A Guided Tour of Evangelium Vitæ

by Very Rev Prof Anthony Fisher OP

‘A precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability, and at the same time a pressing appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!’ (5) —this is what the Pope’s recent encyclical The Gospel of Life is meant to be. Bioethics or, as it used to be called, medico-morals, has long fascinated Catholic theologians, and this letter joins a long tradition—a tradition dating back to the Scriptures (e.g. the New Testament anathemas against the ‘pharmacists’), the Fathers (e.g. the Didache and Tertullian on abortion) and the Scholastics (e.g. Aquinas, Antoninus and Ligouri on double effect), right through to recent popes (e.g. Pius XII on refusal of treatment), bishops’ conferences and theologians. The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism which followed it also had some points to make, and the curia has been issuing statements in this area regularly since the turn of the century.

It is remarkable, therefore, that this is the first papal encyclical on bioethical issues. It was immediately occasioned by a request made by the Cardinals in 1991 that the Pope reaffirm Catholic teaching on the value and inviolability of human life. John Paul responded not with an immediate declaration but by writing to all the bishops of the world asking them to contribute to the preparation of an encyclical. The recent letter is thus the fruit of very considerable preparation, both ‘proximate’ and ‘remote’, and of collegiality. It is undoubtedly the most authoritative statement of Catholic bioethics to date. Profound and persuasive, it is also especially timely for us here in Australia, coming as it does when our national conscience is so taxed by the question of euthanasia.

In what follows I shall describe something of the context of the encyclical, before outlining its structure and argument and identifying some of its more impressive features I shall then extract some of the points of more immediate relevance to the current debate over euthanasia and some of its implications for preachers and pastors.

Why write an encyclical on bioethics, and why now? The reasons are both external or evangelical, and more internal or domestic. The principal thrust of the document is clear enough: there are new threats to human life, and these on an alarming scale, facilitated by new technologies, ideas and social developments, often with the complicity of ‘the powers of this world’, and leading to the development of a veritable ‘culture of death’. The letter, then, represents a prophetic stance on the part of the Christian people, a proclamation of their Gospel, and an instance of the ‘maternal solicitude of the Church’ for the weak and oppressed. Just as the Church of a century ago took the part of exploited workers (in Rerum Novarum), now she is champion of other powerless and voiceless groups: unborn children, the sick and the elderly.

The Lord’s question: ‘What have you done?’ which Cain cannot escape, is addressed also to the people of today, to make them realize the extent and gravity of the attacks against life which continue to mark human history; to make them discover what causes these attacks and feeds them; and to make them ponder seriously the consequences which derive from these attacks for the existence of individuals and peoples. (10)

This encyclical must also be read within the context of the present Pope’s particular interests and concerns. Undoubtedly John Paul is a thoroughly ‘pro-life’ Pope, and themes of this letter have been played time and again in his speeches ever since his pontificate began. We recall, for instance, his words in 1986 in homilies at Masses in Canberra, Melbourne and Perth, in addresses to handicapped and sick people in Brisbane and to healthworkers in Melbourne. But the pro-life message ofEvangelium Vitæ is also a part of the current focus of papal attention upon the problems of the liberal West following the previous, extraordinarily successful, critique of the communist East. Thus the encyclical highlights trends in the post-cold-war democracies, bringing to bear the weight of Catholic moral teaching and the Pope’s own considerable powers of social criticism to examine the recent progress of Western civilisation and its present challenges.

The present letter is part also of the Pope’s almost-apocalyptic focus on the twenty-first century and the third millennium:

Humanity today offers us a truly alarming spectacle, if we consider not only how extensively attacks on life are spreading but also their unheard-of numerical proportion, and the fact that they receive widespread and powerful support…The twentieth century will have been an era of massive attacks on life, an endless series of wars and a continual taking of innocent human life… On 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. (17, 91).

