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25 Years later: The enduring legacy of “The Gospel of Life”

by | Mar 23, 2020

Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), Pope John Paul II‘s magnificent 1995 encyclical.  I remember writing on the encyclical’s 10th anniversary that “For pro-lifers, it is difficult to image a man more committed to our cause than Pope John Paul II, or more eloquent. It was the Pontiff, of course, who coined the phrase, ‘The culture of life.’ It is an idea so powerful that those who are more comfortable with the culture of death are forced to address it.”

Susan Wills once wrote that in The Gospel of Life, the Pope “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.”

As we do annually, NRL News Today is running excerpts from The Gospel of Life as a tribute.  The numbers refer to the section numbers in the encyclical itself. Where a number is repeated, it means more than one quote is taken from that section.

20. …To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance; that of absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom….

27. In view of laws which permit abortion and in view of efforts, which here and there have been successful, to legalize euthanasia, movements and initiatives to raise social awareness in defense of life have sprung up in many parts of the world. When, in accordance with their principles, such movements act resolutely, but without resorting to violence, they promote a wider and more profound consciousness of the value of life, and evoke and bring about a more determined commitment to its defense.

57. …As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used.

58. …Especially in the case of abortion there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such as “interruption of pregnancy” which tends to hide abortion’s true nature…. Perhaps this linguistic phenomenon is itself a symptom of an uneasiness of conscience. But no word has the power to change the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth.

60. …[T]he Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due the human being….

62. …Given such unanimity…, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition [of the evil of abortion] is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops… I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.

63. This evaluation of the morality of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos….

64. [Pope John Paul II writes about the growing temptation to resort to euthanasia] …Here we are faced with one of the more alarming symptoms of the “culture of death,” which is advancing above all in prosperous societies, marked by an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency and which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome. These people are very often isolated by their families and by society, which are organized almost exclusively on the basis of criteria of productive efficiency, according to which a hopelessly impaired life no longer has any value.

66. …Even when not motivated by a selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, 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.

71. It is therefore urgently necessary, for the future of society and the development of a sound democracy, to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person: values which no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy, but must only acknowledge, respect and promote.

72. …Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity.

73. …When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a proabortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences… . This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

81. …[H]uman 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 whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life.

89. …”Causing death” can never be considered a form of medical treatment, even when the intention is solely to comply with the patient’s request. Rather, it runs completely counter to the healthcare profession, which is meant to be an impassioned and unflinching affirmation of life.

90. …Individuals, families, groups and associations … all have a responsibility for shaping society and developing cultural, economic, political and legislative projects which, with respect for all and in keeping with democratic principles, will contribute to the building of a society in which the dignity of each person is recognized and protected…. This task is the particular responsibility of civil leaders…. [T]hey have a duty to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures.

98. In a word, we can say that the cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to adopt a new lifestyle, consisting in making practical choices at the personal, family, social and international level on the basis of a correct scale of values; the primacy of being over having, of the person over things.

99. In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination,” in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.

99. …I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life.

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