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The Gospel of Life: 25 Years Later


Bioethics in Law & Culture                                                                                                                            Spring  2020     vol. 3  issue  2

Richard M. Doerflinger

On March 25, 1995, Pope John Paul II -- now recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church – issued an encyclical with the Latin title Evangelium Vitae – in English, “The Gospel of Life.”[i] Encyclicals are formal letters, often quite lengthy, in which the Church’s leading teacher of doctrine writes to all Catholic bishops or to all members of the Church on an important concern. The 25th anniversary of this letter is an opportunity to assess its impact on the Church and on the broader debate on life issues, especially in the United States.


The fact that its impact would reach beyond Catholics was brought home to me in the summer of 1995. Lutheran pro-life advocates had invited the staff of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), including myself, to discuss possible collaborative efforts. We gathered in a meeting room at the Lutheran church a block from USCCB headquarters, its grounds featuring an imposing statue of Martin Luther, who experienced serious problems with Popes and bishops.


Our publishing office had recently issued the bound English-language version of John Paul II’s encyclical, and we brought some copies as gifts – not to suggest that our Lutheran friends must agree with everything in it, but to offer it as the latest authoritative statement of where our own church was coming from. However, when we presented the copies, each Lutheran participant reached into a briefcase or purse and brought out his or her own well-thumbed copy of the encyclical. “This is the best thing we’ve ever read,” one said. I realized that John Paul II’s witness was a large part of the reason they had invited us.


The appeal of this document also reached beyond the Christian community, inspiring pro-life individuals and organizations without a religious affiliation. The largest US organization of this kind, the National Right to Life Committee, bestowed on John Paul II its highest honor, the Proudly Pro-life Award, in 1996, and its president attended the Vatican’s anniversary celebration of Evangelium Vitae in 2013.[ii]


This broader appeal was no accident. Encyclicals generally identify their intended audience. Evangelium Vitae‘s urgent appeal on respect for “the value and inviolability of human life” was addressed not only to bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious, and lay faithful, but also to "all people of goodwill.”


It, therefore, seems appropriate to identify the encyclical’s lasting importance for each of three audiences: Catholics; Christian and other believers who look to Scripture for their inspiration; and "people of goodwill" who are devoted to defending human life in its most helpless stages or who are open to that cause.


I. Evangelium Vitae on Catholic Teaching and Practice

            A.   A Formal Declaration: Attacks on Innocent Human Life

A Pope’s first and most solemn task is to clarify and promote the Church’s teaching on faith and morals. The question arises: How does Evangelium Vitae affect official Catholic teaching on our moral obligations regarding human life?


Explicit Christian teaching against abortion is nearly as old as Christianity, first declared in writing when early Christians began to confront a Greco-Roman world that accepted the practice.[iii] In modern times the Second Vatican Council condemned abortion and euthanasia as crimes against life, and the Vatican had issued a Declaration on Procured Abortion in 1974, and a Declaration on Euthanasia in 1980 as these crimes were being advocated by activists, judges, and legislators.[iv] But some Catholics and others thought these teachings might "develop” in dialogue with modern secular society.


On abortion, Catholic theologians in the Middle Ages had accepted the mistaken biological theories of Aristotle, suggesting that a specifically human soul may not be present in the developing human offspring until some weeks after conception. Before that point, abortion was considered a moral offense but not to have the full gravity of a homicide. This distinction between the “formed” and “unformed” child was rejected when biologists better understood in the 19th century that a specifically human individual arises at fertilization.[v] But could the teaching develop again to treat abortion or euthanasia as a less serious matter?


In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II put an end to such speculations with three formal declarations of doctrine. The first was the most comprehensive: “[B]y the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral…. The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end” (EV no. 57).


“As far as the right to life is concerned,” he went on to say, “every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others.” This set the stage for the other two declarations.


Making the same reference to his papal authority and his communion with all the bishops, he said: “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being” (EV no. 62).  He also applied this teaching to harmful experiments on human embryos and efforts to exploit them as sources of cells and tissues – a prophetic statement in light of later debates about embryonic stem cell research and destructive human cloning experiments.


