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41 years ago today John Paul installed as Pope

by | Oct 22, 2019

By Dave Andrusko

Just to give you some idea how long I’ve been active in our Movement, I remember vividly the installation [inauguration] of Pope John Paul ll on this day in 1978. The first non-Italian pope since Pope Adrian VI died in 1523, Pope John Paul (born Karol Jozef Wojtyla) was a titanic, charismatic figure whose legacy on behalf of life all pro-lifer should know like the back of their hand.

I could attempt an overview, but it would pale in comparison to the depth and completeness of the post Susan E. Wills wrote for us. She wrote her story in anticipation of what was then the 20th anniversary of John Paul’s installation and places his marvelous pro-life encyclical–Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”)–and extraordinary pro-life contributions in context.

The headline for Susan’s story was “Pope John Paul II: Leading the Fight for Life.”


Responding to criticism from the Catholic Church, the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin is said to have scoffed, “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Had Stalin lived to see the pivotal role Pope John Paul II has played in public affairs, he might have understood that there are weapons more powerful than all the world’s armies: weapons like truth, love, and the irrepressible human aspiration for freedom.

Largely because of the pope’s vigorous defense of every human’s God-given rights, dignity, and freedom, and for his public witness against totalitarianism, some historians are already calling John Paul “the man of the century.” He doesn’t just describe events; he shapes them.

An example: At the U.N. conferences on population and development (Cairo, 1994) and on women (Beijing, 1995), John Paul worked with an impressive coalition which included Muslim and Catholic nations to thwart U.N. population controllers’ plans to declare abortion a legitimate “method of family planning” and a “fundamental human right.” Such declarations were intended to usher in worldwide, unrestricted abortion on demand.

The pope’s 20-year pontificate cannot be seen through the lens of a single achievement, no matter how history-making. Besides his pre-eminence as a religious figure, he is also an actor, poet, playwright, and philosopher, fluent in eight languages yet a gentle, genuinely humble man. John Paul is, according to polls, the most admired man on earth.

A partial list of accomplishments does not begin to credit the impact he has had on individuals and societies across the world, not least in the United States. Prolifers here can use the 20th anniversary of his election as pope to reflect with gratitude on one of his greatest contributions: John Paul II’s inestimable importance to the pro-life movement in the United States.

He has diagnosed better than anyone else the legal, social, and moral crisis in contemporary America. He articulated this most fully in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). With a sharp understanding of cause and effect, with robust and ringing phrases, the pope explains what has gone wrong in our nation.

In “The Gospel of Life,” he identifies particularly disturbing aspects of modern threats to life. The very institutions which once protected the vulnerable — the state, the family, and the medical profession — are today complicit in denying their very right to existence. Crimes such as abortion and euthanasia are now promoted as “rights” and protected by law.

Victims of these crimes are those who are most defenseless — the unborn, the dying, the severely disabled — who often are under attack from their own family members. Rather than receiving special care and concern, they are measured on scales gauging their usefulness or “quality of life” and treated as burdens better off dead.

As much as words possibly can, John Paul’s rhetoric conveys the full moral horror of abortion: “No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined…. He or she is weak, defenseless, even to the point of lacking the minimal form of defense consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears” (“The Gospel of Life,” 58).

He likewise captures the horror and hypocrisy of assisted suicide: “Euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing “perversion” of mercy. True “compassion” leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear” (“The Gospel of Life,” 66).

Nor does the pope underestimate the dangers posed by abortifacient drugs such as RU 486:

“Enormous sums of money … continue to be invested in the production of pharmaceutical products which make it possible to kill the fetus in the mother’s womb without recourse to medical assistance …. [S]cientific research itself seems to be almost exclusively preoccupied with developing products which … are capable of removing abortion-from any kind of control or social responsibility” (“The Gospel of Life,” 13).

While the pope does not speak publicly about pending national legislation, he has noted with deep concern our nation’s failure to enact a swift and decisive ban on partial-birth abortion: “There are signs of an almost unimaginable insensitivity to the reality of what actually happens during an abortion, as evidenced in recent events surrounding so-called `partial-birth abortion.’ “ (ad limina address to the bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii, October 2, 1998).

The pope warns that such insensitivity toward others and unconcern for the common good of society has the capacity to destroy our nation. America’s greatness, he reminds us, lies in its founding principles, those truths about the nobility, dignity, and rights of human beings:

The United States of America was founded on the conviction that an inalienable right to life was a self-evident moral truth, fidelity to which was a primary criterion of social justice. The moral history of [the United States] is the story of your people’s efforts to widen the circle of inclusion in society so that all Americans might enjoy the protection of law, participate in the responsibilities of citizenship, and have the opportunity to make a contribution to the common good. Whenever a certain category of people — the unborn or the sick and old — are excluded from that protection, a deadly anarchy subverts the original understanding of justice (greeting to newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Lindy Boggs, December 16, 1997).

Our founders believed, as the pope reminds us, that America’s experiment in democracy could succeed only as long as Americans shared common values and beliefs rooted in a belief in God and in God-given human rights. This assertion should not be miscast as an attempt to impose Christianity on a pluralistic society, as John Paul makes clear:

When the Church declares that unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person — from conception to natural death — is one of the pillars on which every civil society stands, she wants simply to promote a human State. A State which recognizes the defense of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially the weakest, as its primary duty” (“The Gospel of Life,” 101).

Thus, the Gospel of Life can rightly be said to uplift and benefit every individual and the whole of society.

Perhaps John Paul’s greatest contribution to the pro-life movement lies in the positive vision he articulates about human life. The pro-life community is not just opposed to abortion, euthanasia, and other violence against human beings. We revere human life because it has inestimable value. John Paul never simply condemns acts against life; he reveals the “mystery” behind the moral teaching.

Why do human beings possess a dignity above all other creatures? Why do governments have the responsibility to protect human life? Why is the life of a day-old embryo or a dying octogenarian worth as much as anyone else’s? Why is the right to life so “black-and-white,” and not more nuanced or “gray”?

These questions find their answer in the mystery of the human person, created by God in his image and likeness, and so loved by God that Christianity teaches that He sacrificed His only Son to redeem us from sin and death. The fact that many today deny God’s loving relationship with humanity does not make it any less true.

Even skeptics must acknowledge that only humans have the ability to reason, to plan, to dream about the future, to know good from evil, to emulate virtue, to write symphonies and sonnets, to hunger for truth, beauty, and love. To these attributes of the human-mind and spirit, John Paul adds one he considers the most important: “Only God’s precious human beings are capable of loving. Love makes us seek what is good; love makes us better persons” (homily in Central Park, October 1995).

On numerous occasions, John Paul has acknowledged the contribution of the U.S. pro-life movement as “one of the most positive aspects of American life” and a “sure sign of hope for the future.” He reminds us that “in defending life, you are defending an original and vital part of the vision on which your country was built. America must become, again, a hospitable society, in which every unborn child and every handicapped or terminally ill person is cherished and enjoys the protection of law” (ad limina address to bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii, October 2, 1998).

At the beginning of the 20th century, followers of Marx and Lenin were widely seen as the great champions of human rights even though their philosophy rejected man’s freedom and denied his spiritual nature. Marxist states produced misery, despair, and death.

At the end of the 20th century, the Christian personalism of John Paul II recognizes the human capacity for love and service and its ability to build a society where dignity and freedom are protected. He predicts a “great springtime for Christianity” in the third millennium, if we can defeat our “culture of death” and build instead a culture that puts the protection of human life at the center of all activities — familial, governmental, economic, and social

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