It is a profound experience to re-read Evangelium vitae twenty years after it was issued. The scope of reflection integrated into this great treasure given to us by St. John Paul II in 1995 offers perhaps an even greater urgency today. While there are many themes tied together in this great work, we will look specifically at threats to life at its beginning and its end.
St. John Paul makes the connection between the gravity of abortion and euthanasia abundantly clear. He also addresses directly the root causes of this culture of death. In describing the dire situation of increasing threats to life in its most vulnerable stages, he uses words and phrases such as: crimes against life having a “sinister character”; laws that make these abhorrent practices (e.g., abortion and euthanasia) legal are a “disturbing symptom and a significant cause of grave moral decline” (n. 4); and, “every murder is a violation of the ‘spiritual’ kinship uniting mankind in one great family” as is clearly manifested in relationships between parents and children in abortion for example, or when euthanasia is encouraged and practiced (n. 8).
He also notes the paradox that while these attacks on life were once regarded as “crimes”, legal recognition by the state distorts them into “rights”. He continues, “Even more serious is the fact that, most often, those attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family – the family which by its nature is called to be the “sanctuary of life” (n. 11). These manifestations continue unabated. The tragic stories of women forced or coerced into having an abortion – sometimes even by their own parents, the fathers who were given no say or opportunity to stand up for their unborn child, and people who encourage or support a family member’s “choice” to “die with dignity” by physician-assisted suicide – all are too frequent examples of the darkening of conscience that makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil, resulting in a “profound crisis of culture”.
We can think of the frog in boiling water analogy that says when you drop a frog into a pot of water that is already boiling it will immediately jump right out to escape death, but if you put the frog in the water first then slowly turn up the heat, the frog will simply boil to death. This is the “culture of death” that St. John Paul speaks of, which he describes as a “veritable structure of sin” producing “a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed” (n. 12).
Another important point the Holy Father makes regarding threats to life at its very beginnings, though it is often overlooked, is that abortion and contraception are “fruits of the same tree”. Not only is contraception an intrinsic evil in that it violates the natural law and the inseparable unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage, the contraceptive mentality that involves a “self-centered concept of freedom which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment” makes an increasingly obviously connection to abortion, particularly in the alarming development and distribution of drugs which “really act as abortifacients in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being.” (n. 13)
When life is seen as disposable in the most defenseless stages of its beginnings, it doesn’t take long for life to be seen as disposable when it is nearing its end. Looking at the rapidly developing push for legalized physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia that is becoming much more widespread in recent years, we can further recognize this tragic devaluing of human life. These grave threats to the seriously ill and dying further demonstrate a distorted mindset in our culture. These evils are “justified” by a number of factors, including a misplaced compassion, a desire to control life and death rather than recognize God as its author, and even a utilitarian motive of “avoiding costs which bring no return and which weigh heavily on society” (n. 15). Moreover, there is a cultural climate which has lost all understanding of the meaning and value of suffering, and tries to eliminate suffering at all costs. St. John Paul highlights, “This is especially the case in the absence of a religious outlook which could help to provide a positive understanding of the mystery of suffering” (n. 15). He adds, “True compassion leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear” (n. 66).
In the case of these end-of-life issues, how often we hear of stories where when life is respected, love flourishes, suffering becomes understood as redemptive, and lives are well-lived right up until their end as we recognize are made for eternity. However, the tragic case of Brittany Maynard’s assisted suicide clearly illustrates what St. John Paul said:
…when freedom is made absolute in an individualistic way, it is emptied of its original content, and it’s very meaning and dignity are contradicted…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…When freedom…shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion…. (n. 19).
What is at the root of this tragic disregard for the sacredness and inviolability of human life? We have forgotten God, and thus have also forgotten who we are as His beloved sons and daughters made in His image and likeness. “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” (n. 96). St. John Paul also reiterates the words of Gaudium et Spes, “For without the Creator, the creature would disappear…when God is forgotten, the creature itself grows unintelligible” (GS, n. 36). “Moreover, once all reference to God has been removed, it is not surprising that the meaning of everything else becomes profoundly distorted…Thus it is clear that the loss of contact with God’s wise design is the deepest root of modern man’s confusion” (n. 22).
St. John Paul not only articulates the problems directly and insightfully, he also offers us solutions – solutions which are found right within the Gospel of Life. The Gospel of Life is Jesus Christ Himself. “To proclaim Jesus is itself to proclaim life” (n. 80). Evangelium vitae reaffirms that “being pro-life” and all that that entails goes right to the heart of being Catholic. One could say that it goes to the heart of being human. “The Gospel of Life is not for believers alone: it is for everyone…The value at stake is one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns everyone” (n. 101). After all, how profound is the truth that we are made in the image and likeness of God! No matter how much we contemplate it, we can never exhaust the mystery; but we can, and we must, do our very best to live it.
St. John Paul calls us to “Bring the Gospel of life to the heart of every man and woman and to make it penetrate every part of society” (n. 80). It’s a tall order to be sure, but he also shows us how. He tells us we must proclaim the core of this Gospel, which also involves making clear all its consequences. He sums it up this way:
Human life, as a gift of God, is sacred and inviolable. For this reason procured abortion and euthanasia are absolutely unacceptable. Not only must human life not be taken, but it must be protected with loving concern. The meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love, and in this light human sexuality and procreation reach their true and full significance. Love also gives meaning to suffering and death; despite the mystery which surrounds them, they can become saving events. Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development. Society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life. (n. 81)
Lastly, and with joyful exhortation, St. John Paul explains how proclaiming the Gospel of Life is everyone’s responsibility and he names particular avenues for doing so, along with particular groups of people who have a special role to play. He notes the important role and responsibility of medical professionals and civic leaders. He praises the gift of motherhood, married life lived in authentic love, and the family as the sanctuary of life. He speaks to the importance of education, the arts, the special contribution of the elderly, and perhaps most importantly, the call of each of us to the ministry of service – to care for those most in need of someone to accompany them in their suffering and affirm their innate dignity as persons.
The gift of life comes from God and God is our final destiny. When we embrace this truth and work to build a Culture of Life, we are reminded that we are in loving hands, and we grow in the “joyful awareness that life [is the] place where God manifests Himself” (n. 38). And that changes everything.