In contemporary society, we are faced with the challenge of how we can establish again a Culture of Life, one that would integrally respect life from biological conception to its natural end. St. John Paul II underlines the necessity of preaching the Gospel of Life as an integral part of the Gospel (78). This vision was defended many years before the promulgation of St. John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life) by Fr. Paul Marx, O.S.B., founder of HLI. He insisted that the teachings of the Church on life and family had to be presented as integral parts of the faith. We have to be painfully conscious that, “Where God is denied and people live as though he did not exist, or his commandments are not taken into account, the dignity of the human person and the inviolability of human life also end up being rejected or compromised” (96).
In the process of evangelization we have “to preach the Gospel of life, to celebrate it in the Liturgy and in our whole existence, and to serve it with the various programs and structures which support and promote life” (79). In the Liturgy, we worship and express our thanksgiving to God as the Author of Life. To underline this point, the Holy Father uses a powerful quote from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, that also strengthens our hope in the eternal life (84). We have to be aware that if the Author of Life is not duly worshiped in the liturgy, His gift of life will not be properly valued. In the celebration of the Sacraments we will “be ever more capable of expressing the full truth about birth, life, suffering and death, and will help us to live these moments as a participation in the Paschal Mystery of the Crucified and Risen Christ” (84). These liturgies should be capable of bringing God and His grace to us in moments of joy and in occasions of sorrow. At the same time, the sorrow that comes from the waning life could be transformed into the hope of entering into eternal life.
With the service of charity, we place our works at the service of the proclamation of the Gospel, as the letter of St. James admonishes us. We show our faith through our works—charitable service that “finds expression in personal witness, various forms of volunteer work, social activity and political commitment” (87). It should be very clear: “In helping the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned – as well as the child in the womb and the old person who is suffering or near death – we have the opportunity to serve Jesus” (87). St. John Paul II makes the very important point that neither in the service of charity nor in the defense of life can we “tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good. We need then to “show care” for all life and for the life of everyone” (87).
John Paul II promotes a series of concrete initiatives to assist individuals and families. At the first stage of life, centers for natural methods of regulating fertility should be promoted as a valuable help to responsible parenthood. In addition, marriage and family counseling agencies should accompany every family as “sanctuaries of life.” This would include centers of assistance to help unmarried mothers and struggling couples, and many other actions to help persons in difficulties, especially the aged or the terminally ill, as he advises in no. 88.
In this context, the Holy Father underlines the unique responsibility that belongs to health-care personnel: doctors, pharmacists, nurses, chaplains, men and women religious, administrators and volunteers. He notes with concern that, “In today’s cultural and social context, in which science and the practice of medicine risk losing sight of their inherent ethical dimension, health-care professionals can be strongly tempted at times to become manipulators of life, or even agents of death” (89). The encyclical further adds that as a consequence, medical personnel should be committed to an absolute respect for human life and its sacredness. This requires the exercise of conscientious objection in relation to procured abortion and euthanasia.
The Gospel of Life, in its implementation through social and political activities, must defend and promote the value of life. Paragraph 90 advises that as civil leaders have the responsibility “to serve the people and the common good, they have a duty to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures.” Laws have a “decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behavior.” In this context, we have to see the basic principle inspired by St. Thomas “that a law which violates an innocent person’s natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law.” It is not enough to remove unjust laws. The underlying causes of attacks on life have to be eliminated and proper support for families and motherhood has to be ensured. We have to be conscious that support for life is very much linked with the new evangelization because, to a large extent, these attacks are based in a liberal secularist ideology that dominates contemporary society.
The family has an irreplaceable role in building a Culture of Life too. Married couples are called to be givers of a life that is received as a gift and should be given as a gift. It is in this role, above all of raising and educating children in the faith and in human virtues, that the family fulfils its mission to proclaim the Gospel of Life. We can see the wisdom of this venerated pontiff when he explains that for parents to give to their children a true understanding of the meaning of suffering and death they have to foster “attitudes of closeness, assistance and sharing towards sick or elderly members of the family” (92).
In our efforts to establish a Culture of Life we are not starting from scratch because, first and foremost, we are striving to establish a culture that it is in accordance with human nature. Even if this nature has been wounded by original sin, the accumulation of sins through generations and the secularizing tendencies of contemporary society, the good inclinations of that nature remain. Second, even if faith seems to be waning in most of the Western Cultures, some roots remain that could flourish again.
The Holy Father insists that in preaching the Gospel (in general) and the Gospel of Life (in particular), “we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity which might conform us to the world’s way of thinking. We must be in the world but not of the world, drawing our strength from Christ, who by his Death and Resurrection has overcome the world” (82). He later exhorted a warning to diverse members of the Church who, “end up by separating their Christian faith from its ethical requirements regarding life, and thus fall into moral subjectivism and certain objectionable ways of acting” (95). In our struggle to establish the Culture of Life, we have to accept the reality that we are “in constant tension with the forces of evil which still roam the world and affect human hearts, offering resistance to Christ” (103). This sad fact is demonstrated by our daily experience and, regrettably, we can see how the forces of evil have become more threatening in the twenty years since this encyclical was promulgated.
Through her worldwide engagement, Human Life International has followed the call of St. John Paul II for a “general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life”(95). HLI’s mission continues efforts through an educational commitment to promote a civilization of life and love in line with Church teaching. This valuable encyclical of St. John Paul II gives us hope and a very solid foundation on which to build the teachings of the Church for a Catholic Culture of Life that would serve our generation and generations to come.