Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Gospel of Life
THE GOSPEL OF LIFE is at the heart ofesus'
message. Lovingy received by the Church, it is to be preached as
"good news" to the people of every age and culture.
This encyclical is meant to be a pressing
appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: Respect,
protect, love and serve life, every human life!
The Second Vatican Council, in a passage
which retains all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number
of crimes and attacks against human life:
"Whatever is opposed to life itself,
such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful
self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person,
such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts
to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such
as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation,
slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well
as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere
instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons;
all these things and others like them are infamies indeed.
"They poison human society, and they
do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer
from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator."
Unfortunately, this disturbing state
of affairs, far from decreasing, is expanding. With the new prospects
opened up by scientific and technological progress there arise new
forms of attacks on the dignity of the human being.
The end result of this is tragic. Not
only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives, still
to be born or in their final stage, extremely grave and disturbing.
No less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself,
darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding
it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in
what concerns the basic value of human life.
Recognize positive signs
Many initiatives of help and support
for people who are weak and defenseless have sprung up and continue
to spring up in the Christian community and in civil society.
There are still many married couples
who, with a generous sense of responsibility, are ready to accept
children as "the supreme gift of marriage." Nor is there a lack
of families which, over and above their everyday service
to life, are willing to accept abandoned children, boys and girls
and teenagers in difficulty, handicapped persons, elderly men and
women who have been left alone.
Medical science.. .continues to
discover ever more effective remedies.... Physicians are being organized
to bring quick relief to peoples affected by natural disasters,
epidemics or wars.
Movements and initiatives to raise
social awareness in defense of life have sprung up in many parts
of the world. When such movements act resolutely, but without resorting
to violence, they promote a wider and more profound consciousness
of the value of life.
The Bible: 'Life is sacred'
Human life is sacred because from its
beginning it involves "the creative action of God." "Before I formed
you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated
you" (Jer 1:5): The life of every individual, from its very beginning,
is part of God's plan. Expressions of awe and wonder at God's
intervention in the life of a child in its mother's womb occur again
and again in the Psalms (for example, Ps 22:10-11; 71:6; 139:13-14).
How can anyone think that even a single
moment of this marvelous process of the unfolding of life could
be separated from the wise and loving work of the Creator, and left
prey to human caprice?
The wisdom and experience of the elderly
are recognized as a unique source of enrichment for family and society.
In old age, how should one face the inevitable
decline of life? How should one act in the face of death? The
believer knows that his life is in the hands of God: "You, 0
Lord, hold my lot" (see Ps 16:5). Man is not the master of life,
nor is he the master of death. In life and in death, he has to entrust
himself completely to the "good pleasure of the Most High" (Sir
41:3-4), to his loving plan.
Killing in self-defense
To kill a human being, in whom the image
of God is present, is a particularly serious sin. Only God is
the master of life! Yet from the beginning, Christian reflection
has sought a fuller and deeper understanding of God's commandment.
There are in fact situations in which
values proposed by God's Law seem to involve a genuine paradox.
This happens for example in the case of legitimate defense,
in which the right to protect one's own life and the duty not to
harm someone else's life are difficult to reconcile in practice.
Certainly, the intrinsic value of life and the duty to love oneself
no less than others are the basis of a true right to self-defense.
The demanding commandment of love of
neighbor, set forth in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus,
itself presupposes love of oneself: "You shall love your neighbor
as yourself" (Mk 12:3 1). Consequently, no one can renounce
the right to self-defense out of lack of love for life or for self.
This can only be done in virtue of a heroic love which deepens and
transfigures the love of self into a radical self-offering, in the
spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes (see Mt 5:38-40). The sublime example
of this self-offering is the Lord Jesus himself.
Moreover, "legitimate defense can be
not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's
life, the common good of the family or of the State." Unfortunately
it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing
harm sometimes involves taking his life. This is the context in
which to place the problem of the death penalty.
The death penalty question
There is a growing tendency, in Church
and society, to demand here is a growing tendency, in that the death
penalty be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished
completely. 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. The primary purpose
of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder
caused by the offense."
Public authority must redress the violation
of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate
punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain
the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills
the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety,
while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help
to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes
to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must
be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the
extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity:
in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend
society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the
organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not
In any event, the principle set forth
in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid:
"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."
The serious sin of abortion
Among all the crimes which can be committed
against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly
serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion,
together with infanticide, as an "unspeakable crime."
But today, in many people's consciences,
the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured.
The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior and
even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous
crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable
of distinguishing between good and evil.
Given such a grave situation, we need
now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the
eye and to call things by their proper name. Procured abortion
is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is
carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her
existence, extending from conception to birth.
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.
It is true that the decision to have
an abortion is often tragic and painful for the mother, insofar
as the decision to rid herself of the fruit of conception is not
made for purely selfish reasons or out of convenience, but out of
a desire to protect certain important values such as her own health
or a decent standard of living for the other members of the family.
Sometimes it is feared that the child
to be born would live in such conditions that it would be better
if the birth did not take place. Nevertheless, these reasons and
others like them, however serious and tragic, can never justify
the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.
