Evangelium Vitae

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Pope john paul ii's eleventh encyclical letter, "The Gospel of Life," issued on the feast of the annunciation, March 25, 1995. In 1991 an extraordinary consistory of the college of cardinals met to discuss "threats to human life in our day." The cardinals asked the pope to affirm the "value of human life and its inviolability" with the authority of the Successor of Peter. To this end, the Holy Father wrote a personal letter to each bishop, asking him to cooperate in the development of this encyclical. Evangelium vitae appeals to "each and every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life" (5).

The encyclical unfolds in four chapters. Chapter one, "Present-Day Threats to Human Life," is an indictment of the growing "culture of death." By applying the story of Cain and Abel to the present-day situation, the pope shows that the fratricidal urge to take the lives of others lies at the heart of abortion and euthanasia, and of other deadly trends, such as the arms race. He shows how the exaggerated and even perverse claims of freedom from constraints in these areas are identical with Cain's self-serving question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Underlying these claims is a mentality that "carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme": the self no longer recognizes the equal rights of other selves, especially those less able to defend themselves. The state, even in democratic countries, risks being subverted by such claims and becoming the tool of the strong, to be used against the weak. The "sense of God" is diminishing, along with the sense of human solidarity. The result is a "practical materialism," in which suffering has no value. What is needed is a "civilization of love and life," which cannot exist without self-sacrifice. The Church summons all people to "choose to be unconditionally pro-life," in the name of the Risen Christ, whose "blood speaks more eloquently than that of Abel."

Chapter two, "The Christian Message Concerning Life," is a meditation on the proclamation that in Jesus Christ, good is powerful enough to triumph over evil. His death, freely accepted, resulted in new life for himself and for those who believe in him. The biblical teaching on life, from the creation of the world through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, reveals its triumphant value, without diminishing the central Christian irony that "life finds its center, its meaning and its fulfillment when it is given up."

Chapter three, "God's Holy Law," is a reflection on the Fifth Commandment, especially as it regards the death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia. The pope sets out the limits of self-defense for individuals and the state and questions the use of the death penalty: punishment "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent." If such is the case with regard to the guilty, how much more care should be taken to protect the lives of the innocent? By "the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral." The acceptance of abortion, in many areas, "in the popular mind, in behavior and even in law itself," is a "telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis in the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil." Considering it more necessary than ever to "to call things by their proper names," the pope, using the words of Gaudium et spes 51, calls abortion and infanticide "unspeakable crimes." He then reflects in some detail on the innocent victim of abortion, the child, already conceived and genetically distinct and whole. He also considers those involved in the decision to terminate the child's life, including the mother, father, doctor, nurses, and those legislatures that have legalized this "unspeakable crime" in many countries. At the other end of life's spectrum lies the question of euthanasia, "an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering." The pope condemns euthanasia as "senseless and inhumane," although it is often presented as "logical and humane." Another symptom of the culture of death, euthanasia is "a grave violation of the law of God." At the same time, the pope upholds the Church's traditional teaching that one may decide to forego "aggressive medical treatment" (extraordinary means) that "would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life," which he has elsewhere called a "prolongation of dying."

Chapter four, "For a New Culture of Human Life," is an outline of the "culture of life" based on Matthew 25: "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." It outlines how the People of God can become a "people of life": by proclaiming, celebrating, and serving the gospel of life, by making Christian families "sanctuaries of life," and by bringing about a "transformation of culture." Such a transformation calls for a "general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life." This gospel of life is for the whole human family; Mary and the Church are revealed as "mothers," that is, bearers of life; and although the forces of evil may menace life, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ means that, ultimately, "death shall be no more."

Bibliography: For the text of Evangelium vitae, see: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 87 (1995): 401522 (Latin); Origins 24, no. 42 (April 6, 1995): 689727 (English); The Pope Speaks 40 (1995): 199281 (English). For a commentary, see: wm. kevin wildes and alan c. mitchell, eds., Choosing Life: A Dialogue on Evangelium Vitae (Washington, D.C. 1997).

[d. clark]

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Evangelium Vitae

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