusing the earth, and 4) politicians abusing their power. Pope Paul II suggests that to this list we should add all those sins against life.
But now comes the good news of the Gospel!
Last week we looked at “the bad news” and it can sometimes feel overwhelming. But good will triumph over evil! The Gospel of Life will prevail. The Gospel of Life is more than a theological reflection, more than a set of moral commandments, more than the promise of a better future. The Gospel of Life is the proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ! In Christ Jesus, the Gospel of Life is fully given, and this message is written into the being of every human being.
In Chapter 2 of Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II outlines this proclamation in eight statements:
1) Life is always good.
2) Jesus brings life’s meaning to fulfillment.
3) God’s glory shines in the face of every human being.
4) The gift of human life is the gift of eternal life.
5) We owe reverence and love to every human life.
6) We are responsible for all human life across space and time.
7) Each human life bears dignity: the unborn child, the poor, the suffering, the old – everyone.
8) The Gospel of Life is brought to fulfillment on the Cross, which moves us from the law of Mt. Sinai to life in the Holy Spirit.
Over the next several weeks, we will look at each of these statements.
PART 5: LIFE IS GOOD
“And God saw that it was good …” (Genesis 1:18) After God made life, He declared it to be good. This is one of our most basic convictions: life is good!
Pope John Paul II writes: “Why is life good? … Because God’s glory shines in the face of the human being.” (par. 34) The Pope – like all of Catholic tradition – takes an evolutionary view of life. All other life, and indeed, the existence of all non-living things, tends towards and leads up to human life. And human life tends towards union with God. The reason all the universe exists is so humanity can be together with God forever in heaven.
Is this arrogant of us to say? No. Heaven is the reason for earth. The Pope writes: “The life which the Son of God came to give human beings cannot be reduced to mere existence in time.” (par. 37) The dignity and goodness of human life is linked both to its beginning (we come from God) and to its destiny (we go to God). This was summed up by St. Irenaeus many centuries ago:
“The glory of God is the human being fully alive, and the life of the human being consists in the vision of God.”
PART 6: THE GLORY OF GOD IS HUMANITY FULLY ALIVE, AND THE LIFE OF HUMANITY COMES FROM THE VISION OF GOD
“The glory of God is the human being fully alive, and the life of the human being consists in the vision of God.” This motto of St. Irenaeus (from the text Adversus haereses IV,2) forms an outline of the Catholic Church’s teaching about human life. All life is sacred, but human life is a different category. When it comes to plants and animals, even bacteria and viruses, we have the right to weigh up and balance the intrinsic holiness of that created being and the needs of others. In short: we are allowed to eat things and we are allowed to fight disease by killing germs. Yes, the germs are holy, but their holiness is limited and relative.
Why, asks Pope John Paul II. Because on this earth only humanity was created in the likeness and image of God. The cow eats grass and commits no sin. The lion eats the cow and commits no sin. But humanity was given a free will and the ability to tell right from wrong. “The ability to attain truth and freedom are human prerogatives inasmuch as humanity is created in the image if the Creator, God, who is true and just.” (par. 34) The Pope points to Gaudium et Spes from the Second Vatican Council: “What is humanity? Some people set it up as the absolute measure of all things. Others debase humanity to the point of despair. The Church, inspired by divine revelation, takes a middle path.” (GS 12) Humanity is like a “summit and center” of the earthly things, but only because God is the real center. We are made in the image of God, but we messed up that image through sin.
PART 7: REVERENCE, LOVE AND RESPONSIBILITY FOR HUMAN LIFE ACROSS SPACE AND TIME
“Life is changed, not ended”, says one of the prayers of the funeral Mass. Pope John Paul II reminds us, that one big motivation for respecting all human life is that every human being is made to live forever. Not just a long, long time, but forever – beyond space and time. “The life which the Son of God came to give to human beings cannot be reduced to mere existence in time” (par. 37).