The father of the child may be to blame,
not only when he directly pressures the woman to have an abortion,
but also when he indirectly encourages such a decision on her part
by leaving her alone to face the problems of pregnancy.
"The human being is to be respected
and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore
from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized,
among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every
innocent human being to life."
I declare that direct abortion, that
is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes
a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of
an innocent human being.
At the other end of life's spectrum,
men and women find themselves facing the mystery of death.
When the prevailing tendency is to value
life only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being,
suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which
one must be freed at all costs. Death is considered "senseless"
if it suddenly interrupts a life still open to a future of new and
By using highly sophisticated systems
and equipment, science and medical practice today are able not only
to attend to cases formerly considered untreatable and to reduce
or eliminate pain, but also to sustain and prolong life even in
situations of extreme frailty.
In this context the temptation grows
to have recourse to euthanasia, that is, to take control
of death and bring it about before its time, "gently" ending
one's own life or the life of others. In reality, what might seem
logical and humane, when looked at more closely, is seen to be senseless
Here we are faced with one of the more
alarming symptoms of the "culture of death," which is advancing
above all in prosperous societies, marked by an attitude of excessive
preoccupation with efficiency and which sees the growing number
of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome.
These people are very often isolated by their families and by society,
which are organized almost exclusively on the basis of criteria
of productive efficiency, according to which a hopelessly impaired
life no longer has any value.
Euthanasia must be distinguished from
the decision to forgo so-called "aggressive medical treatment,"
in other words, medical procedures which no longer correspond to
the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now
disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose
an excessive burden on the patient and his family.
In such situations, when death is clearly
imminent and inevitable, one can in conscience "refuse forms of
treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation
of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar
cases is not interrupted "....To forgo extraordinary or disproportionate
means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it expresses
acceptance of the human condition in the face of death.
Among the questions which arise is the
use of various types of painkillers and sedatives for relieving
the patient's pain when this involves the risk of shortening life....Pius
XII affirmed that it is licit to relieve pain by narcotics, even
when the result is decreased consciousness and a shortening of life,
"if no other means exist, and if, in the given circumstances, this
does not prevent the carrying out of other religious and moral duties."
In such a case, death is not willed or
sought, even though for reasonable motives one runs the risk of
it: There is simply a desire to ease pain effectively by using the
analgesics which medicine provides. All the same, "it is not right
to deprive the dying person of consciousness without a serious reason."
I confirm that euthanasia is a grave
violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and
morally unacceptable killing of a human person.
To concur with the intention of another
person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through
so-called "assisted suicide" means to cooperate in, and at times
to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be
excused, even if it is requested. In a remarkably relevant passage
St. Augustine writes that "it is never licit to kill another: even
if he should wish it, indeed if he request it, hanging between life
and death.. .nor is it licit even when a sick person is no longer
able to live."
Even when not motivated by a selfish
refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering,
euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing
perversion of mercy. True compassion leads to sharing another's
pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.
Moreover, the act of euthanasia appears all the more perverse if
it is carried out by those, like relatives, who are supposed to
treat a family member with patience and love, or by those, such
as doctors, who by virtue of their specific profession are supposed
to care for the sick person even in the most painful terminal stages.
The choice of euthanasia becomes more
serious when it takes the form of a murder committed by others
on a person who has in no way requested it and who has never consented
to it. The height of arbitrariness and injustice is reached when
certain people, such as physicians or legislators, arrogate to themselves
the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to die....The
life of the person who is weak is put into the hands of the one
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.
The request which arises from the human
heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death, especially
when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation,
is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in
the time of trial.
Responding to unjust abortion and
The value of democracy stands or falls
with the values which it embodies and promotes. ...The basis of
these values cannot be provisional and changeable majority opinions,
but only the acknowledgment of an objective moral law, the natural
law written in the human heart... .Even in participatory systems
of government, the regulation of interests often occurs to the advantage
of the most powerful, since they are the ones most capable of maneuvering
not only the levers of power but also the formation of consensus.
Democracy easily becomes an empty word.
Laws which legitimize the direct killing
of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete
opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual;
they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law.
Laws which authorize and promote abortion
and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good
of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are
completely lacking in authentic juridical validity.
Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes
which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation
in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and
clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.
From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching
reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted
public authorities (see Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13- 14), but at the same
time it firmly warned that "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts
Build a 'new culture of life'
In the eve of the Third Millennium, the
challenge facing us is an arduous one: Only the concerted efforts
of all those who believe in the value of life can prevent a setback
of unforeseeable consequences for civilization.
What is urgently called for is a general
mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate
a great campaign in support of life. All together, we must build
a new culture of life: new, because it will be able to confront
and solve today's unprecedented problems affecting human life; new,
because it will be adopted with deeper and more dynamic conviction
by all Christians; new, because it will be capable of bringing about
a serious and courageous cultural dialogue among all parties.
Editors' note: This highly
condensed version of the pope's 1995 encyclical The Gospel
of Life (Evangelium Vitae) by Catholic Update
is not intended as a substitute for reading the complete document
but as an overview of major points. We encourage readers to study
the entire document, which can be obtained at many bookstores.