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22 March 2018
The Gospel of Life and Roots of the Culture of Death
March 25 marks the 23rd anniversary of Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life, henceforth EV) by St. John Paul II.[i]
This encyclical famously popularized the notion of a culture of life and culture of death pitted against each other. In 48,000 words with 142 footnotes, it is addressed to all people of good will. Human life is a universal human issue. In every social medium today there are powerful forces justifying and promoting abortion and euthanasia, peddling a plan of eugenics [ii], and promoting immoral experiments on human embryos as services to humanity. As a work of prophetic humanism, it might be helpful to briefly revisit some foundational principles in Evangelium vitae which, in my opinion, can serve as a kind of charter document. In what follows I would like to address the genre and doctrinal content of EV and sketch the roots of the culture of death concluding by connecting the culture of life to the Gospel.
EV is largely an exhortation and one where John Paul II maps out a pastoral plan for the promotion and dignity of human life. There are three doctrinal teachings in EV concerning the sinful nature of murdering innocent human life (EV 57), committing or assisting in abortion (EV 62), and in the condemnation of euthanasia (EV 65). John Paul II did not invoke his power of papal infallibility on these issues in the final text, although earlier drafts did contain ex cathedra statements.[iii]
These teachings are nothing new in Christian tradition and are consistent with the principles of natural law. The condemnation of abortion, for example, while not an explicitly Biblical teaching has a foundation in ancient Christian writings such as the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabus, the Letter to Diognetus, and the Apology of Tertullian.[iv] The condemning of it as a practice can be clearly found in Casti connubii (1930), Gaudium et spes (1965), Humanae vitae (1968), the CDF Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974), and the CDF instruction Donum vitae (1987). EV did lead to the revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992, 1997) in the section on the respect for human life (cf. 2258-2283) most notably in the section on capital punishment. As is often the case, Church teachings become (are often forced for the sake of clarity) more explicit given the circumstances of a particular age.
John Paul II does not define the culture of death with a propositional definition. As a phenomenologist, the method is to describe features. His image considers four “roots” of a pro-death mentality. (cf. EV 19-24) The first is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of a human person.[v] (EV 19) Second is a false understanding of freedom or choice as action uncoupled from truth and responsibility.[vi] (EV 19-20; 96) Thirdly these errors flow from “The eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism.”[vii] (EV 23) This lowering of the transcendent horizon gives rise to the blurring of right and wrong in moral conscience.[viii] (EV 4; 21; 24) Those in pro-life work should carefully consider how to respond to each of these appropriately.
Opposed to a culture of death is a culture of life. This is nothing less than the Gospel itself which is really a person who invites us into a relationship. "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10). (cf. EV 1) For John Paul II the culture of death is nothing less than decay because of sin. It is the movement towards a disintegration of human nature. The culture of death can be found in the Garden of Genesis. Our first parents misunderstood their nature, used free choice to grab what was not theirs, hid from God, and skewed their natural use of reason to discern the good. The Incarnation is the answer to all four issues. A culture of life sees human life as a “gift of God, the fruit and sign of his love. It is the proclamation that Jesus has a unique relationship with every person, which enables us to see in every human face the face of Christ.” (EV 81).
A culture of life is integral to the new evangelization. All members of the Church need to be involved. It is important for the laity since their domain is properly the secular fields such as law and medicine. Traits of the new evangelization are that it should connect faith with culture, respect the freedom and dignity of persons, use all means of social communication, and be both ecumenical and inter-religious in dialogue.[ix] Prayer and fasting (cf. EV 100) are of utmost importance for advancing a culture of life. A culture of life is the whole activity of the Church. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once put it, “The Catholic Church does not support a pro-life movement. The Catholic Church is a pro-life movement.”[x]
The Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a model antidote in her response to the culture of death’s roots. John Paul II chose March 25 to publish EV, the Feast of the Annunciation (cf. Luke 1:26-38). It occurs nine months before December 25. Mary’s free response to God allows the pre-existent Divine Word to take flesh within her. Her obedience shows a proper understanding of human nature, a freedom in conformity with the Truth, a permeation of God in her life, and proper recognition of right from wrong. Evangelium vitae read through the lens of the Annunciation reminds us that the culture of life is in service to the King who once appeared as an unborn baby.
Steven Meyer, S.T.D., holds a Sacred Theological Doctorate in Dogmatic Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Italy. He has a Sacred Theological Licentiate (S.T.L.) from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. He also has a Master and Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Meyer currently serves as an assistant professor in theology for the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and is an editorial board member for the Society of St. Sebastian.
[i] For an introduction to Evangelium vitae, see J. Michael Miller, C.S.B., editor, The Encyclicals of John Paul II (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2001). The full text of EV can be found online at the Vatican website: https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html
[ii] For example, I have noticed many articles and op-ed pieces recently advocating for the abortion of unborn babies with Down syndrome.
[iii] Avery Dulles notes, “According to Cardinal Ratzinger and others, earlier drafts of the encyclical did contain infallible definitions, but the language of dogmatic definition and infallibility was dropped in the final text. Ratzinger says that it was considered unnecessary to define dogmatically what was already so clear from Christian faith and tradition. Another motive for avoiding an ex cathedra definition may have been the ongoing debate about whether papal infallibility extends to specific principles of natural law unless they are clearly taught in revelation itself.” From First Things online edition The Gospel of Life: A Symposium (October 1995), https://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/10/002-the-gospel-of-life-a-symposium
[iv] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church article 2271 footnote 75.
[v]For a succinct explanation of how John Paul II understands the error and a human person, see Richard A. Spinello, The Genius of John Paul II: the Great Pope’s Moral Wisdom (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2007), 57-88.
[vi] For an excellent synthesis of how John Paul II understands the connection between truth, freedom and responsibility, see Avery Cardinal Dulles, “John Paul II and the Truth about Freedom” First Things online edition (August 1995), https://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/08/004-john-paul-ii-and-the-truth-about-freedom
[vii] For a systematic survey of the effects of a secular mentality on understanding a human person and culture in John Paul II, see Steven J. Meyer, “A Theocentric Vision of Culture in John Paul II”, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies: An International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Interfaith Dialogue XXIX No. ½ (2017): 71-90.
[viii] To see how EV is part of evangelization, see Eduardo J. Echeverria, “A Great Springtime for Christianity,” in John Paul II and the New Evangelization: How You Can Bring the Good News to Others, eds., Ralph Martin and Peter Williamson (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2006), 288-95.
[ix] For traits of the new evangelization in John Paul II, see Avery Cardinal Dulles, Evangelization for the Third Millennium (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009), 30-41.
[x] Richard John Neuhaus, “The Prophetic Humanism of Evangelium Vitae” Crisis Magazine online edition (May 1, 1996), https://www.crisismagazine.com/1996/the-prophetic-humanism-of-evangelium-vitae