Greeting the encyclical enthusiastically, one secular commentator identified what is ultimately at issue:

Crueller things were done [during the totalitarian 20th century], on a larger scale, and with more devilish refinement, than ever before in the sad story of mankind…Still, the totalitarian century is behind us, and we have learned to see the state as it is: useful, even friendly when small and chained, a mortal enemy when it breaks its constitutional bonds. That will not be the problem during the 21st century. But it is already evident what we shall have to fear. In our own century, we allowed vicious men to play with the state, and paid the penalty of 150 million done to death by state violence. In the 21st century, the risk is that we will allow men—and women too—to play with human life itself. (Paul Johnson in The Spectator, 8.4.95, p. 22)

If The Gospel of Life is focussed primarily upon the world, especially the Western world as it enters the third millennium, there is also a secondary concern with the Church’s own backyard, so to speak. John Paul has manifested an enduring concern for the quality of moral teaching from pulpits and in seminaries. In Veritatis Splendor (1993), for instance, he expressed concern that certain fundamental truths of Catholic moral doctrine risk being distorted or denied, not merely by outsiders, but by systematic dissenters who even deny that the Church can teach infallibly in morals or that there are any moral absolutes. He insisted that there are indeed some moral absolutes and that it is a pastoral and prophetic function of the Church to propose these anew and exhort people to live accordingly. The present encyclical is in important respects a sequel. Thus John Paul pulls no punches when he notes ‘a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities themselves to the test’ (21), and he openly criticizes the hostility of proportionalists, utilitarians and situation ethicists to moral absolutes in bioethics (e.g 68). He now proposes some such norms and some examples of their application, as a specification of the previous encyclical and an example of Catholic moral thinking.

To whom, then, is the document directed? On the face of it, the letter is to ‘all people of good will who are concerned for the good of every man and woman and for the destiny of the whole of society’ (5). But John Paul makes his ‘most urgent appeal’ to ‘all the members of the Church, the people of life and for life’ (6). The Pope is seeking here to erect guideposts for Catholicism for the next century: the Church is called to build up a civilisation of life and love opposed to the culture of violence and death. And he has particular messages for various groups: politicians, voters, doctors, nurses, health administrators, educators, academics, international organisations, those working in the mass media, pro-life groups, community organisations, voluntary workers, bishops, priests, theologians and families.

The methodology of the letter reflects its substance and goals. It is first and foremost a piece of moral teaching, an exhortation to good living, and thus in continuity with a literary tradition which extends all the way back to St Paul and before. But unlike a good many ecclesiastical documents, it does not merely offer conclusions with little or no argument: here John Paul provides a very full case for his conclusions and in an accessible language free of technicalities. In this the letter responds to contemporary expectations: for while few people may be willing to read 200-page treatises, they are today even less willing to accept moral norms without good argumentative sub-stance and good rhetorical packaging.

Like all Catholic moral teaching, The Gospel of Life appeals to faith and reason, natural law and revelation, philosophy and theology. The Pope asserts that any reasonable person can come to recognize the value and inviolability of human life. He argues that Catholic teaching in this area

has a profound and persuasive echo in the heart of every person—believer and non-believer alike—because it marvellously fulfils all the heart’s expectations while infinitely surpassing them. Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded. (2)

Nonetheless, there is a specifically Christian/Catholic dimension to much of the argumentation in the letter. Scripture and Vatican II are the principal theological sources, but the letter also reveals a comfortable acquaintance with that long tradition mentioned above. Characteristic of the Pope’s recent style, he begins with a dramatic retelling and homiletic reflection upon a particular text: what the story of the Rich Young Man in Luke was to Veritatis Splendor, the story of Abel and Cain in Genesis is to Evangelium Vitæ.


The letter is in four parts. Chapter One addresses present-day threats to human life. The second chapter outlines the Christian message concerning the dignity of human life. Chapter Three proclaims the inviolability of that life. And the last chapter exhorts people to build a new pro-life civilisation.
The substance of the letter begins with a discerning analysis of the contemporary scene. While the Pope focuses particularly on attacks upon life when it is at its most vulnerable, i.e. in its earliest and final stages, he situates these within the broader perspective of ‘the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenseless’ (3). He has in mind

murder, war, slaughter and genocide… the violence… [of] poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources… the violence inherent not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade… the spreading of death caused by reckless tampering with the world’s ecological balance, by the criminal spread of drugs, or by the promotion of certain kinds of sexual activity… (10).

The roots of this violence lie in an under-valuing of human life, a wrong notion of freedom, and an ‘eclipse of the sense of God’. A range of factors then conspire to assist its spread: interpersonal difficulties, family crises, widespread ethical confusion, anonymous cities full of marginalized people, new technologies, the complicity of some health professionals, law-makers, health systems, mass media, and national and international bodies, and the rise of powerful anti-life ideologies. These ascendant mind-sets include: individualism (which exaggerates the importance of autonomy and fails in solidarity with or concern for others); materialism (which ignores the transcendent and sacred, concerns itself only with dominating and controlling everything, even birth and death, and relates as an adversary to creation); pragmatism, (which glorifies economic efficiency and devalues unproductive and burdensome people); hedonism (which seeks to ‘censor out’ suffering at any cost and interprets ‘quality of life’ in terms of physical beauty, consumption and pleasure, to the neglect of ‘the interpersonal, spiritual and religious dimensions of existence’); ethical scepticism (which leaves people confused about good and evil and even denies the possibility of knowing moral truth); and utilitarianism (which draws upon most of these thought patterns). The result: there has emerged in the West ‘a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable culture of death. This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents…a kind of conspiracy against life’ (12).

