BOSTON — Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston can still recall the excitement he felt when Pope John Paul II asked bishops across the world to forward ideas to him for his new encyclical on life issues.
Back in the early 1990s, then-Bishop O’Malley of the Virgin Islands was thrilled just to receive a letter from the pope soliciting the thoughts.
But the stir of emotions was an omen of things to come, for the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) would be a high-impact document that offered a robust framework for the renewal of Catholic moral teaching and the Church’s engagement with mainstream culture.
U.S. presidents, bishops and pro-life activists have cited the pope’s warning of an emerging “culture of death” that is blind to the innate dignity and divine origin of every human person made in the Creator’s image and redeemed by his Son. In Rome, a prayer vigil at the papal Basilica of St. Mary Major on March 24, sponsored by the Pontifical Council on the Family, offered thanksgiving for the groundbreaking papal document.
“I love this document and often refer to it when I give pro-life talks or prepare a homily. It is one of the most important writings of Pope John Paul II,” Cardinal O’Malley told the Register.
“After the legalization of abortion in the U.S. and elsewhere, there was a great deal of confusion. Evangelium Vitae clarified that Church teaching on abortion is part and parcel of our ordinary and universal magisterium.”
He noted that Pope Francis has echoed many of these themes, as he calls on the faithful to reject a “throwaway culture” that discards the elderly and ignores the plight of immigrants forced to leave their homes to find work in foreign lands.
Cardinal O’Malley, who is a member of Pope Francis' Council of Cardinal Advisers, suggested that the themes in Evangelium Vitae will also surface in the pontiff's upcoming encyclical on the environment, which is expected to be issued this spring.
“If the Church is absent from the conversation on the environment, it very quickly degenerates into an argument on population control. The Holy Father will make a pro-life contribution.”
Dignity of the Human Person
In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul condemns abortion, euthanasia and reproductive technologies and states that capital punishment is almost never justified.
But he does not present these teachings as a list of moral obligations. Rather, he anchors these precepts in Scripture and in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, who reveals the divine origin and full dignity of the human person.
Further, the encyclical warns its audience that things are not what they seem: What was once evil is now seen as a social good in modern culture, as men and women drift away from God and demand the freedom — more often, the license — to choose what they want.
The resulting appeal of legal abortion and euthanasia is “the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed,” states the encyclical.
Sins committed by individual men and women are at the heart of this culture of death, as the normalization of immoral choices results in the erection of sinful structures that impose the will of the powerful on the weak in both domestic and international affairs.
“In this way, democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The state is no longer the ‘common home’ where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant state” (20).
Just as John Paul exhorted his fellow Poles to take personal responsibility for the creation of a free society after decades of Soviet rule, so he calls on the faithful in every corner of the world to change the pattern of their own lives if they wish to overcome injustice.
Wake-Up Call for the West
Evangelium Vitae is the Polish pope’s wake-up call for the West, which is in danger of forgetting the painful lessons of the 20th century, especially the brutal legacy of atheist, materialist ideologies that established death camps and gulags.
“John Paul II’s wartime experiences and his years of living under a communist regime had taught him that late modernity had a kind of ‘culture of death’ built into it,” George Weigel, the author of two biographies of John Paul II, told the Register.
“His suggestion that the West was also vulnerable to this death-dealing was regarded as an exaggeration by some when Evangelium Vitae was issued; no sane person denies the late pope’s insight today.”
But Ania Dadak, whose parents were friends and collaborators with the pope from the time of his early priesthood, believes his unique personality and prayer life make this document a compelling testimony to the sanctity of human life.
“His character was deeply religious, with a contemplative prayer life, so it is hard to say” whether his insights were a direct response to the tragic events that unfolded in his homeland, Dadak told the Register. “From the very beginning, he had a great respect for the human person.”
“This was not a secular understanding of human rights; it was always much deeper. He came to really define it and put it into his teaching,” said Dadak.
In Evangelium Vitae, the pope presents the rise of legal abortion as a symptom of moral confusion: People are losing the ability to distinguish between good and evil in modern life.