The dignity of the human person comes both from our past and from our future. In the words of the Church Fathers: at the beginning of time, God breathed us out, and now he breathes us back in, and our life on this earth takes place at the turning of God’s breath.
“Here the Christian truth about life becomes most sublime. The dignity of this life is linked to its beginning – to the fact that it comes from God – and to its final end – to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of him. This is the complete understanding of Irenæus’ famous phrase, The glory of God is the living human being, and the life of the human being consists in the vision of God.” (par. 38)
PART 8: THE DIGNITY OF EVERY HUMAN LIFE
“For your own lifeblood, too, I will demand an accounting, and from every human in regard to other people I will demand an accounting for every human life.” (Genesis 9:5) Should we have the freedom to do whatever we want with our life, no matter what it is? The Scriptures make it clear that human freedom finds its reality within the will of God. True freedom means becoming the person God created us to be. The dignity of human life comes from the will of god.
“But God does not exercise His power in some arbitrary or threatening way”, writes Pope John Paul II, “but rather as part of His care and loving concern for His creation. It is true that human life is in the hands of God – but it is equally true that those divine hands are the loving hands of a mother who accepts, nurtures and takes care of her child.” (Gospel of Life, par. 40) – And yes, Pope John Paul II, like Scripture itself, calls God Mother as well as Father. See Psalm 131, Isaiah 49 or Hosea 11.
How do we “give an account” to God for other people’s lives? Pope John Paul II says that it starts with reverence of and respect for other people. “Thus the deepest element of God’s commandment to protect human life is the requirement to show reverence and love for every single person” – no exceptions! (par. 41)
PART 9: THE CROSS MOVES US FROM SINAI TO THE UPPER ROOM
Life bears its own truth. Truth is not some “social convention” made up by a particular culture. Truth is objective, in the sense that it comes from outside the human will. It comes from the will of God. Yes, each individual and each historical culture experiences truth in a specific way and gives that objective truth a subjective description, but the underlying truth remains objective.
It follows, therefore, that when we stray too far from actual truth, we mess things up. We mess up not only our own lives but the lives of other people and the health of the created universe – something we see in the destruction of the environment through human sin. This is expressed in Biblical language in the Book of Deuteronomy:
“See, I have today set before you life and death, good, good and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I am giving you today, loving the LORD, your God, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and ordinances, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.” (Deut. 30:15-16)
The Land of Canaan is a symbol for all of the created universe. “What is at stake is not only the Land of Canaan and the prosperity of the People of Israel at one moment in history, but also the world of today and of the future, and the existence of all humanity.” (Gospel of Life, par. 48)
So we are called to move from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land, and from there to the Hill of Calvary, and from there to the Empty Tomb, and from there to the Upper Room where the Holy Spirit fills us. “These are symbols of the great cosmic struggle between good and evil, life and death. Today the most dramatic conflict is between the culture of death and the culture of life. But the glory of the Cross overcomes the darkness and leads to resurrection.” (par. 50)
PART 10: THAT YOUR JOY MAY BE COMPLETE
The last several months, we have been looking at Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, published March 25, 1995. As I wrote these snippets, I tried to concentrate, not on specific “issues” but on the broad and timeless principles offered by the saintly Pope in this prophetic teaching of his. Pope John Paul II sums up his own work this way:
“We are writing you this that our joy may be complete.” (1 John 1:4) The revelation of the Gospel of Life is given to us as a good to be shared with all people. Our own joy would not be complete if we failed to share this Gospel with others but kept it only for ourselves. (par. 101)
The Pope continues: “The Gospel of Life is for the whole of human society. To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good. But it is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending human life in all its forms. … Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious goods of society, such as democracy and peace.” (par. 101)
“There can be no true democracy without a recognition of every human person’s dignity and without respect for human rights. Nor can there be true peace unless life is defended and promoted. … The People of Life rejoices in being able to share its commitment and its joy with so many others.” (par. 101)
This commentary on Evangelium Vitae (1995) was written by Fr. Bob Showers OFM Conv.