The Gospel of Life

Author: Richard John Neuhaus

For those who do not read the Wall Street Journal, Richard John Neuhaus's editorial page review of Pope John Paul II's "Evangelium Vitae" follows. (1350 words, approx. 4 pages), Monday April 3, 1995


by Richard John Neuhaus

Any thought that public attention to abortion and related "life" questions might fade away was firmly contradicted by a new papal encyclical last week, "Evangelium Vitae" (The Gospel of Life). In it, Pope John Paul II unequivocally condemns abortion and euthanasia, and sharply challenges those who are part of the "network of complicity" that supports such "crimes against humanity." By addressing himself to "all people of good will" and declaring that he speaks on the basis of the written word of God, the Pope leaves not a shadow of doubt that the relevant teaching is unchangeable and binding upon all Catholics.

Abortion, euthanasia, and related practices are, according to the encyclical, a lethal assault against the very idea of human rights, and destroy the moral foundation of democratic governance. Laws which permit or legitimize the killing of innocent human beings are unjust, invalid and devoid of moral authority. Public officials responsible for such laws cannot claim the need to separate their private conscience from their public actions, nor can they plead the pressure of public opinion. In addition, the encyclical contends that international organizations, as well as some governments and foundations, are actively promoting a "culture of death" that, by pitting the strong against the weak and by turning crimes into "rights," would have us "revert to a state of barbarism which one hoped had been left behind forever."

Stated so starkly, such assertions may give the impression that "Evangelium Vitae" is an unremitting polemic, which it is not. This 190 page document argues that, at the end of the 20th century, the great achievements of democracy and human rights are being undone by a perverse and pervasive notion of freedom that has broken its tether to moral truth.

As the foundations of secular humanism have crumbled under the assaults of multiculturalism, moral relativism, and increasingly explicit nihilism, John Paul II proposes nothing less than a new humanism that is at the service of the entire human community. This humanism finds its fullest expression in the revelation of God in Christ, but it encompasses the entirety of the human project.

In addressing "all people of good will," he suggests that debates about abortion, euthanasia, and related questions are not about sectarian religious doctrine or policy options in the political arena. They are debates about what it means to be human, and about the institutions required to ward off the unremitting attacks upon human dignity. He therefore hopes that the Church's witness will be welcomed also by non-Catholics and those who do not adhere to the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.

That is the context within which "Evangelium Vitae" addresses a host of specific policies and practices, Three specific declarations are attended by the invocation of the Church's highest teaching authority. First, "the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral." Second, "Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder." Third, "Euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God."

These truths are unchangeable, beyond legitimate debate, and binding upon all who would adhere to the truth of revelation, reason, and natural law. Since there is widespread confusion about what is meant by euthanasia, a definition is offered: "Euthanasia in the strict sense is understood to be an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering."

Other specifics addressed include: embryo research, the rights of the physically and mentally handicapped, techniques of artificial reproduction, an d the need for policies favoring adoption, the moral corruption of the medical profession, the temptation of eugenics, illegitimate means of population control, and capital punishment. In each instance, the Pope brings the argument back to the first of the above declarations, "The direct and voluntary killing of innocent human being is always gravely immoral."

While those convicted of capital crimes are not innocent, capital punishment should be, in the judgment of John Paul, severely restricted. The "extreme" of execution should be limited to "cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society." In developed societies, he says, "such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

In an extended reflection on the connection between moral law and civil law, John Paul sharply challenges public officials who say that, whatever their conscientious convictions, they have no right to "impose their values" upon others. This, he contends, is an abdication of personal and public responsibility. In a democracy, officials are elected to exercise their best judgment, including their best moral judgment.

Nor can immoral laws be justified by appeal to popular support. In that connection, he cites papal condemnations of the violation of fundamental human rights by the Third Reich when that regime certainly had the popular support of the German people. But, because in a free society civil law cannot legislate everything required by moral law, John Paul recognizes the legitimacy of political compromise. For instance, while working for protective laws that embrace all unborn children, a legislator may legitimately support policies that limit the incidence of abortion.

In a pastoral and personally moving passage of "Evangelium Vitae," John Paul addresses directly women who have had abortions. He emphasizes the pressures, fears and personal circumstances that mitigate a woman's subjective responsibility for her action. While procuring or performing an abortion incurs excommunication, the purpose of excommunication is conversion and reconciliation with the Church. There is always forgiveness and the grace to begin anew, and he urges such women to redeem their experience by becoming leaders in the defense of the unborn and other vulnerable human beings. This passage will no doubt resonate strongly with the pro-life movement in this country, where women who have had abortions figure prominently in the leadership.

Among the most effective sections of the encyclical is an extensive statement of reasons advanced for euthanasia, suicide and assisted suicide. The proponents of euthanasia and suicide should recognize that their case has been fairly, even persuasively, presented. All the more compelling, therefore, are John Paul's counter-arguments that to legitimize killing at the end of life undercuts the value of life all along the way. The result is to imperil lives of the sick and handicapped who are not dying but who cannot meet the criteria of a "quality of life" as defined by the strong and healthy.

Here, too, John Paul makes clear that respect for life does not require using every medical means available to postpone death. While some will find deep spiritual meaning in suffering that is offered to God in union with the suffering of Christ, the use of palliatives is entirely legitimate, including drugs that may run the risk of shortening life. What is always wrong is the direct and intentional killing. The message of "Evangelium Vitae" is: always care, never kill.

Stylistically, the encyclical is at points disjointed and repetitious. It is not always easy reading. Those who do read it may still want to argue with some specifics of practical judgment. The import of the document, however, is a historic and solemn warning that, at the edge of the Third Mille nnium, we are, willy-nilly, dismantling the greatest achievements of our civilizational story. The debate about abortion, euthanasia and related questions is, in fact, a debate about what makes and keeps life human. The fr ee society is not a machine that runs of itself. Freedom divorced from moral truth is the death of freedom.

There is much that is positive and hopeful in "Evangelium Vitae," but the substance is relentlessly sobering. Our historical moment is marked by mortal conflict between the "culture of death" and the "culture of life."

While we have God's word that life will ultimately prevail, an uncompromisingly honest reading of the signs of the times suggests that the culture of death is gaining the upper hand. Evangelium means Gospel, and Gospel means "good news." "Evangelium Vitae" is good news for those who have come to terms with the bad news.