Later in the letter he writes:

In the early afternoon of Good Friday, ‘there was darkness over the whole land… while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two’ (Lk 23:44, 45). This is the symbol of a great cosmic disturbance and a massive conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between life and death. Today we too find ourselves in the midst of a dramatic conflict between the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’. (50)

This is, of course, apocalyptic language, reminiscent of the Scriptures and Augustine, and another example of John Paul as preacher and dramatist. Whatever else people take away from the encyclical, this picture of the two contending cultures, the forces of life against those of death, is likely to stick. For all the apocalyptic language, however, the Pope sees in the present situation some reasons to hope and invites a reconsideration of and recommitment to the pro-life Gospel.

Chapter II draws upon natural law and a broad range of sources from the Christian tradition in support of the proposition that ‘life is always a good, ’ indeed one of ‘great and inestimable value’. The theological source of human dignity is shown to be in the creation, redemption and destiny of the human being; parallel to the philosophical affirmation of the inviolability of the basic good of life is the theological affirmation that God is the sole Lord of life and that this God commands reverence and love for the life of every person, especially the unborn, sick and elderly. This prophetic ‘Gospel of Life’ not only condemns offences against life but awakens ‘hope for a new principle of life’, for renewed relationships of reciprocity and care, and for an understanding of the crucial links between life, freedom and (moral) truth.

Chapter III begins with a consideration of the roles of commandment, gospel and freedom in Christian living. After detailing the long and unbroken history of teaching on the sacredness and inviolability of innocent human life, the Pope dogmatically defines (or ‘confirms’) as a matter of Catholic faith ‘that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral’ (57). From this ‘infallible’ proposition he concludes that

the deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity… Before the moral norm which prohibits the direct taking of the life of an innocent human being there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal. (57)

He then explores the implications of this doctrine for particular moral issues such as abortion, embryo experimentation, suicide, euthanasia, and the civil law.

In his final chapter, John Paul proposes various positive strategies ‘to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.’ He exhorts Christians to ‘preach the Gospel of life, to celebrate it in the Liturgy and in your whole existence, and to serve it with the various programmes and structures which support and promote life’ (79).


As noted above, the present letter was initiated by a unanimous request from the Cardinals that the Pope ‘reaffirm with the authority of the Successor of Peter the value of human life and its inviolability, in the light of present circumstances and attacks threatening it today’ (5). The Pope then sought the co-operation of the bishops in the preparation of the encyclical; in the letter he repeatedly emphasizes this ‘spirit of episcopal collegiality’ and actual co-operation in the authorship of the letter; he insists that he is teaching in communion with, and with the unanimous agreement of, all the bishops of the world. He directs his teaching to all members of the Church. He claims repeatedly to be simply a conduit for what has been clearly taught by Scripture and constantly upheld in the Church’s tradition on these matters. And he makes three definitions in particular, each time using the language of ‘confirming’ or ‘declaring’, invoking his Petrine authority or that of his predecessors, and referring specifically to Lumen Gentium §25. All this is highly evocative of Vatican I and Vatican II’s texts on papal, episcopal and ecclesial infallibility.

Most strongly put is the condemnation of direct killing of the innocent in paragraph 57:

In effect, the absolute inviolability of innocent human life is a moral truth clearly taught by Sacred Scripture, constantly upheld in the Church’s Tradition and consistently proposed by her Magisterium. This consistent teaching is the evident result of that ‘supernatural sense of the faith’ which, inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit, safeguards the People of God from error when ‘it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals’ [Lumen Gentium 12].

Faced with the progressive weakening in individual consciences and in society of the sense of the absolute and grave moral illicitness of the direct taking of all innocent human life, especially at its beginning and at its end, the Church’s Magisterium has spoken out with increasing frequency in defence of the sacredness and inviolability of human life. The Papal Magisterium, particularly insistent in this regard, has always been seconded by that of the Bishops, with numerous and comprehensive doctrinal and pastoral documents issued either by Episcopal Conferences or by individual Bishops. The Second Vatican Council also addressed the matter forcefully, in a brief but incisive passage [Gaudium et Spes 27].
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium [Lumen Gentium 25].

