The following is taken from an editorial featured in Truth to Power: The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk by Andrew Britz, OSB. Titled Gospel of Life, a version of this editorial was originally published in the Prairie Messenger April 19, 1995.
Pope John Paul II, in the most strongly worded encyclical of his pontificate, cries out against the “culture of death” which he sees quickly taking hold of modern society. The powerful in the world, he notes in Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of life), have been able to control modern political processes, thereby in many countries encouraging the state to tyrannically arrogate “to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members.”
The pope, to emphasize this struggle, turns to military language; he notes that this culture of death is “in a certain sense a war of the powerful against the weak.”
Three times in the course of the encyclical Pope John Paul II evokes the full power of his papal office to solemnly reaffirm “teachings that the church has always held.” He declares “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral”; “direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder”; and “euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God.”
Church leaders, in response to the encyclical, have taken up the pope's opening affirmation that these things have always been church teaching, that the pope is not saying anything radically new. Critics have tried to disarm the encyclical by noting that indeed there is nothing new here, that it is what is to be expected of the “conservative tradition that has been identified with the current pope.”
The president of the Canadian bishops’ conference (at that time, Archbishop Francis Spence of Kingston) bristled on hearing this criticism: “Is it conservative to be pro-life? Is it conservative to favour the weakest people in the world against those who are very strong? It's time to fight against the culture of death and have a culture of life.”
On reading the encyclical one notes, however, that it is not as “traditional” as the pope and his critics, both friendly and hostile, maintain.
While the pope centres his argumentation on the two times when human life is most fragile — before birth and when approaching death — he nevertheless sees the struggle for life in much broader terms. Thus Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago rejoices to find the “consistent ethic of life,” which he has always fought for, as the true framework of the encyclical.
Life is threatened, the pope notes, by the violence to “millions of human beings forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources between peoples and social classes.” The violence of war and the “scandalous arms trade” are also high on the pope's list of forces opposing life.
He speaks out so strongly against capital punishment that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) has acknowledged that the corresponding chapter in the new catechism will have to be rewritten. While not denying absolutely the possibility of capital punishment being, in a particular circumstance, legitimate, the pope quickly adds that the conditions necessary for such legitimation are “very rare.” He goes so far as to say that likely these conditions are “non-existent in the modern world.”
The pope, echoing a basic theme of a previous encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The splendor of truth), reminds his readers — not only Catholics but all “people of goodwill” — of the need for absolutes. Life can never be a relative value, and thus he teaches that human political laws which contravene God's law concerning the sacredness of life cannot be binding.
At first sight it would appear that the pope is calling on all who believe in the sanctity of human life to unite and become a major corps of conscientious objectors.
The pope, however, sees the faithful moving in quite another direction. Breaking important new ground in the pro-life struggle, the pope wrote: “In a case . . . when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to a 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.”
Pro-life zealots have at times been known for their all-or-nothing approach. Should a national conference of bishops, for instance, acknowledge that proposed new legislation, though far from perfect, is better than the previous law, they would often be labelled heretics, unfaithful to the Lord and the pope. This encyclical should go a long way in clarifying that.
Ultimately the pro-life battle will be won by changing hearts, not by forcing unwelcome legislation — no matter how perfect it might be — upon an electorate. And changing hearts — changing a culture, to use the pope's language — is never a once-and-for-all event. It is, rather, a gradual process, a moving forward step by step, and thus the pope explicitly acknowledges that often the best thing that can be done in the short haul is to work for a better law. And he asks the people of goodwill whom he addresses in this encyclical to be wary in issuing blanket condemnations.
The pope does not do this even with the women who have chosen to have an abortion. While never reneging on the absolute evil abortion is in our modern world, he calls for understanding of those who have procured an abortion. Citing what he calls mitigating circumstances of economic and psychological anxiety, the pope asks women to trust in God's forgiveness and gives the church the special task of “healing their wounded hearts.”
John Paul speaks about a “network of complicity” that can lead a woman to abortion, including husbands, friends, family members, doctors and legislators. Often, the pope notes, it is the father of the child who is to be blamed, either because he pressures the woman to have an abortion or because he lets her “face the problems of pregnancy alone.” Abortion is often chosen, the pope notes, because of difficult or even tragic situations of suffering, loneliness, the struggle to make ends meet, depression and anxiety about the future.
As the encyclical often points out, the church is called upon to war against the culture of death so evident in abortion. But all is lost if this struggle means that the church is not able, first of all, to convince the woman in pain over an abortion of the sheer mercy of our God.
The struggle against abortion and the whole culture of death may not harden the face of the church. The victory over this culture of death is a matter of conversion, a changing of hearts — something that can never be forced, something that always demands the ultimate in sensitivity and understanding.
Easter calls us to the ultimate in faith. To believe that the corpse hanging between heaven and earth on the cross is really the wellspring of new life prepares us never to panic before the culture of death so pervasive in our society.
People who panic become cold and rigid and try to force their views on others. People who believe in the Gospel of Life are ready to gently touch the souls of their sisters and brothers and give them the courage to change their hearts.
The first call of Evangelium Vitae is to heal a culture, to effect once more the call of Easter: to transform death into life.