Any discussion of Catholic morals and ethics must begin with a proper foundation based upon the intrinsic worth of the human person. His Holiness John Paul II (1978-2006) began his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, in just that way. Christian anthropology teaches us that all men and women have intrinsic value and worth due to the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We are called to live our lives in imitation of the Holy Trinity, a Divine relationship of Persons, and therefore mankind is relational, by nature. After laying the foundation, Pope John Paul II made reference to the various threats against human life.
Chapter One deals with these various present-day threats against human life. The Pope began by referring to the story of Cain and Abel as told in the fourth chapter of Book of Genesis. For a reason known only to God Himself, Abel’s offering to God of the firstling of his sheep was preferred to Cain’s offering of the first fruits of the earth. As a result, Cain becomes jealous of Abel and subsequently murdered him. Following the murder the Lord asked Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Cain answered, “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) The answer to Cain’s question, according to Pope John Paul II’s teaching is “yes”! From the beginning of Creation mankind was called to relationship. God Himself said, “It is not good that the man should be alone, I will make him a helpmate fitting for him” (Gen. 2:18). Cain’s actions severed the relationship between him and his brother, for which Cain was forced to roam the earth until natural death. The Pope made reference to the modern day threats to human relationships when he spoke of the attacks against defenseless human life through such means as abortion, immoral experimentation on human embryos, and euthanasia. For the first time in his writings, His Holiness referred to this present day environment as the “culture of death”. He spoke of the fact that this “culture of death” can be traced back to the perverse idea of human freedom which has no objective standard of good and makes no reference to truth. This perverse idea of freedom leads to a sense of individualism which fails to take into consideration one’s natural calling to relationship. As a result of this overall attitude, mankind’s intrinsic self-worth is never considered. A practical materialism is also associated with this “culture of death”. This materialism gives more priority to having than being and people begin to be appreciated for nothing more than their utility. Once a person is no longer seen as a productive member of society, he or she is to bw discarded.
Suffering is seen as having absolutely no value and sacrifice for others is unjustified. The underlying cause of all of this is a loss of the sense of God; however, “When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose a sense of man” (#21). The Pope placed these threats in their proper historical context by referring to the story of Cain and Abel mentioned above. Through his references to the story of Pharaoh ordering the killing the newborn males of all Hebrew women and King Herod’s order that all male children in Bethlehem be killed (Mt. 2:16), the Pope shows that human life, especially when weak and defenseless, has always been threatened by the forces of evil throughout history. God’s call to the Jewish people is heard clearly and powerfully in our time by those who are willing to follow His voice. God said, “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…Therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live (Dt. 30:15,19).
Life is good because it is a gift from God the Creator who breathed into man the Divine breath, thus the human being is the image of God according to Pope John Paul II. This is the subject of chapter two. “The Gospel of life is something concrete and personal, for it consists in the proclamation of the very person of Jesus” (#29). As St. Paul stated in his Second Letter to Timothy, it was “our Savior Christ Jesus who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). The very fact that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would choose to take on human flesh and become a man like us in all things but sin proves that human life has intrinsic value and is a gift from God. “Truly great must be the value of human life if the Son of God has taken it up and made it the instrument of salvation and humanity”(#33). While our sins, both individual and collective, darken life by threatening it with death and causing us to question its nature as a gift, redemption, achieved through birth, suffering, death, and resurrection of Our Lord, redeems its worth and lifts it up in the prospect of eternal life.
While our human dignity is clear because of its origin, it is even clearer because of our destiny. Our earthly life opens for us the prospect of eternal life with God. Our sharing in the Divine eternal life comes about as a result of our self-giving love of God and neighbor in our earthly life. Once again, it is based upon relationships. As Our Lord said, “For whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mt. 8:35). The martyrs (witnesses) freely gave their lives out of love, showing that our earthly existence is not something absolute to which we should to at all costs. ‘No one; however, can arbitrarily choose whether to live or to die, the absolute master of such a decision is the Creator alone, in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28)” (#47).
The Pope begins chapter three by speaking about the fact that life is a precious and fragile gift from God which is entrusted to man’s responsibility. Life is sacred from conception until natural death. Human life is under the protection of God and man is not in a position to dispose of life at his or her whim. Through acts such as abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia mankind has attempted to usurp God’s role and thereby determine who will live and who will die. The Divine power over life and death can be seen in Jesus’ dialogue with Pontius Pilate. Pilate asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” Jesus gives no reply. Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? DO you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it has been given to you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin” (Jn. 19:9-11). The encyclical declares that “the direct and voluntary taking of all innocent human life is always gravely immoral” (#57). The Pope made reference to the fact that such factors as pressures from family, living conditions, and social environment are involved in making serious choices against life which diminish the moral responsibility of the person making such decisions; however, the actions are still sinful.
Chapter four deals with the issue of life as a task to be promoted. Pope John Paul II states that the “Gospel of life” is at the heart of the evangelizing mission of the Church. The Church, referred to as the “people of life”, has the task of proclaiming, celebrating, and serving life. It is through works of charity that the Christian fulfills his or her mission on behalf of life. Charity invites us “to show care for all life and for the life of everyone” (#87). This beautiful and extremely important papal document closes with an appeal to the Blessed Virgin, the “mother of life”. The Church finds its greatest hope in the mutual relationship between the motherhood of Mary and her own motherhood toward all men and women.
The section which impacted me the most was the Pope’s discussion regarding the death penalty. For many years I was a supporter and proponent of the death penalty, including petitioning the New York State Legislature to make it legal once again. This issue came to the foreground for me in 1992 as the New York State Right to Life Party candidate for the 15th Assembly District. At the time I had made a clear distinction, in my own mind, between the taking of an innocent human life and the just punishment of a convicted murderer. The Pope states that “the problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society” (#56).
At the time I had given no consideration to the intrinsic worth and dignity of someone convicted of murder. It is quite easy to be a supporter of the death penalty when the convicted criminal is referred to as “an animal”; however, it is not as easy when one considers that such a person has as much dignity and value in God’s eyes as anyone else does. The statement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church helped me to realize that if I truly believe in the sanctity of human life I can no longer support the death penalty. The Catechism states, “if bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (CCC #2267).