Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical 'Evangelium Vitae' - I

Church believes that human life, however weak, is gift from God

by Cardinal A. Lopez Trujillo

President of the Pontifical Council for the Family

The Encyclical Evangelium vitae is a committed reflection on life which has its source and goal in God. it is a gift, it becomes a proclamation and should be defended with faith and reason as belonging to the truth about man and God.

It is a convinced meditation, full of love and mercy, that penetrates to the depths of the heart of humanity and gathers and interprets its deepest aspirations and the rights that spring from man's eminent dignity. It is a "yes" to life! Indeed, it is a hymn to life.

Wherever life is disparaged and rights are trampled upon, tension and division arise. Everywhere today there is a healthy reaction that awakens us from a culture of death in which the moral conscience suffers from a tragic dream that becomes a nightmare. The nightmare of where we are, where we are going, in sick societies; a constant fear for the majority of nations- which, until now, have had no permissive laws-of being subject to manipulation which undermines their traditions, the values they hold sacred and even the very principle of sound coexistence, expressed in laws, codes and constitutions.

Thus the Pope energetically defends man's eminent dignity, his right to live where there is a greater emphasis on the dignity of life.

It is not an Encyclical that should be given a negative or reductive interpretation: it heartens mankind, made in the divine image, to seek the truth that sets free. It is a powerful, liberating voice of love. It is a pressing invitation to be a better person. St Augustine said: "Each is according to the love he has". It is an invitation to pass from a love that has grown cold to ardent responsible love.

Proclaiming life

This Encyclical is a proclamation of the Gospel of life, as its title implies. It is a central proclamation which all of humanity badly needs, because this "Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus' message" (n. 1).

The Holy Father is aware that he has been sent by the Lord of life to proclaim this truth and hope everywhere and to respond faithfully to his mission as a duty, as an evangelical and ethical imperative. This energy comes from God, from contemplating him with a strong and endearing love within a dynamic perspective of mercy which turns first to the countless innocent victims who are everywhere to be found. But there is also a current of mercy that seeks out those, especially mothers who have perpetrated a crime on the fruit of their own womb, so that they may return to God, to truth and peace. Within the framework of St Augustine's thought, expressed in his comment on the episode of the Lord's encounter with the sinful woman, here too we can say that "misera et misericordia" meet and endure, indeed, the depth of God's mercy before the depth of misery, not only regarding women who have abortions, but all humanity forgetful of the basic and excellent gift of life of man called to the fullness of life. "The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase" (n. 2).

It is as though one could touch and palpably feel the quality of the love of the whole Church, which gathers up the cries of many and wants to rekindle the fire of hope: it is possible to prevent this massacre and it Is necessary to sow tirelessly the seed of the culture of life, with respect for that image of God which every man is. The Encyclical itself becomes a joyful but also an anguished proclamation. Joyful because this is the proclamation: "The Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel" (n. 2). It is anguished because in the culture of death God's precious gift is rejected and the proclamation becomes a clear, solemn and urgent denouncement, full of hope. This is an Encyclical that could be equated with the Encyclical Rerum novarum because of its historical significance: thus just as Georges Bernanos commented in his Diary of a Country Priest that he felt the ground tremble beneath his feet, Evangelium vitae is giving the powerful of the earth a similar feeling. In the face of the gigantic challenges and the massacres being perpetrated, the Church had to raise her voice in firm united response. Through the lips of the Successor of Peter, the Lord gives overwhelming expression to this priority throughout the Church. Although complaints and distortions are foreseeable, the positive reaction aroused will be warm and encouraging. And the Holy Father knows very well that the walls of Jericho will fall at his cry of love, as did the giants whose ideology seemed solid and lasting. This is the reason why everywhere hearts are open and well-disposed. In all this, many will recognize an urgent and necessary service to the human family at risk. Those who want to stifle God's word in the depths of their being and in the sanctuary of their conscience are swimming against the tide.

Prophetic cry in defense of the Innocent and weak

In the introduction to Evangelium vitae, the urgent need for the proclamation of the Gospel of life stands out clearly, "because of the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenseless. In addition to the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war, new threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale" (n. 3). And quoting Gaudium et spes (n. 27), it mentions "...any type of murder, genocide, abortion euthanasia or willful self-destruction' (n. 3).

In the first chapter, meditating on Cain's evasive reply "Am I my brother's keeper?" (n. 8), the Holy Father refers to symptoms of "the lack of solidarity towards society's weakest members- such as the elderly, the infirm, immigrants, children-and the indifference frequently found in relations between the world's peoples" (n. 8). The list is accurate, just as the difference is in these texts, between members and persons on the one hand, and peoples on the other.

Not wishing to respond indicates irresponsibility and a lack of solidarity. This was the recurrent appeal in the Encyclicals Sollicitudo rei socialis and Centesimus annus.

This bleak view, in the Holy Father's consideration, becomes a moral protest and historical denouncement, in a tone as severe as that assumed in Berum novarum. This applies not only to the imbalance of social tension, which makes it possible to "speak of a war of the powerful against the weak" (n. 12) (the life of those who need greater acceptance is considered either useless or an intolerable burden. Indeed weak can even be considered an enemy to be resisted or eliminated). "In this way a kind of 'conspiracy against life' is unleashed". The Pope continues: "This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States" (n. 12).

