Twenty years ago, now- Pope Saint John Paul II began Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life) by recalling the moment that is, as he calls it, “the dawn of salvation.” This moment is the heart of the Gospel—the Good News, from which all joy and goodness flows. This crucial moment is, of course, the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus Christ. It is right and fitting that a birth should be the center of what it means to be human, that is, “to have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).
But what does abundant life mean for modern man, two millennia after the birth of Our Savior? John Paul II explains, “Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God” (EV 2). Knowing that we were created by God out of love and ultimately for the “gift of divine life” should inform our every action and decision. I cannot help but be reminded of the Baltimore Catechism question “Why were you created?” and the answer “to know, love and serve the Lord.” This fundamental reality that we were made for another is reaffirmed in the Gospel, when Christ lays out the first of the commandments—that we are to love God with all of our strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Life’s experiences affirm this God-given reality of joy rooted in gift of self. It is no coincidence that when people look back over the years, it is life-giving moments that stand out. Married couples remember when they said their wedding vows, promising to give themselves to one another and consummating that gift through marital intimacy. Mothers and fathers count the births of their children as unforgettable milestones of happiness. A baby is a gift several times over—the fruit of the love of two spouses, a gift from God to his or her parents a gift to the world—to that baby’s future friends, spouse and children. Finally, death, when properly understood, is a time of new life, a time where each of us will leave what John Paul calls the “penultimate” reality of our earthly existence and (hopefully) enter heaven, the “ultimate” reality of being with God eternally.
As wonderful as this all sounds, we cannot deny that we live in a fallen world. Giving of oneself is not always easy when circumstances are less than perfect. Having children can be an inconvenient proposition, making contraception an attractive alternative. Abortion may seem to be the only option when facing what appears to be an insurmountable challenge of having a severely disabled son or daughter. Watching a loved one suffer can seem unbearable, making euthanasia seem to be the “mercy killing” it is touted to be.
And, in the twenty years since Evangelium vitae has been released, new technologies have tempted us to deny in new ways that God gave us the gift of life and instead attempt to take life into our own hands. Along with abortion and euthanasia, we are now faced with the option to use in-vitro fertilization when bearing the cross of infertility or even to deny a child a biological mother or father by having a child through egg or sperm donation.
All of these things promise happiness, but ultimately cannot deliver them. This is the message of Evangelium vitae that is, perhaps, even more relevant today than it was two decades ago. It is an extreme offense to truth when people claim that the Catholic Church is always saying “no” and urging people to follow a set of rules established by the hierarchy. Rather, the “no” to offenses against life spring forth naturally from the most profound “yes” we can utter: a response to the proposal of living life to the full.
John Paul writes,
Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree (EV 2).
Evangelium vitae seeks to remind people of the law inscribed on the heart—the law that is “the source of invincible hope and true joy for every period of history” (Ibid). This Gospel of Life will never change. Regardless of new technologies, new cultures or new ideologies, receiving God’s love, being open to life and always seeking to protect it will never fail us.
In recognition of the timeless relevance of Evangelium vitae on its 20th anniversary this year, a diverse group of priests, scholars and theologians have explored the rich topics contained within this encyclical. Issues including the real meaning of freedom, the connection between protecting life and our spiritual life, the dual crimes of abortion and euthanasia; how life issues play out in civil society; and how to sustain a Culture of Life are crucial to our lives both as individuals and as a society. You can find the series as it is published, here.
As we grow in love and knowledge of the incredible gift of life God has given us, we also should recognize the responsibility we have to share this knowledge, which is applicable to every human person. John Paul reminds us “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.” During this twentieth anniversary year, we have the opportunity to renew our commitment to defending the truth, not out of a sense of moralistic duty, but rather an unquenchable desire to share the joy that only comes from recognizing the fullness of the gift of abundant life.