And he states that those who promote euthanasia “value life only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being,” while “suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which one must be freed at all costs” (64).
This inability to accept the reality of human suffering and the need to accompany those in distress, states the encyclical, is “one of the more alarming symptoms of the ‘culture of death’ ... marked by an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency and which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome.”
Part of the American Lexicon
The language of the pope’s cultural analysis was soon adopted by pro-life leaders and became part of the national lexicon. President George W. Bush frequently cited the terms “culture of life” and “culture of death” in policy statements on related issues.
Within the Church, the encyclical was seen as a rebuke to self-identified Catholic politicians who endorsed abortion rights but said their voting records were in line with the Church’s endorsement of legislation aiding the poor.
The document’s holistic vision of a Christ-centered gospel of life prompted comparisons with the “seamless garment” position, outlined earlier by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, which gave equal weight to a range of moral and social teachings.
“To me, it has always seemed that Evangelium Vitae was the real expression of the ‘seamless garment,’” Robert Royal, an author who edits The Catholic Thing website, told the Register. “Here in America [the idea of a] seamless garment essentially made it possible for people to vote for pro-abortion public figures if they were ‘good’ on other social issues.”
“Evangelium Vitae did things differently. It made clear that there is a whole gamut of threats to human life from conception — and even prior, in the possible re-engineering of the human genome — until death,” said Royal. “It also made clear that the many other life issues, such as prostitution, human trafficking and the drug trade, flowed from that fundamental vision.”
“But the easier public questions could not trump or obscure the things the Church alone says,” added Royal.
Renewal of Moral Theology
The encyclical fired a warning shot across the bow of Western culture, but it also offered a template for the renewal of Catholic moral theology.
Following the lead of the Second Vatican Council, John Paul illumined the rich scriptural foundations of Catholic moral doctrine and incorporated passages from both the Old and New Testament, beginning with Abel’s murder by his brother, Cain.
“Catholic moral teaching before the Second Vatican Council had become focused on the category of law: What are the relevant moral laws? How do they oblige us, and when do we have room to follow our own human freedom?” John Grabowski, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. “That very legalistic, narrow conception of morality is rightly challenged by the Council.”
“In its ‘Decree on Priestly Formation,’ the Council called for a renewal of moral theology, and this encyclical embodies what that should look like,” Grabowski added.
“Instead of offering a definition of moral theology on the basis of natural law, it does so on the basis of Scripture, which has enormous ecumenical potential, and through the mystery and Person of Jesus Christ.”
As Grabowski tells it, the encyclical also effectively addressed the simmering debate on the definitive nature of papal teaching that had reached a full boil after Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) in 1968.
“It is enormously significant that, in Evangelium Vitae, John Paul makes a solemn statement that applies to direct abortion and another that applies to euthanasia.”
“The language is deliberately solemn — I would say definitive, though some disagree,” Grabowski concluded.
“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors, in communion with the bishops — who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine — 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,” states Evangelium Vitae (62).
Today, that “solemn” pronouncement still inspires Church leaders like Cardinal O’Malley, who serves as the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, to fight for the unborn, the elderly and the disabled and to speak out against the death penalty.
Cardinal O’Malley noted that John Paul’s teaching on a range of issues, from capital punishment to euthanasia, affirms the Church’s unequivocal witness to the sacredness of all human life.
“His statements on capital punishment were a sea change for Catholics. He points out that the justification for capital punishment is tied to our teaching on self-defense, and yet, in today’s world, you can protect society without going to this extreme,” said Cardinal O’Malley, during a time when Catholic leaders have pressed the U.S. Supreme Court to bar the practice.
“The teaching on euthanasia is of paramount importance, as it is going to be one of our greatest ethical challenges,” he said, “particularly in light of the suicide of Brittany Maynard that has generated more support for physician-assisted suicide.
“For Catholics, clarity on end-of-life issues is of great importance, and this encyclical is a starting point.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.