After rehearsing the Catholic tradition on abortion he likewise declares in paragraph 62:

Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops —who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine—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. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium [Lumen Gentium 25].
No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.

Thirdly he addresses euthanasia in paragraph 65, declaring with barely less authority:

Taking into account these distinctions, in harmony with the Magisterium of my Predecessors [Pius XII, Paul VI, Vatican II] and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, 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. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium [Lumen Gentium 25].

Theologians will dispute over whether these three definitions are an exercise of the ‘ordinary’ and/or the ‘extraordinary’ Magisterium, whether of the papal and/or episcopal Magisterium and/or the sensus fidelium, and whether of infallible or fallible authority. All of these kinds of authority seem to have been appealed to in the letter. But popes are not wont to attach the label ‘infallible’ with trumpet-blast and flashing lights to their letters. There is not the space here to elaborate further upon this matter. Suffice it to say that there are so many hints in the document of an appeal to infallible Petrine (and episcopal and ecclesial) authority, whether ‘ordinary’ or ‘extraordinary’, especially in the definition of the norm against direct killing of the innocent, that it would seem to now be undeniably a part of the ‘deposit’ of Catholic faith.

Of course none of these three authoritative declarations will have come as a surprise to anyone: they are very clearly traditional Catholic teaching, refined through the centuries, but more or less uncontroversial at least until recent times. Like it or not, the Church is unambiguous in its claims that it can teach authoritatively in morals; that it has done so regarding direct abortion, euthanasia and other killing of the innocent; and that these acts are always gravely immoral.



There are dangers in seeking to identify a ‘development of doctrine’ going on, as it were, before our eyes: such developments are in general only manifest in retrospect. None the less, there is reason to read these authoritative pronouncements, and much of their supporting argument, as indicative of certain trends in Catholic teaching.

First, the three definitions are themselves examples of propositions about which there has been a growing clarity and refinement in the Christian tradition. If the Pope’s opposition to all killing of the innocent, especially the unborn, the sick and the elderly, would not have surprised even Paul, Augustine or Aquinas, his statements of these matters more definitive and more nuanced than those of his predecessors.

Secondly, there is a discernible trend towards the ‘consistent life ethic’ proposed in recent years by theologians such as Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. According to this approach, issues such as abortion and euthanasia should be viewed not in isolation but in the context of the broad range of threats to human life, security and dignity, such as capital punishment, war, poverty, inadequate healthcare, drug trafficking, domestic violence, and the various forms of discrimination against women, the handi-capped, the elderly and other marginalised persons. While the encyclical has not gone all the way with those who propose that life-threatening activities and policies are all of a piece (‘abortion is no worse than cutting social security’, ‘having nuclear arms is equivalent to using them’, etc.), it argues for the interconnectedness of violent attitudes, habits, policies and institutions, and identifies common philosophical, moral, psychological and cultural underpinnings between them.

Thirdly, the two classic ‘exceptions’ to the norm against intentional killing have been (just) war and (legitimate) execution. Since John XXIII popes have been less and less willing to judge any war as just; the present Pope, in particular, has opposed even wars waged with near-unanimous UN sanction, and in the present letter he again includes war and the arms race amongst his examples of death-dealing wickedness. There is also a new reluctance to sanction capital punishment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, though better disposed to capital punishment than many had hoped, recognized that: ‘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’ (§2266). In paragraph 56 of the present encyclical the Pope goes further, commending the ‘growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely’. He restates the traditional position that public authority must redress the violation of personal and rights by imposing an ‘adequate’ punishment, but argues that this

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 practically non-existent. (56)

The definitive edition of the Catechism is to be amended accordingly.

A fourth area of continuing development is in attitudes to the unborn child, in particular the newly conceived embryo. In general John Paul contents himself in the present encyclical, as elsewhere in his many speeches, with simply including all the unborn among the category of human beings or per-sons (5, 14, 19, 20, 26, 41, 44-45, 58-63, 68, 70, 87). But he is well aware that there is debate about the moment of hominization, ensoulment or personhood, and that ‘the Magisterium’ has not (yet) expressly committed itself on the matter; he thus adopts the prudential line of previous Church documents that ‘what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo’. But he also specifically addresses the view that, at least up to a certain number of days, the conceptus is not personal human life. He responds by adopting as his own the argument from the SCDF, Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974) that

from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and… modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time—a rather lengthy time—to find its place and to be in a position to act. (§§12-13)

He also confirms the later (and further developed) assertion in the CDF’s Donum Vitæ (1986) and in the Catechism that there is ‘a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?’ (60).