Finally, addressing the other end of life, he said: “I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person” (EV no. 65). Equally rejected was physician-assisted suicide, which had been legalized in Oregon a few months earlier (EV no. 66). John Paul II reaffirmed that the Catholic Church understands “euthanasia” to include “an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering” (EV no. 65, emphasis added).  Such immoral withholding or withdrawing of needed care with the intent of bringing on death was to be distinguished from a legitimate decision to refuse treatment because it is futile, or disproportionately burdensome compared to its benefits.  Later, in a 2004 address, John Paul II would clarify that withholding nourishment or fluids from helpless patients such as those in a so-called “vegetative state” generally falls on the gravely immoral side of this distinction.[vi] Euthanasia’s “false mercy” had to be countered by embracing “the way of love and true mercy,” keeping company with the seriously ill and alleviating their suffering in morally legitimate ways (EV no. 67).


Some Catholics wondered whether the Pope was exercising his extraordinary authority to issue infallible pronouncements, speaking “ex cathedra” (“from the chair” of St. Peter), but he said these teachings were already found in “the natural law,” in Scripture’s witness to the dignity of the human person, and in the teaching of all bishops. Cardinals from around the world had encouraged him to strongly reaffirm these teachings when he met with them in April 1991, and he had taken the unusual step of writing to all bishops that year asking for their input on the document as well (see EV no. 5).  This is the “ordinary” way for moral teachings to become infallible or unchangeable by the bishops throughout the world, teaching in union with the Pope over a period of time. But John Paul II was formally establishing that the criteria for unchangeable moral teaching had been met: These attacks on life were always and everywhere gravely wrong.  Opposing them is a core moral obligation for Catholics.


This heightened clarity in the Church’s moral witness strengthened the resolve of Catholic leaders on these issues. The bishops of the United States issued their own 1998 document Living the Gospel of Life, applying John Paul II’s teaching to the American scene. “In a special way,” they said, “we call on US Catholics, especially those in positions of leadership -- whether cultural, economic or political -- to recover their identity as followers of Jesus Christ and to be leaders in the renewal of American respect for the sanctity of life.”[vii]


This document helped resolve a debate that had arisen from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s lectures and writings about a “consistent ethic of life,” popularly known as the “seamless garment” approach to life issues. Cardinal Bernardin said he was not placing all life issues on the same level, but was urging Catholics devoted to some of these issues to respect and appreciate efforts on the others. However, pro-life advocates became gravely concerned when pro-abortion politicians misused this idea to claim that they were truly “pro-life” because they favored, for example, government aid for the poor. Cardinal Bernardin himself came to share that concern while insisting that such misuse did not invalidate his approach.[viii]


The US bishops' 1998 document clarified the “consistent ethic” by giving it a clear sense of priorities. To be sure, it said, Catholics must promote the life and well-being of their fellow human beings, especially those who are poor and defenseless, in every sphere of concern. “But being 'right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.  Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.”


Here the bishops used an image taken loosely from Jesus’ parable about the fate of a man who builds his house on sand rather than on a firm foundation (Mt. 7:24-27; Lk. 6:46-49).  If the human person is a temple of the Holy Spirit, all other concerns involving human dignity are like the crossbeams and walls of that temple. However, “All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person's most fundamental right -- the right to life.  Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand.  Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights.”[ix]


This image of the walls and the foundation was then incorporated into the "faithful citizenship" documents issued by the US bishops during each presidential election season.[x]  In recent years these documents have also distinguished between “single-issue” voting and “disqualifying issue” voting: “A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet, if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.”[xi]



This emphasis on intrinsically evil acts was taken from Evangelium Vitae: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church” (EV no. 62).


The most recent editions of the bishops’ election-year document have been re-issued without change, each time with an “Introductory Letter” noting important developments in the Church’s concerns since the previous edition.  While affirming the need to uphold human dignity on a broad range of issues, the letter approved by the bishops in November 2019 stated: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.”[xii]  At the general meeting where this text was approved, some bishops contested this reference to abortion as a “preeminent priority,” claiming that it was not compatible with Pope Francis’s approach -- but they were decisively outvoted. Collectively the US bishops would continue to hold that policies allowing and encouraging the killing of unborn children are the preeminent threat to human life and human rights in our nation.[xiii]


            B. Other Moral Clarifications

The encyclical also helped clarify two other moral issues involving respect for human life.


