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Fostering a Culture of Life
Dr. Steven J. Meyer | 24 March 2022
March 25th marks the 27th anniversary of the publication of The Gospel of Life or Evangelium vitae. It is the great twentieth century pro-life encyclical letter. It is not aimed at specific legislation and public policies. Written for “all people of good will” it presents an education in principles consistent with an ethic for life as told through Scripture beginning with Cain’s murder of Abel. St. John Paul II begins the work with the words of Jesus, “… “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”… It is precisely in this “life” that all the aspects and stages of human life achieve their full significance.”[i] On this anniversary I would like to reflect on some helpful principles in the relationship between law and the cultures of life and death according to John Paul II.
John Paul II believes in the perennial Christian tradition of a natural law that informs individual conscience and public laws. Natural law is a manifestation of God’s Eternal law known to each person through the core of their being.[ii] Civil law cannot justify through legislation or a ‘majority consensus’ anti-life practices.[iii] All law is ultimately given human expression of what lies beneath it, Divine Wisdom.[iv] State laws should in some way be based upon natural (moral) laws.[v] When a law goes against the protection of life, it ceases to be a morally binding law.[vi] In a Christian vision, “The real purpose of civil law is to guarantee an ordered social coexistence in true justice, so that all may “lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Tim 2:2)… First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being.”[vii]
Evangelium vitae depicts two views on the relationship of the civil law to the moral law, both of which are rejected. The first is in regard to practices such as abortion and euthanasia where the value is placed upon the individual private choice in regards to how one lives their life. The only limit would be to not harm other people. The state in this view should never legislate on ethical issues.[viii] The second view advocates lobbying for and simultaneously legislating laws that legally justify attacks on life through morally relativistic means such as “the view of the majority.” An objective moral order, in this view, leads to authoritarianism.[ix] For John Paul II the first position errs because the state has the duty to serve the common good. The common good is the sum of every aspect of social life as it relates to “…the dignity, unity and equality of all people.”[x] The state sometimes needs to defend and promote these aspects of life against the whims of personal choice. The second view errors because the principal of “unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person – from conception to natural death” cannot be the subject of a changeable majority opinion, or made to be false through legislative action.[xi]
The legal promotion of laws that devalue human dignity and assault the vulnerable are what John Paul II refers to as a culture of death. The culture of death wins a consensus of the majority by removing any reference or hint at a sense of a transcendent God. It then misconstrues the meaning of freedom which leads to a darkening of moral conscience. All along there is a consistent denial for a natural law as informative of civic law.
A culture of death is advanced by creating structures of laws and education that promote something intrinsically immoral as moral. It would be shaped through education that values something intrinsically evil, such as the murder of an unborn child, to be thought of and portrayed as something good for personal freedom. These structures are advanced through economic financing and political agendas. At one point St. John Paul II refers to it as “…a “conspiracy against life,” involving international institutions engaged in encouraging and carrying out actual campaigns to make contraception, sterilization and abortion widely available. Nor can it be denied that the mass media are often implicated in this conspiracy by lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia is a mark of progress and victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro – life.”[xii] John Paul II refers to these as structures of sin. I hesitate to use the word “sin” because the term cannot be properly understood apart from an understanding of a “covenant” as a specific relationship between God and humanity. When the sense of God is lost, so to is any meaningful understanding of sin.
The protection, care, fostering, and providing for all human life, at all stages of development is what he refers to as a culture of life. John Paul II understands that fostering a culture of life will in turn lead to winning legislation that conforms with an objective moral framework rooted in the transcendent. In order to do this public education in a coherent, social, and political philosophy is necessary. This he believes can be found in the principles of Catholic social teachings as published since the late 19th century. While this is certainly one way, his vision is consistent with what was advocated by both James Davison Hunter’s work Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control Art, Education, Law and Politics in America and John Courtney Murray’s work, We Hold These Truths.[xiii] All of this is consistent with what Alexis de Tocqueville famous documented in his Democracy in America as he found it in the early to middle 19th century. Equality, freedom, and rights are not something that can be established by the government. They come from God. De Tocqueville noted they have the effective force of law when the culture combines a Christian vision of morality with its social order. What de Tocqueville witnessed seems to me consistent with what John Paul II calls a culture of life. Unfortunately in our present situation this has been much eroded by the marks of a culture of death. In order to promote a culture of life, it is not enough to lobby and work to pass laws. We must, and I think more importantly, give witness to the values of faith, worship, joy, and charity. Only then can a culture of life truly be fostered where pro-life laws are reflective of the greater social culture.
[i] Evangelium vitae 1.3 (henceforth EV), cf. Jn 16:21.
[ii] Richard A. Spinello, The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012) p. 155.
[iii] See EV 72.2.
[iv] See Veritatis splendor 41.2, 43.2
[v] See EV 70.4-72.1
[vi] See EV 72, 90.3.
[vii] EV 71.8
[viii] See EV 68.4.
[ix] See EV 68.1.
[x] Copendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church article 164.
[xi] See EV 101.3.
[xii] EV 17.2.
[xiii] For an overview of the relationship between religion in the United States, policy issues, and Catholic Social teachings, see Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Religion and the Transformation of Politics” in Church and Society: The Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988-2007 (Fordham University Press, 2008) pp. 116-128.
Dr. Steven J. Meyer
Assistant Professor of Theology
University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary