On the Anniversary of the Pro-life Charter: Evangelium Vitae
Steven Meyer, S.T.D. | 25 March 2020
The Solemnity of the Assumption is symbolically nine months before Christmas. March 25 also commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the Gospel of Life, Evanglium vitae (henceforth EV). Deliberately published on the Solemnity of the conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, EV continues to be prophetically accurate. This means we are in a war. The forces that promote a culture of death always seem to have the upper hand in resources, media attention, and controlling the narrative. They fight ferociously to pass legislation promoting the destruction of life in the name of human rights. They wage an information campaign targeting centers of education in order to justify the means to destroy human life through ideology, words, and labels. This war is spiritual, psychological and physical. While the physical effects are what we can see and measure to some affect through legislative news and lines of funding, those who work with victims see the psychological and spiritual fallout.
I believe EV to be the most important magisterial document of its genre. It serves as a kind of charter for an ethics of serving and protecting human life as we move through the 21st century. I think it is a work comparable in significance to what Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891) is for Catholic social doctrine. This means a future pope in 2045 will likely publish an encyclical with the title “On the 50th Anniversary of The Gospel of Life.” This is bad in one sense. It means the war is still raging, and the situation has gotten worse. It is good in another sense. It means the Kingdom of God is continuing to break into the world of darkness and death. It means the Gospel continues to assault the gates of Hell. Between now and 2045, what can we do? The answer is to pray, be formed, educate others, work to legally change the law in order to promote and protect life, and work to assist the victims destroyed by a culture of death in receiving God’s mercy.
Prayer is the most effective weapon to change ourselves, effect the world, and usher in the Kingdom of God here on earth. It is also one that is difficult. Prayers for life cannot be tracked in an excel spreadsheet for their impact on: the government, the church, the lives of loved ones, or even the slow gradual changes on yourself. St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we should “pray without ceasing.” The early church fathers spend considerable commentary on what this means. Their answers can be grouped into four types: pray the liturgy of the hours, dedicate the time spent in work, sleep or eating by consecrating it in prayer, or be a monk. Since monasticism is only for a few, the advice of St. Augustine added a fourth type that is helpful for the many. Commenting on Psalm 38:10, “Oh Lord, all my desire is before you;” he teaches that our (yours and mine) desire is our unceasing prayer. Desire is interior; it drives us to be who we are. Reading Scripture, formal acts of prayer and participation in the liturgy in this way serve to enflame our desires.
As a physical work of mercy, St. John Paul II reminds us that assisting in the proper formation of conscience is vitally important to protect and defend human life. This, of course, begins at home. The family is the irreplaceable center for conscience formation. Church teachings that reinforce principles of natural law assist in proper conscience formation. Just, civil laws should reflect sound natural law principles and lead to proper conscience development. The forces of the culture of death seek to erode the family as a unity where love is the principle bond. A culture of death seeks to relativize Sacred Scripture, Church teachings and the principles of natural law. A culture of death leads to a deformation of proper conscience.
EV teaches, “Closely connected with the formation of conscience is the work of education, which helps individuals to be ever more human…In particular, there is a need for education about the value of life from its very origins.” (EV 97.1; 97.2) This facet of EV is where I believe the work of The Society of St. Sebastian plays an important role. In a general way, the society seeks to educate the culture through its presence on social media, its published articles, columns, and a journal. More particularly, the Society provides a platform to bring together the expertise of lawyers, medical practitioners, theologians, lobbyists, politicians, bio-ethical experts, and many other professionals who work in different facets of culture for the service of life. The Society is inter-disciplinary and this makes it unique within pro-life organizations as it seeks to educate across disciplines. More particularly the Society has been stressing the need to protect human embryos from destruction and to educate on the origins of human life.
Finally, we must work to effect civil law. St. Thomas holds that in general, ‘Law is an ordinance of reason to promote the common good, issued with authority, and duly promulgated.’ It is reasonable to promote the most foundational human right, human life. It benefits the common good. When thinking of passing laws, I want to remind readers the advice of Pope Paul VI in Popularum progressio: we tend to measure civic development in economic terms BUT we should measure development in ways that helps families, promotes human personal integration, increases civic friendships, and creates civility between people. As Christians who pray and have well educated and formed consciences, we should seek to craft and defend laws that assist in these areas of civic development.
I mention much about prayer above because for the twenty-fifth birthday of EV we must not forget it is a God-centered document. The culture of death stems from an eclipse of the sense of God. John Paul II believed this eclipse has led parts of civilization to a darkening of conscience and a misunderstanding of what it means to be a human person. As a people of life it is vitally important we turn to God and give him our desire for a culture of life. If our desire is God’s desire, if our desire is to protect innocent human life, then we analogously imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation.
 See Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers pp. 171-2.
 See St. Thomas, STh I-II, Q. 90, a. 4.
Steven Meyer, STD, Associate Professor of Theology, University of St. Thomas (Houston), & Society of St. Sebastian 2020 Academic Fellow