The most powerful and well-armed (such as the giant, Goliath) "continue to invest... enormous sums of money" (n. 13) in abortion and other attacks on life. One is faced by almost unlimited power and coercion and at the same time, there is widespread misery among the poor who are unable to defend themselves. Today it is no longer a secret that thousands of millions of dollars are being invested in the culture of death.

The Holy Father, comparing this war, indeed, these wars and plots against life to the order of the Pharaoh of old to have every newborn male child of Israel slain, comments: "Today not a few of the powerful of the earth act in the same way" (n. 16) with their anti-birth demographic policies. Our era, the Pope continues, has been marked by "a continual taking of innocent human life" (n. 17) and an "objective 'conspiracy against life'". Thus it is running into: "...a surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon..." (n. 18). While affirmations about the protection of human rights are reiterated, the weakest and neediest are rejected. Rights are denied according to "a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way... [thus it]... betrays a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of the 'strong' against the weak..." (n. 19).

Certain political attitudes follow the way of a "substantial totalitarianism", since "the 'right' ceases to be such... [if it is]... made subject to the will of the 'stronger part'" (n. 20). In this way we are confronted with "only the tragic caricature of legality, the democratic ideal... is betrayed in its very foundations" (n. 20).

How can one fail to see the invasion of totalitarianism In the veins of democracy, which pollutes the blood when basic rights are denied, when equality and the ability to participate are rejected and parliaments arbitrarily create different categories of people: those who have the right to live and grow, and those who must suffer a sort of death penalty? It is the adults and those enjoying good health and powerful means who claim the right to impose unjust laws, unfair to the unborn, the sick and the elderly.

Who could deny an unborn child's right to defend himself from an unjust and cruel aggressor, if he had the chance? Another situation is that in which others cannot administer justice which ought to correspond to a legal order and, when the latter does not exist, situations of subjugation should be changed.

"Practical materialism", which the Successor of Peter condemns, seriously impoverishes interpersonal relations. "The criterion of personal dignity - which demands respect, generosity and service-is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness.... This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak" (n. 23).

The positive requirements of the commandment "You shall not kill" are present in the Old Testament, "where legislation dealt with protecting and defending life when it was weak and threatened... With Jesus these positive requirements assume new force and urgency..." (cf. n. 41), overcoming the risk of being merely an "obligation imposed from without" (n. 48) which compels people to seek attenuations or exceptions.

In Evangelium vitae, the weakest, the most innocent are victimized through denial of all kinds. "The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life. No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenseless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defense consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby's cries and tears. The unborn child is totally entrusted to the protection and care of the woman carrying him or her in the womb. And yet sometimes it is precisely the mother herself who makes the decision and asks for the child to be eliminated, and who then goes about having it done" (n. 58).

The weakest and the most innocent continue to be subject to the cruel dictates of the powerful: "Thus the life of the person who is weak is put into the hands of the person who is strong, in society, the sense of justice is lost and mutual trust, the basis of every 'authentic interpersonal relationship, is undermined at its root" (n. 66). This supreme injustice to the weak and innocent is characteristic of the "ethical relativism" that permeates and a conspiracy that has features similar to "tyrannical decision" with regard to "the weakest and most defenseless of human beings". "When a parliamentary or social majority decrees that it is legal, at least under certain conditions, to kill unborn human life, is it not really making a 'tyrannical' decision with regard to the weakest and most defenseless of human beings?" (n. 70). "The legal toleration of abortion or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others, precisely because society has the right and the duty to protect itself against the abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom" (n. 71).

We are facing a powerful, prophetic ethical cry that only the Church can provide solid unity, anchored in the collegial sense of the Pastors and in the responsibility which no believer nor any human being can avoid. We are facing a war o a "social Darwinism" in which the strongest survive and the weakest are destroyed, a Darwinism that takes on different aspects and has a capacity to camouflage, to hide and to imprison the truth (cf. Rom 1:18).

The Pope's ethical alarm becomes a decisive pastoral commitment to the choice of life against death, to the heart of brotherhood, to a family that needs a human face and heart in order not to become an extermination camp but a civilization of love" '

A paschal battle

This dramatic tension between life and death, between the reasons of life and the culture of death, is a conspiracy against life; this struggle between the forces of life and death (as "the mystery of iniquity" personified, according to the Pauline concept of amartia,/a of sin that fights systematically) in the Letter to the Romans suggests far more in the light of faith. If everything that is done to one of the least ones is something done to the Lord (cf. Mt 25:40), the paschal-mystery shows us an even more significant conflict: a conflict with a paschal meaning.