                        1. Contraception

How are contraception and abortion-related as moral issues? Catholic teaching against artificial contraception had been reaffirmed in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, but most US Catholics were not following this teaching, and it was generally not an issue for non-Catholic pro-life groups.  Critics, including Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, had said for decades that religious people who object to contraception are among those responsible for the abortions that are then used to resolve unintended pregnancies.[xiv]


In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II responded to this criticism. The two moral issues are “specifically different”: Contraception rejects the full meaning of sexuality, while abortion violates the right to life of a new human being. However, a "contraceptive mentality,” seeking complete control over the possibility of a new life, only increases the temptation to abortion when contraception fails, and a life is conceived. The connection between the two practices was dramatized by the development of drugs and devices marketed as “contraceptives” that really act as abortifacients in the earliest stages of human development (EV no. 13).  



So the Church would not be accepting Planned Parenthood's offer to join in promoting contraceptive programs. John Paul II's critique of that approach seems prophetic in light of Planned Parenthood’s increasingly obvious turn from claiming to “reduce” abortions to becoming the largest and most committed promoter of abortion in modern society.[xv]


                        2. Capital Punishment

The Catholic Church had generally held that the death penalty could be justified as a form of punishment for very grave crimes, though in the 20th century, it had increasingly criticized its use. Evangelium Vitae sharpened this criticism and provided a moral basis for it. John Paul II did not claim that the execution of criminals was intrinsically evil, like the direct killing of the innocent. But the root meaning in Latin of “innocent” is “not attacking.” So the question was whether, in modern penal systems that can jail a murderer and stop his attacks on others, are we justified in taking the further step of killing someone who, like every human being, still has the dignity of a human person. That further step could only be justified when there is no other way to stop the person’s attacks on others – that is, when it is tantamount to self-defense. In modern times, such cases would be “very rare, if not practically non-existent” (EV no. 56).


While some try to dismiss the Catholic stand on abortion as a holdover of traditional views on sex and family, the encyclical’s statements on euthanasia and the death penalty helped make it clear that the Church spoke as a principled voice for the sanctity of human life – every human life. John Paul II went on to say that we must respect every life, “even that of criminals and unjust aggressors,” the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” must be truly absolute in the case of the innocent person, “all the more so” in the case of the weak and defenseless (EV no. 57).


            C. The Pastoral Dimension: Building a Culture of Life

The encyclical went beyond opposing attacks on life to call on Catholic institutions, and individuals in a wide variety of professions, to help “build a new culture of life” (EV no. 95).  While some aspects of this call were directed to non-Catholics as well, as noted below, this section will focus on those aimed especially at Catholics.


The theme of love and support for all human life was to be integrated into catechesis, preaching, and education, including priestly formation in seminaries (EV no. 82). It should be featured in prayers and liturgies (no. 84) and promoted through special events like a Worldwide Day for Life (no. 85) – such a day having been commemorated in the US since the 1970s as Respect Life Sunday, the first Sunday in October.  The encyclical called for education in natural family planning, education in sexuality and chastity for young people, marriage and family counseling programs, pregnancy aid centers, and care centers for those with drug addiction, mental illness, disabilities, or AIDS, as well as homes for seniors and palliative care programs for those with terminal illness (EV nos. 88, 97). It called on Catholic intellectuals, the Pontifical Academy for Life established earlier by John Paul II, Catholic universities, bioethics centers, and mass media personnel to reflect on and advance the positive value of human life (EV no. 98). The encyclical also offered a word of hope and encouragement to women who have had an abortion, calling them to reconciliation with their child and with God and encouraging them to become “promoters of a new way of looking at human life” (EV no. 99).


In many areas, Catholic institutions have been inspired by this call to expand their efforts in support of life.  The US Conference of Catholic Bishops stepped up its commitment to post-abortion reconciliation and healing programs in dioceses throughout the nation, re-emphasizing this effort in 2015 in response to Pope Francis’s giving all priests worldwide the authority to absolve from the sin of abortion as part of his Jubilee Year of Mercy.[xvi] In late 2019 the USCCB also launched a program to expand support for women with unintended pregnancies called “Walking With Moms in Need: A Year of Service,” citing the anniversary of Evangelium Vitae as its inspiration.[xvii]


Catholic colleges and universities have also expanded their pro-life efforts. Collectively they send thousands of students and faculty each year to the annual March for Life in Washington DC or similar events on the West coast.[xviii]


A leading Catholic educational institution, the University of Notre Dame, has sent as many as eleven hundred students, faculty, and staff to the March for Life. The university's de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, established in 1999, has sponsored lectures and discussion panels on life issues, instituted an annual “Evangelium Vitae Award" for persons who have advanced the message of the sanctity of human life, and organized the Vita Institute – an annual week-long educational program for young people from around the country, who want a more in-depth understanding of these issues.[xix]


While much remains to be done in living up to John Paul II’s call, his encyclical has been invoked to program pro-life themes into the activities of many Catholic institutions in the US and elsewhere.


