The main question about Pope John Paul II’s newest encyclical, The Gospel of Life, is what are we going to do about it?

Do not be mistaken.  This is not just another papal document on some religious aspect or other such as Laborem exercens (1981), on the dignity of work, or Familiaris consortio (1981), on the family, or any of the other topics such as “the work of the Holy Spirit” (1986) or “the role of the laity” (1988) on which Pope John Paul has written during the last sixteen years.

These are all important.  But this letter to the world, as the Paris newspaper Le Monde observed somewhat bitterly, presents “an apocalyptic vision reminding one of the medieval paintings of Jerome Bosch”!  It seems, said Le Monde, to “close all doors to the art of casuistry which has been of such benefit to individual consciences in the past” (Le Devoir, March 30, 1995).

By “art of casuistry” Le Monde, and the Montreal paper Le Devoir, mean the many ways in which we have tried to avoid facing up to the fact that over the last 35 years we have built “cultures of death.”  We have turned our faces the other way; don’t get excited; surely, it can’t be that bad; don’t become a fanatic, we told ourselves, or were told by others.

What a shocking term, “culture of death”!  Surely, the Pope must be exaggerating; he is 73, and Alzheimer’s may be setting in!

Well, Pope John Paul II is not exaggerating.

The title, of course, is Gospel of Life, not found as such in Sacred Scripture, a footnote points out, but corresponding to an essential dimension of the biblical message.

Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, came to bring life, Eternal Life.  He brought not optimism – a secular notion – but Hope, which, together with Faith and Charity, is one of the three theological virtues.  It is hope in the grace and mercy of God and the love for Him, the Son and the Holy Spirit which must always remain uppermost in mind and heart.  Therefore, yes, we must think about, and act on behalf of Life, first and foremost.

“I came that they may have life” is the theme of Chapter II (from Jn.1:2); and the heading of Chapter IV is: “You are God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

Alas, what modern men and women are doing is the opposite of defending life: we are building “cultures of death”; and that’s the subject of this Letter’s Chapters I and III.

The first ever encyclical letter entirely devoted to moral theology, the 1993 encyclical Splendor of Truth, stringently defended the need to adhere to the natural moral law and the objective moral order.  This order is revealed specifically in the Ten Commandments.  But it is also attainable through the use of right reason.  However, it is learned most easily through the teachings of the Church.

In 1983, John Paul II implored the Bishops across the world to put a halt to erroneous theories and false teaching in moral theology in the institutions under their care.  Already then did he refer – in passing – to the “culture of death.”  Now, in this latest letter issued March 25, 1995, he devotes two whole chapters to an analysis of how Western society is heading for the eclipse of God and the end of democracy.

Culture of death: what does it mean?

As Pope John Paul sees it, there are two phenomena new to the world of the last 30 years with respect to society’s moral decline.

First, there is an extraordinary increase in the gravity of the threats to the life of individuals and peoples.  All the old forms of horror, war, famine, etc., are still with us but their impact is now immense.  Arrow and bow, for example, have given way to nuclear warfare.

Moreover, this increase is accompanied by new threats, emerging from scientific and technological progress.  Among these crimes are abortion and euthanasia.

Second, and of a most sinister nature, is the new justification of these latter crimes.  The cultural climate accepts or justifies them in the name of human rights, or freedom of conscience, or a pluralistic society.  When nation-states embody this justification in law, they create “structures of sin.”  These, in turn, lead to a “conspiracy against life,” even on international levels.

Where does this dreadful development come from?  It comes from “ethical relativism,” from extreme individual subjectivity which rejects an objective moral order.

This rejection will have tremendous consequences.  The permissive society, justifying evil as good and objecting to good as evil, will alienate more people from their political leaders and their governments.  This includes those who support these changes, but whose unbridled behaviour will lead them to prefer libertarian chaos over restraining order, no matter what happens to society.

Thus the state ceases to be a home to people.  Being now sustained by their own structures of sin, governments become more intrusive and, perhaps, even tyrannical.

Democracy depends on the rule of law in harmony with truth.  But modern societies deny that truth can be known at all; all views are said to be mere “opinion,” and morality is said to be purely private and personal, of no consequence to the community at large.  Under these circumstances, democracy can and, most likely, will give way to totalitarianism of some sort or other.

Those who justify crimes such as abortion and euthanasia will not be content to defeat their challengers at the polls or in the legislature.  They will feel a further need to crush this opposition, to stifle their voices, to ban them from the streets, from the schools, from the media, perhaps even from the churches.

What are Christians to do?

Christians, indeed all men and women of right reason, can do only one thing.  They must say No, not only in word, but in deed.

“Abortion and euthanasia are crimes which no human law can legitimize…there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection,”  (#73)  “This is a moral duty.”  (#74)


We should ask ourselves what this opposition may mean in practice.  First, before anything else, we must continue to live the gospel of Life and maintain this as a Lifestyle.  We must not let evil overpower us by allowing it to become our sole preoccupation.

Having said this, in a democracy the chief instrument for bringing about change are elections and the vote.  We must begin by opposing every candidate who justifies these crimes, or who is unwilling to begin the work of reforming legislation which provide structures of sin.  We must continue this work by supporting all those who are willing to bring about changes.

An incredible task, you say?  Absolutely, but it must be done.

The situation is even worse than it appears on first sight.  We must not be naïve and think that abortion and euthanasia are just two issues which can be dealt with on their own.  Pro-lifers are committed to a consistent ethic of life; pro-abortionists are also committed to a consistent ethic of anti-life.  By denying the existence of objective moral standards, they attack traditional morality and the traditional family on all fronts, not just on two issues.

The seamless garment of anti-life sentiments – in addition to abortion and euthanasia – consists of contraception, sterilization, common law living, bigamy, adultery, divorce, homosexual activity, pornography, and all other forms of sexual immorality.

It is not an accident that the most vehement opponents of pro-life witnesses are gays and lesbians.  It is not an accident that all these vices are flourishing at a time of unprecedented sex education in schools and society.  It is not an accident that abortion has exploded at the very time that sex is worshipped as a recreational pastime, separating its function from its biological (and theological) purpose and design of procreation.

Hope eternal

But let us fight the good fight.  “Pope invites civil disobedience in the case of euthanasia and abortion,” read the headline of the Montreal daily La Presse (March 20, 1995).

“Pope’s pronouncements on life conflict with modern Canadian reality,” read a Montreal Gazette column by William Johnson (April 6).

These headlines are correct.  They tell us what we should be doing.  Said Johnson: “His (the Pope’s) moral campaign will almost certainly lead to a strong political movement here.”

Let’s help make this prophesy come true.

Fr. Alphonse de Valk, c.s.b., is a priest of the Congregation of St. Basil.  He is a former editor of The Interim. Today he is publisher/editor of the monthly magazine, Catholic Insight