Thus the Pope links the theme of life to the tree of the Cross where "the Gospel of life" is fulfilled (n. 50). "Today we too find ourselves in the midst of a dramatic conflict between 'the culture of death' and the 'culture of life'. But the glory of the Cross is not overcome by this darkness rather, it shines forth ever more radiantly and brightly, and is revealed as the center, meaning and goal of all history and of every human life" (n. 50). Being "in the midst" reminds us of what was said earlier: "we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil.... We find ourselves not only 'faced with' but necessarily 'in the midst of' this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life" (n. 28). The

topic fully belongs to the Church's social doctrine, with its penetrating teaching open to the world's future, in the perspective of true solidarity. Differently focused, this conflict, indeed "war", demands that the cause of the weakest and the poorest be chosen, for in them is revealed the life of God's beloved children redeemed by his blood. This choice is not optional. It is a responsible imperative in favor of life. Moses' invitation is used: "...Choose life, that you and your descendants may live (Dt 30:15, 19)" (n. 28).

On the Cross Jesus, in the greatest "powerlessness' (like the victims of the conspiracy against life), manifests his glory (cf. n. 50) and "the sure hope of finding freedom and redemption" (n. 50). How is it possible not to think of St Irenaeus' reflection on the incarnate Word (Logos) who recapitulates in himself all the blood shed from the beginning by all the just and all the prophets (cf. Adversus Haereses, V, 14)?

"Life is always at the center of a great struggle". Mary, who had to live her motherhood under the sign of suffering, invites the Church to be aware of this truth (n. 105), and is a "living word of comfort for the Church in her struggle against death" (ibid.).

This is the reason for our hope: the victory of life over death! Thus Mary, showing us her Son, assures us that in him the forces of death have been defeated: "Death with life contended: combat strangely ended! Life's own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign". And, like a hymn of hope in the Sequence of Easter Sunday, the Pope also sets in the heart of the world this joyous proclamation of life: "Dux vitae, regnat vivus".

The Gospel of life in the Gospel of The Family

The relationship between family and life acquires a. privileged dimension. The history of mankind, the history of salvation passes by way of the family.... the family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil between life and death.... To the family is entrusted the task of striving first and foremost to unleash the forces of good" (Letter to Families, n. 23).

The Encyclical Evangelium vitae represents a necessary continuation of the strongly emphasized vision of the family as the sanctuary and cradle of life that has as it "fundamental task... to serve life" (Familiaris consortio, n. 28). Throughout the Church and in all the domestic churches the Gospel of life must resound. The Church is on the side of life, opposing the anti-life mentality. "The Church firmly believes that human life, even if weak and suffering, is always a splendid gift of God's goodness. Against the pessimism and selfishness which cast a shadow over the world, the Church stands for life: in each human life she sees the splendor of that 'Yes', that 'Amen', who is Christ himself. To the 'No' which assails and afflicts the world, she replies with this living 'Yes', thus defending the human person and the world from all who plot against and harm life" (ibid. n. 30).

Evangelium vitae is the historical development of this proclamation and of these defenses, which were so much part of her involvement during the Year of the Family. This is why, right from the start, the Pope wished to stress this link in his Introduction: "As I recall the powerful experience of the Year of the Family, as if to complete the Letter which I wrote 'to every particular family in every part of the world', I look with renewed confidence to every household and I pray that at every level a general commitment to support the family will reappear and be strengthened, so that today too-even amid so many difficulties and serious threats-the family will always remain, in accordance with God's plan, the 'sanctuary of life'" (n. 6).

At the social and political level, as an integral part of a culture of life, we read in chapter IV that "the re-establishment of a just order in the defense and promotion of the value of life" is essential.

"Here it must be noted.... [that] the underlying causes of attacks on life have to be eliminated, especially by ensuring proper support for families and motherhood. A family policy must be the basis and the driving force of all social policies" (n. 90).

A renewed appeal is made to "set in place social and political initiatives capable of guaranteeing conditions of true freedom of choice in matters of parenthood" (ibid.) and to "rethink labor, urban, residential and social service policies so as to harmonize working schedules with time available for the family, so that it becomes effectively possible to take care of children and the elderly" (n. 90).

In the same chapter IV, whole numbered sections are dedicated to the family, the "sanctuary of life", which within the "people of life and the people for life" which is the whole Church, has a decisive responsibility that flows from its very nature and mission. Parents are made co-workers and as it were interpreters when they transmit life and raise it according to their mission (cf. n. 92).

This is the full reason why "the role Of the family in building a culture of life is decisive and irreplaceable" (n. 92), and why it is the key to the interpretation of this Encyclical. The domestic Church is called to proclaim, celebrate and serve the "Gospel of life". This proclamation is carried out above all by raising children in the fullest sense of the word, which includes teaching them and giving them an example of the true meaning of suffering and death (cf. n. 92).

Conclusion

Evangelium vitae is an appeal and a summons addressed to all, individuals and peoples, believers and non-believers, to sow the culture of life.

It is a pressing invitation to the charity that must release the forces of good in the defense of human life.

It is a call to a deep change, to a conversion that dramatically challenges persons and institutions. A conversion that demands clarity, decision and courage, and becomes a test of humanity and dignity, which more deeply involves those who profess the Lord of life. St Augustine spoke thus to the baptized: "If possible examine love and then say: I am born of God. If someone does not have love, he is Christian only in name and a deserter who is fleeing" (In Epistola loannis, 5, 6).

L'Osservatore Romano April 26, 1995
Reprinted with permission