St. John Paul II introduced the terms “culture of life” and “culture of death” into Catholic parlance in the 1990s. He spoke of the “culture of life” when he attended the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, whose theme was “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full.” He introduced the terms into the Church’s Magisterium in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae. 

The theme of the culture of life and the culture of death is very prominent in the readings for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 1, 2018). The First Reading opens bluntly with the statement: “God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).

It’s quite appropriate that we happen to encounter these readings on the Sunday of the week during which Independence Day falls. The two are highly apposite. It’s also appropriate they fall during the period the Church in the United States marks as the “Fortnight for Freedom,” intended to highlight religious freedom and the contemporary assaults upon it in the United States. It is also fitting in the month we shall observe the 50th anniversary “Of Human Life” (Humanae vitae).

“Culture” is an important word. George Weigel has rightly maintained that, in contrast to many strains of modern thought, St. John Paul II recognized the primacy of culture over politics and economics. People’s behavior and, thus, historical change is largely driven over time not by politics or economics but by culture, by the collection of ideas, ideals, norms, and values that drive a community. 

It’s critical to understand “culture” when we speak of a “culture of life.” The “culture of life” is not about the politics of abortion, the funding of Planned Parenthood, the legality of euthanasia, or the popularity of reproductive technologies—although all those issues are important and, so to speak, the life “rubber hits the road” in what we do about each of them. 

But, as recent events about abortion in Ireland demonstrated, no legal protection of life will long survive if the underlying culture no longer values what the law seeks to protect. Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, protecting unborn life, was enacted in 1983 and was repealed by popular referendum in 2018. It lasted 35 years. 

On July 4, Americans will also solemnly affirm their faith in the Declaration of Independence, which clearly states certain things about the value of life that are not necessarily held broadly by Americans. Do Americans still broadly affirm as “a self-evident truth” that people have “inalienable rights?” Do they include among those inalienable rights “life”? Do we really believe that the inalienable right to life comes not from a law but are “endowed by [the] Creator?” Do we believe that all men are “created” (not born, “created) equal?

Once upon a time, we did. The question is: do we still?

There can be no doubt that the corrosive acid of Roe et al. v. Wade continues to warp the American heritage, because a decision based on the rickety scaffolding of Roe’s pseudo-science is bound to collide with reality. We claim a commitment to “the inalienable right to life” but we pretend that we cannot know when life begins. The one restraint on a totally relativistic notion of when life begins is the Fourteenth Amendment: it forces American law at least to protect post-natal life. Absent that constitutional redline, I have no doubt that we might be even more tolerant of post-birth killing, particularly of the disabled.

Consider, after the legal casuistry needed to defend Roe’s license for abortion-on-demand up until birth (as exemplified in the debate over “partial birth abortion”) and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee against deprivation of life after birth “without due process of law.” To ensure that the Fourteenth Amendment doesn’t come into play, it’s necessary to kill the unborn child before he’s born. So, late term abortions are usually performed first by administering a lethal dose of digoxin to the fetus to cause a heart attack, followed then by removal of the dead body. You can’t kill what we pretend isn’t alive, yet by killing what “is not alive” you avoid the living complications the Fourteenth Amendment imposes. If your back aches from those mental gymnastics, don’t become a federal judge.

The real dishonesty about Roe, in its feigned agnosticism about when life begins, is that it thereby undermines the very foundations of American law and culture. The Declaration of Independence, as the brainchild of 18th century Americans steeped in British social contract and Enlightenment thought, is constructed on one basic foundation: a government’s legitimacy rests on its protection of “inalienable rights.” 

Jefferson et al. needed an intellectual basis to justify their Revolution. They could have been blunt pragmatists and invoked the opposite side of Benjamin Franklin’s definition of “treason,” expressed in the movie 1776: “Treason is an excuse for the winners to hang the losers.” One could say that the only justification for the American Revolution was – the Americans got away with it!

But the Founding Fathers were intellectually honest enough to say that “might does not make right,” and so there should be some principle upon which they might hang their “lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” (or from which they might simply hang). That principle, that justification for revolution lay in the premise that when a government becomes so destructive of basic, self-evident, inalienable rights – like life – it begins to forfeit its claim to rule.

And that’s what I find so intellectually dishonest about Roe. When Harry Blackmun puerilely states “we need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” The American Founding rests precisely on a denial of Blackmun’s claim. A government’s first responsibility is to protect “inalienable rights,” including “life.” A government that pretends it cannot know when its fundamental duty comes into play is a government that is derelict in its first responsibility. 

Even as extreme a thinker as Thomas Hobbes (who accepted the ancient Latin adage, homo homini lupus) insisted that men enter his totalitarian social contract precisely to escape the biggest and strongest of them killing everybody else. Even in the Hobbsean world, citizens hand over power to the sovereign so that at least their basic right to life is protected. 

But to appreciate all this requires beneath it a “culture” that regards life as sacred. As the editorialist in the famous 1970 California Medicine put it, “It will become necessary and acceptable to place relative rather than absolute values on such things as human lives, the use of scarce resources, and the various elements which are to make up the quality of life or of living which is to be sought.” We still coast on the fumes left over from a “sanctity of life” ethic, but the vultures of a “quality of life” ethic gather … and wait.

For Catholics, the readings of the Thirteenth Sunday should shape our outlook, because they are uncompromising. Life is good. Death is bad. “God did not make death” writes the Sapiential writer. Although it is not in the Sunday’s readings, the rest of the Christian answer is in I Corinthians 15:26: “the last enemy is death.” Death is not neutral; it is not of ambiguous value; it is not sometimes useful. It isthe enemy. 

Once upon a time, Hippocratic doctors swore to fight that enemy. But that was once upon a time.

What is also especially telling about the First Reading on the Thirteenth Sunday is that it comes from Wisdom. Wisdom was the last book of the Old Testament to be written, hardly a century before the birth of Christ. And yet it was also the Book in which the Old Testament finally arrived at some clearer understanding of life after death. 

For much of the Old Testament, the concept of life continuing after death is blurry, undeveloped, and inchoate. In contrast to pagan Antiquity, where some ideas of personal immortality existed (e.g., in ancient Greece, assuming that so universal an aspiration for post-mortem survival cannot be an all-encompassing illusion and a world in which good and evil remain distinct cannot end with everybody going down into nothing), Israel arrived at the notion of life after death from a slightly different perspective. Life must continue because there is such a thing as love, and death cannot be stronger than love (see Song of Songs, 8:6). Of course, the Christian message affirms that on Easter Sunday.

Death is bad. Life is good. It is good because it is a gift, the gift of a loving God. And God does not take His gifts back, even if we spurn them. He does not take life back, even if we kill it. God gives life and, once He gives it, that living being will exist before the face of God forever. “God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.” 

The question is: why do we?