II. Evangelium Vitae’s Ecumenical Outreach

In the Christian community, a stereotype had long been at work: On fundamental moral issues, Protestants cite Scripture; Catholics invoke a “natural law” approach that is accessible to Christians and unbelievers alike.

The natural law approach is not absent from Evangelium Vitae, but the encyclical marks something of a departure regarding Catholic appeals to Scripture to present its moral case. Each of its four chapters, and each smaller section within each chapter, uses a Biblical quotation as its heading and as a starting point for its reflection, emphasizing how “the Gospel of life” is “an integral part of that Gospel which is Jesus Christ himself” (EV no. 78). In this way, John Paul II, in effect, invites fellow Christians to join with Catholics and others in building a culture of life, as illustrated by the personal account at the beginning of this article.


Much of the encyclical's Biblical exegesis deals with the Old Testament, extending an invitation to Jews and Muslims as well to understand how the God of the three great monotheistic religions stands for life. That exegesis begins with Cain's murder of his brother Abel, out of pride and envy, dramatizing how man's rebellion against God's will is most decisively put into action through attacks on human life. Cain's sin makes him an outcast -- yet God shows His commitment to human life by forbidding others to avenge this death by killing Cain, a passage that may occur to the reader again when the encyclical later deals with capital punishment.


Evangelium Vitae does cite the texts that Christians have often used to show the sanctity of unborn human life: the references to God’s loving involvement in each human life from its very beginning (Ps. 139:13, Jer. 1:5); John the Baptist’s proclamation that the Messiah has arrived, when both he and Jesus are still in their mothers’ wombs (Lk. 1:41-44).  But it also does something more original.  Its emphasis is not as much on who and what the unborn child is, as on who and what we are. This Christian anthropology is centered first of all on the model for humanity presented by Christ, who through his sacrifice on the Cross “reveals to man that his greatness, and therefore his vocation, consists in the sincere gift of self” (EV no. 25).


This reference to the “gift of self” appears 13 times in the encyclical, and can be considered its central theme. In humble gratitude for God's gift of our lives, we learn that it is by self-giving service to others' lives, starting with those who are most weak and defenseless, that we are fulfilled. Opposed to this is the "perverse idea of freedom" typified by Cain (EV no. 18), which invites us to assert ourselves destructively against others and lose sight of life’s central meaning.  The Gospel of Life is, therefore, an integral part of the Gospel.


Evangelium Vitae has helped enhance the willingness of Catholics and other believers to collaborate with mutual respect in defense of innocent human life. Catholic and Protestant churches and affiliated pro-life organizations have increasingly shared information and advice on public policy efforts, co-signing letters and statements on pro-life issues. One of the most prominent and effective pro-life organizations in Washington, DC, the Family Research Council, comes from an evangelical Protestant perspective but has worked closely with Catholic and secular organizations and has employed Catholic staff. Similar developments can be seen in many states, where local family policy councils (also sometimes called family policy institutes) of Protestant origin collaborate with right-to-life groups and state Catholic conferences on pro-life issues. Catholics, Protestants, and those of no religious affiliation have also cooperated in providing compassionate help for women facing unintended pregnancies.  John Paul II’s document has helped to promote unity in advancing the cause of life.



III.  Evangelium Vitae and the Secular Case for Protecting

Human Life

As noted earlier, Evangelium Vitae is also addressed to "all people of goodwill." It declares: “The Gospel of life is not for believers alone: it is for everyone…. The value at stake is one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns everyone” (EV no. 101). Therefore, it also makes a secular case for the right to life, promoting a coherent commitment to basic human rights and the common good.


