“Culture of life” is a term Blessed John Paul II made prominent in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The Pope wanted to highlight the civilizational struggle afoot between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” the latter understood as a quality-of-life ethic that eventually kills those deemed to have a “poor quality” of life. In contrast to a sanctity-of-life ethic, which regards every human life as sacred, a quality-of-life ethic decides that some lives (usually other people’s) just are not worth living.
Although John Paul showcased the “culture of life” 16 years ago, another writer was talking about it 160 years ago, and a film director was depicting it 65 years ago. The book and the film are favorite American Christmas classics. John Paul, meet Charles Dickens and Frank Capra.
Dickens’ Christmas Carol is popular today with children, but when he wrote it in 1843, Dickens addressed it to adults, too. Carol is a polemical work: Dickens was sparring with the laissez-faire capitalists whose influence in industrializing Britain sought to limit concern for the poor to running poor houses and treadmills. But Dickens was not only taking on Adam Smith. His other target was Thomas Malthus.
Malthus, the intellectual granddaddy of zero population growth, had argued that population increase would inevitably lead to disaster. Of course, it’s only a short step from “there was concern about population growth” to there was concern about “growth in populations we don’t want to have too many of.”
Scrooge gives voice to the elite opinion of his day when, dismissing the businessmen who come to his office seeking charitable contributions, he opines that those who would rather die than go to a poorhouse “had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge exhibits at least some degree of humanity when faced with the crippled Tiny Tim: He pleads for the boy’s life. (In today’s world, some bioethicist would solemnly pontificate that Tiny Tim’s “quality of life” justifies euthanasia.) Despite that glimmer of tenderness, the Ghost of Christmas Present throws Scrooge’s words back at him: “What then, if he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Dickens writes that Scrooge “hung his head with penitence and grief.” Today that ghost would be dismissed as “judgmental” and “extremist.”
The Ghost comments: “If man you be in heart, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.” Just consider the spiritual message they embody. Aware of our own limits and sinfulness, God’s gift of life should elicit in us a sense of wonder, awe and solidarity, especially with the least of our brothers. How often today those least — unborn babies, handicapped newborns, incapacitated elderly, the terminally ill — elicit not our solidarity but our spleen? Can’t they just go away and stop burdening us? Stop driving up health-care costs? Stop futilely consuming limited medical resources?
In Carol, a child is the catalyst of conversion. And Scrooge’s conversion is incomplete until he embraces that child, discovering his own spiritual paternity (“to Tiny Tim he was a second father”). The 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson recognized this when he spoke of “generativity” — taking responsibility for the next generation — as one of the highest stages of human maturity.
The same message appears in another holiday classic, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. What makes George Bailey so special is really mundane: He’s a good husband and father. (How many young women today ask, “Where are all the good guys?”) Bailey’s salvation also comes through them: It’s the vision of his beloved Mary as an old maid and the return of Zuzu’s petals that disabuses George of his self-indulgent despair (“I wish I’d never been born” ) and finds him praying on the bridge, “Please God, let me live again.”
The film’s pro-life message is present from the very start. When a heavenly voice summons Clarence, the childlike guardian angel, to save George, the message is clear: “At exactly 10:45pm, earth time, that man will be thinking seriously of throwing away God’s greatest gift.” Notice he doesn’t say George Bailey’s life — something that’s his — is at risk. It’s “God’s greatest gift” — something that’s His — which is at stake. Clarence makes the same point humorously when everybody is drying out in the bridge keeper’s hut after George fished Clarence out of the river. When Clarence chides George for wanting to kill himself for an insurance policy, the bridge keeper cuts in: “It’s against the law to commit suicide around here.” “It’s against the law where I come from, too,” adds Clarence. “Where do you come from?” he asks. “Heaven.”
Capra shows George Bailey’s foolishness is thinking he could so fathom the true meaning of so great a gift of God’s as his life as to dare pronounce “I suppose it would be better if I was never born at all.” It’s a sad commentary on our “progress” when, last year, The New York Times feted a book of the contemporary South African philosopher David Benatar. His Better Never to Have Been argues that anytime anybody becomes a parent, he does his child an incalculable harm by bringing him into a world of suffering. Benatar even argues that the progressive extermination of mankind would benefit not just the earth and environment, but even man himself. One really hopes Clarence wings his way to Cape Town.
So, the next time you read the book or sit down to watch George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Jimmy Stewart or even Mr. Magoo play some of your most memorable Christmas figures, think about the pro-life messages. And use them to spread the gospel of life.
John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.