What the Pope Means by 'Unconditionally Pro-Life'

On his recent visit to St. Louis, Pope John Paul made quite a splash even among the secular media with his successful appeal for clemency to death row inmate Darrell Mease. On the morning after the Pope's departure, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan signed the order that commuted Mease's death sentence to life in prison without parole. Governor Carnahan cited John Paul's plea for mercy as the motive behind his decision, and said that the Pope's personal interest in the individual “moved me very greatly.”

Yet the Pope made very clear that opposition to the death penalty is of a piece with a full pro-life package. “The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life,” the Pope announced, “who will proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life in every situation.” And to exemplify this position, John Paul pointed to growing awareness of the dignity of human life “even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”

John Paul's vision of a culture of life goes further still. “To choose life,” he explained, “involves rejecting every form of violence.” Included under the heading of violence the Pope places poverty and hunger, armed conflict, anti-personnel mines, drug trafficking, racism, and reckless damage to the natural environment.

Some have seen in John Paul's encompassing campaign for life a blurring of differences among various life issues. Such would be the case, for instance, between abortion and capital punishment. Writing for the National Catholic Reporter, publisher Tom Fox states that in St. Louis John Paul “ended any distinction between ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ life by insisting that ‘life must never be taken, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.’” Fox further wonders aloud at U.S. Bishops' emphasis on abortion, since “the moral principle underpinning both positions is identical.”

Has the Pope indeed done away with any distinction between “innocent” and “guilty” life? By lumping together sundry expressions of contempt for human life, does the Pope intend to posit moral equivalence among them? Is this what John Paul means by the expression “unconditionally pro-life”?

In his final 1998 ad limina address to the American Bishops, Pope John Paul commented approvingly on the Church's presence in the public debate on capital punishment, “aware that in the modern state the cases in which the execution of an offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” Nonetheless, the Pope went on to praise the Bishops for underscoring “the priority that must be given to the fundamental right to life of the unborn, and to opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.”

All human life is sacred and all sins against life violate the same basic moral principle, but the Church has consistently stressed the absolute inviolability of innocent human life. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, for instance, Pope John Paul writes the following: “If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has an absolute value when it refers to the innocent person” (57).

The National Catholic Conference of Bishops, too, in its November 1998 statement Living the Gospel of Life, differentiates among different life issues. The document speaks of the Church's adoption of a consistent ethics of life, and urges Catholics to “eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized” in areas such as war, capital punishment, hunger, employment, education, and health care.

Nevertheless, employing the image of a house, the U.S. Bishops make a hierarchical distinction between these latter issues, which they compare to “the crossbeams and walls” of the house, and abortion and euthanasia, which “strike at the house's foundation.” Unless the foundation is firm, the house is built on sand. Furthermore, recognizing that good people often disagree on which problems to address, which policies to adopt, and how best to apply them, the Bishops offer a fundamental principle of action: “We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life.”

On a practical level, as well, a distinction must be drawn between strategy and goals. The goal of an army is to win the war, but it doesn't run helter-skelter into battle engaging the enemy on all fronts simultaneously. An effective army carefully chooses where to concentrate its firepower — not because these are the only points that matter, but because they offer it an important tactical advantage. Catholic Christians strive to promote a culture of life, but to achieve this goal certain bastions of the culture of death bear a greater strategic importance and must be given precedence. Similar prudential thinking underlies recent efforts to legislate a ban on partial birth abortion. All abortion is gravely wrong, but particularly savage methods more readily stir the public conscience. Often progress must be made in stages.

In St. Matthew's Gospel we find Jesus summoning his followers to a higher standard than they were used to. He enjoins them to avoid not only the more egregious offenses against God's law, but also the subtle, even internal, transgressions. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’…. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Christ clearly does not mean to put verbal insults on a par with murder, but rather to show that both offend God and are to be avoided. He calls his disciples to moral consistency, to be “unconditionally” loving and faithful, without homogenizing all infractions of the Law as if there were no difference in gravity among them.

Similarly, Pope John Paul is calling on Catholics to fully embrace the culture of life, in all its facets. “The time has come,” he declares, “to banish once and for all from the continent every attack against life.” To be unconditionally pro-life is not to cease to distinguish between one issue and another, but to stand solidly on the side of life on all issues, regardless of legitimate distinctions.

Father Thomas Williams is rector of the general directorate of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.