            A. The Protection of Life and the Perversion of Freedom

In this encyclical, John Paul II does not break new ground on the reality of human life from conception onward. He quotes and reaffirms what previous Church documents had recognized, “that from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with its own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already” (EV no. 60).[xx]  He dismisses the argument that this new living member of the species is nevertheless not a "person," asking, "how could a human individual not be a human person?" (Id.)[xxi]


Taking the biological fact of human life as a given, John Paul II offers a profound critique of the effort to dismiss such facts when they are inconvenient to us. The very features that lead some to deny the “personhood” of unborn children, and of some people near the end of life – their helplessness, lack of mental and physical abilities, etc. – make them the decisive test of whether we mean what we say about inherent human rights.  “It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop.” Proclaiming values such as justice and peace while allowing violations of human life, “especially where it is weak and marginalized,” deprives a society of “solid foundations” (EV no. 101).


The encyclical proposes that the main threat to building a society that respects and protects its members is the rise of an ideology committed to radical personal autonomy. Cain’s “perverse idea of freedom,” already subjected to theological critique, is equally subject to attack on secular grounds. It makes no sense to advance an unlimited “freedom of choice” without some sense of what is worth choosing – and that requires knowing what is true about human nature and our dependence on one another. In fact, "freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth” (EV no. 19). Society’s willingness and ability to serve the common good and the life and freedom of all is then lost. “If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself,” and individual freedom takes on “a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others” (EV no. 20). Those least able to speak for and defend themselves are the first victims of such a mentality, but it inevitably erodes respect for the basic rights of everyone. In the name of freedom, we end with “a form of totalitarianism” in which the State can claim a right to dispose of its unwanted subjects (Id.).


When John Paul II wrote the encyclical, these dangers were becoming apparent in the American legal system. In 1992 the US Supreme Court had decided the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, reaffirming its 1973 abortion decisions while shifting the rationale for the “right” to abortion from “privacy” to a breathtakingly expansive notion of “liberty”: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”[xxii]  This liberty to define oneself not only gave absolute power to those most willing to assert it, but also conveniently seemed to deny “personhood” to those too weak or defenseless to do so. American traditions of ordered liberty were reduced to a case of “Might makes right.”  To stand for a society that serves human rights, Americans would have to reject the distorted idea of freedom inherent in the abortion “choice.”


Twenty-five years later, this ideology of individual freedom as a warrant for self-creation – sometimes called “expressive individualism”[xxiii] -- has acquired enormous social, legal, and political power. The Supreme Court's reference to a liberty to define the meaning of oneself and the universe has been cited by other judges trying to establish a “right” of assisted suicide and euthanasia,[xxiv] and has been used to erode societal norms on marriage and sexuality.[xxv] With amazing rapidity, claims of a right to choose one’s sexual orientation have expanded to encompass a right to choose one’s gender – and claims of a right to be let alone to pursue these projects have become weapons against the freedom of anyone who disagrees. The result has been to deny not only the right to life of the unborn and elderly, but also the right of conscience of Christians and others with more traditional moral convictions.[xxvi]


On the abortion issue itself, some advocates for the killing of the unborn have abandoned the biologically incoherent claim that the unborn child is not a “human life,” arguing instead that biological facts are of no importance compared to the desire for the self-fulfillment of those who seek the child's death.[xxvii] Following this logic, abortion advocates now oppose respect for the child already born alive in the course of an attempted abortion.[xxviii] These frightening expansions of distorted freedom demand a response that goes beyond the biological facts to show that authentic human freedom is for something greater, and ultimately more fulfilling than the acting out of self-serving desire.


B. Toward a Pro-Life Feminism

One of the more striking proposals made by John Paul II near the end of his encyclical is his call for “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” (EV no. 99).


In 1988 John Paul had issued an apostolic letter devoted to “the dignity and vocation of women.”[xxix] Later, at a 1998 audience with participants in a conference on women’s health, he would declare: “I’m the feminist pope.”[xxx]  In Evangelium Vitae, he presented a new feminism as “the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change” on respect for life.


This was no public relations ploy by the leader of a Church often seen by others as male-dominated. The central theme of his encyclical was the conflict between freedom as self-assertion, willing to crush others who get in the way of one’s own goals, and freedom as the ability to achieve greatness through a “sincere gift of self” to others. John Paul II saw women as exemplifying the latter when they see life in terms of relationship rather than competition, and especially when they accept their children before and after birth simply for who they are rather than for what they may accomplish. Models of self-giving can be seen not only in dramatic acts of heroism in which people give their lives for others, but also in such “everyday heroism” (EV no. 86). This approach to freedom must become a model for both women and men if a culture of life is to be possible.


