Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) proclaims in our day the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sacredness of all human life. The letter is a work of great beauty and power; but to ensure that it will not become a “dead letter,” the pope has called upon all Catholics – particularly those with special responsibilities in the Church – to “ensure that the doctrine which is one again being set forth in this encyclical is faithfully handed on in its integrity” (EV 82).
In response to that call, Alex Schadenberg has written a handbook on the subject, Toward a Culture of Life: An Explanation of Catholic Teaching on Respect for Human Life. Schadenberg is Director of the Pro-Life Office of the Roman Catholic Diocese of London, Ontario. He has made euthanasia education a priority, and his office has been busy alerting the public to the dangers of this misunderstood and dangerous practice.
Schadenberg writes in the foreword that the purpose of the booklet is “to provide arguments in favour of the moral teaching of the Catholic Church on the human life issues, and to support these arguments with quotations from Church sources.”
The author does this in an orderly, comprehensive, and succinct fashion, first outlining the doctrinal foundation common to all Church teachings having to do with the life issues, and then building on this in regard to those issues – namely, abortion, reproductive technologies, contraception, capital punishment, and euthanasia. In each case, Schadenberg bases his presentation on key passages from key Church documents, taking into account common objections to the Church’s teaching, while remaining always faithful to it.
He even has the courage to expand on that teaching where necessary, as for instance in the case of the link between abortion and contraception. Schadenberg deals with this problem in some detail, including information about the abortifacient function of the common “birth control pill” – an important contribution, considering the silence of the local churches on this matter.
The author handles his material in a way which makes the finished product useful and accessible to all concerned – clergy and laity, experts and non-experts, Catholics and non-Catholics. (Father Lynch’s simple, beautiful reflection on EV 99 at the end of the booklet should be or particular interest to homilists and pastoral workers, by the way.) The booklet is also versatile, easily lending itself to reference, catechetical, apolitical, and instructional purposes.
If should be noted that occasionally the language used in the booklet is imprecise. The prohibition of contraception is not a “law of the Church,” for example (p.27); father it is a matter of natural, and therefore divine law. More important, some fully pro-life and fully Catholic readers will find Schadenberg’s treatment of capital punishment to be overstated. This is a genuinely complicated issue, and one in which there is probably more room for debate than the author sees. None of this, however, takes away from the overall excellence of the handbook, for which Schadenberg deserves heartiest congratulations.