Here the legacy of the encyclical has been obvious. Pro-life women have become more visible and outspoken since 1995, with groups such as Feminists for Life and Women Speak for Themselves playing an influential role in the abortion debate.  The slogan of Feminists for Life, “Women Deserve Better Than Abortion,” has been seen on thousands of signs held by participants in the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. Women have increasingly taken on leadership roles in existing national and state pro-life organizations.[xxxi]  Many of them have been inspired by the vision of pro-life feminism articulated by John Paul II.


C. Just, Unjust, and Imperfect Laws

For pro-life advocates involved in public policy, Evangelium Vitae’s message on just and unjust laws was especially important.  It invoked the Catholic Church’s longstanding doctrine that an unjust law is not truly a law – a conviction stated by St. Thomas Aquinas and cited by many others, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.[xxxii] Applying this principle to pro-life issues, John Paul II declared: “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. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law” (EV no. 72). He went on to insist: “There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection” (EV no. 73). 


The encyclical, therefore, rejected the "pro-choice" argument for allowing abortion, which is based on the perverse idea that the freedom of some can include “an absolute power over others and against others” – that idea was “the death of true freedom” (EV no. 20). It equally rejected the argument of many politicians, including Catholic politicians, that one could be “personally opposed” to abortion on moral grounds but allow and even promote it in public policy. Such an argument undermines the first and most fundamental reason for the existence of law, to promote justice and protect the weak from the strong.


Equally important was what the encyclical went on to say about “imperfect” legislation – laws which restrict injustices like abortion and euthanasia but, due to political realities, cannot completely prohibit them. This had been a persistent point of disagreement among pro-life advocates; the debate became especially vociferous in the early 1980s when Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and others proposed a constitutional amendment to allow federal and state lawmakers to restrict and prohibit abortion. The amendment would have reversed the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions by declaring that there is no “right” to abortion, but it would not require lawmakers to establish a particular level of protection for the unborn.  Some pro-life groups strongly supported the amendment, while other groups and some lawmakers saw it as morally unacceptable because it did not establish (and in their view, could be seen as denying) that the unborn child is a person with a constitutionally guaranteed right to life.


In such cases, said John Paul II, “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion 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 at the level of general opinion and public morality.


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” (EV no. 73).


The significance of John Paul II’s moral judgment can scarcely be exaggerated. In the United States, all proposals against abortion allowed to take legal effect have been “imperfect” in this sense of being incremental – they have prohibited public funding for abortion, or opposed abortions performed by certain methods, for certain reasons, or at certain stages, or banned some of the abortion industry’s worst abuses, to make progress toward a culture of life.  Freed to pursue incremental progress toward the full protection of defenseless human life, the pro-life movement has been able to win public support for many aspects of its agenda, even as the pro-abortion movement has increasingly dug itself into an extreme position of supporting abortion as a positive good throughout (and now past) the nine months of pregnancy. If the public policy debate ends up contributing to a culture of life in the hearts and minds of the American people, it will be in large part because of this fact.


IV. Conclusion

Twenty-five years after Evangelium Vitae was issued, in many ways, it continues to inspire a new generation of religious believers and others to work toward a culture of life. Equally clearly, the social and ideological trends it trenchantly criticized as part of a culture of death continue to exert considerable influence in our society. The final outcome of this struggle, while impossible to predict now, will help determine the kind of society our children inherit and the kind of people our society will encourage them and their children to be.   



(Richard M. Doerflinger is the former Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he worked for 36 years. He is an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute and a Fellow with the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture and the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He lives in Washington state.)


[i] John Paul II, The Gospel of Life: Evangelium Vitae (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: Washington, DC 1995) [henceforth in article text "EV”];  This and all online references accessed  April 3-4, 2020.

[ii] C. Tobias, “Vatican Celebrates the Gospel of Life,” National Right to Life News, July 3, 2013, at

[iii] See R. Doerflinger, “Abortion,” in R. Shaw (ed.), Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, IN 1997), 1-5 at 2.

[iv] Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World)(1965), no. 27, at; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974), at; Id., Declaration on Euthanasia (1980), at

[v] R. Doerflinger, “Abortion,” op. cit., at 2-3.

[vi] “Address of John Paul II to the Participants in the International Congress on 'Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas'," March 20, 2004, at

[vii] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (1998), no. 7, at

[viii] See his interview with Charles Isenhart, “BERNARDIN: Chicago’s pastor on consistency and the ’88 vote,” National Catholic Register, June 12, 1988, at 1, 7; reprinted online at

[ix] Living the Gospel of Life, op. cit., no. 22.

[x] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2020), no. 40, at

[xi] Id., no. 34.

[xii] Id., “Introductory Letter.”

[xiii] See M. O’Loughlin, “US bishops: 'The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority',” America, November 12, 2019, at On Pope Francis's apparent agreement with the US bishops' decision see Catholic News Service, "Pope speaks to US bishops about pro-life issues, transgender ideology,” Crux, January 16, 2020, at

[xiv] See M. Sanger, Chapter X, “Contraceptives or Abortion?”, in Woman and the New Race (Blue Ribbon Books: New York 1920).

[xv] See USCCB Secretariat on Pro-Life Activities, “Planned Parenthood: Setting the Record Straight,” February 13, 2020, at

[xvi] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, News Release, “Cardinal O’Malley Welcomes Pope’s Year of Mercy Plan for Post-Abortion Healing,” September 1, 2015, at

[xvii] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Walking With Moms in Need: A Year of Service” (2019), at

[xviii] M. Olohan, “Thousands of College Students Will Join March for Life: ‘Abortion is an Evil That Claims Millions of Lives’,” LifeNews, January 22, 2020, at

[xix] De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, “Culture of Life” (2020), at

[xx] Quoting the Declaration on Procured Abortion, op. cit., no. 12.

[xxi] Quoting Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae (Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation), I.1 (1987), at

[xxii] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 US 833, 851 (1992).

[xxiii] See T. Wax, “Expressive Individualism: What Is It?”, The Gospel Coalition, October 16, 2018, at

[xxiv] A US district court, and the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, found Casey’s declaration “highly instructive” and “almost prescriptive” in establishing a terminally ill patient’s liberty interest in assisted suicide under the US Constitution. Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 79 F. 3d 790, 813 (9th Cir. 1996) (en banc). So far, at least, the US Supreme Court has declined to follow this path. Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 US 702, 727-8 (1997).  Assisted suicide proponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union have also cited Casey’s declaration to propose such a “liberty” under state constitutions, as in Michigan. See R. Sedler, “The Constitution and Hastening Inevitable Death,” in M. Uhlmann (ed.), Last Rights? Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Debated (WB Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI 1998) 463-73.

[xxv] On the Supreme Court’s use of Casey’s notion of “liberty” to define a “sexual expressionism” that includes a right to homosexual activity and same-sex marriage, see H. Alvare, Putting Children's Interests First in US Family Law and Policy: With Power Comes Responsibility (Cambridge University Press 2018) at 2, 20-26.

[xxvi] See: R. Doerflinger, “A Pledge Betrayed: The Obama Administration Nullifies Conscience Rights,” The Public Discourse, July 6, 2016, at; Id., “Is religious freedom bigotry disguised? Quite the opposite,” Our Sunday Visitor, March 22-28, 2020, at 6; online at

[xxvii] E.g., see M. Williams, “So what if abortion ends life?”, Salon, January 23, 2013, at

[xxviii] R. Doerflinger, “Congress and infanticide,” Catholic Standard, March 4, 2019, at

[xxix] John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) (1988), at

[xxx] Helen Alvare, “‘Feminist Pope’ Inspires Doctor’s Labor of Love,” National Catholic Register, March 8, 1998, at This article’s author, a law professor who has served as director of planning and information for the US bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities and later as co-founder of Women Speak for Themselves, has herself been a model and mentor for a new generation of pro-life feminists. See H. Alvare (ed.), Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves (Our Sunday Visitor Press: Huntington, IN 2012).

[xxxi] H. Alvare, “Open your eyes, pro-life feminists are everywhere,” CNN Opinion, May 23, 2018, at

[xxxii] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II q. 96 a.4; Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” August 1963, at 3;

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