John Paul’s own arguments for the personhood of the early embryo are more theological than those of the (largely philosohical) curial declarations. He reads the Old Testament as demonstrating that the life of every individual, from conception, is part of God’s plan (44); he interprets the New Testament as ‘indisputably’ recognizing the value of life from its very beginning, holding in particular that ‘the value of the person from the moment of conception is celebrated in the meeting between the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth, and between the two children whom they are carrying in the womb’ (45); and he notes that the Second Vatican Council sternly condemned all, even early, abortion from the moment of conception (61). By treating the precept against abortion as a specification of the precept against intentionally killing the innocent (rather than, in the case of early abortion, as a specification of the precept against contraception), modern ‘magisterial’ authorities have (at least) implicitly argued that all unborn children are innocent human beings or persons. But John Paul is explicit: direct abortion always constitutes ‘the deliberate killing of an innocent human being’ (58, 62); destructive interventions upon early embryos ‘constitute a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person’ (63). The Church has edged one step closer to defining the personhood or human ensoulment of the embryo from conception.



Despite its surface simplicity, Evangelium Vitæ is in fact methodologically very sophisticated. It presents its definitions, developments and exhortations within a broader pastoral and evangelical strategy which has included a series of catechetical talks and encyclicals, of world tours and canonizations. It is the product of consultation and long revision. It builds on insightful social and ideological analysis. It reflects a greater consciousness of the power of culture and social structures in influencing moral decisionmaking than any previous papal teaching. It is carefully nuanced, recognizing important distinctions in degrees of freedom (e.g. where suffering, depression, desperation or anxiety reduce subjective responsibility), in kinds of intention (e.g. between killing and letting die), in the nature and moral gravity of acts (e.g. between contraception and abortion), and between subjective guilt and objective evil (e.g. in abortion and suicide). It is, as one Anglican commentator noted, an ‘abundantly positive’ (James Murray in The Australian, 31.3.95, p. 2).

While frankly identifying evils to be avoided, the Pope is careful to situate this teaching within a broader positive gospel of ‘reverence and love for every person and the life of every person’ and ‘the task of accepting and serving life [which] involves everyone’ (41, 43 cf. 54). While unembarrassedly ‘laying down the law’ he locates its observance within ‘a free and joyful obedience, born of and fostered by an awareness that the precepts of the Lord are a gift of grace entrusted to man always and solely for his good, for the preservation of his personal dignity and the pursuit of his happiness’ (52).

Likewise, though highly critical of certain contemporary trends, The Gospel of Life is not without optimism. There are signs of hope even amidst the prevailing culture of death. There are many individuals, families, voluntary groups and institutions who reverence, defend and serve human life. Individuals such as parents, health workers, pro-life activists and others make this central to their whole vocation. Among ordinary people there is a growing sensitivity towards issues of human rights, life-style and ecology, and a growing opposition to war, capital punishment and violence of various kinds. Growing numbers of people are willing to embrace ‘the responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life’. And there are ‘all those daily gestures of openness, sacrifice and unselfish care which countless people lovingly make’ (26, 27).

John Paul the pastor shows that he is all too aware of the pressures which draw or drive people to violent solutions, such as abortion or euthanasia: violence, especially against women, and other pressures from outsiders, dire personal difficulties, isolation and abandonment, fear and loneliness, the struggle to make ends meet, unbearable pain and suffering (11, 18). Regarding abortion he recognizes 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… 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…Nor can one overlook the pressures which sometimes come from the wider family circle and from friends. Sometimes the woman is subjected to such strong pressure that she feels psychologically forced to have an abortion: certainly in this case moral responsibility lies particularly with those who have directly or indirectly obliged her to have an abortion (58, 59).

He has only words of compassion for women who are victims of abortion:

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. (99)

Much of Evangelium Vitæ is not about proscribing particular violent acts, but about identifying the cultural context and causes of violent choices and advocating the building of an alternative, pro-life culture (or counter-culture). This is in keeping with a long-running Catholic wisdom about the importance of role models (we call saints) and good communities of orthopraxis or lived faith (the Christian family, school, parish, religious community, society…). It also reflects the modern consciousness of the power of social ideas, practices and ‘forces’ to influence individual agents and their acts. And it resonates with contemporary trends in moral discourse: away from the egoism, individualism and naïve ‘balancing’ of the Christian utilitarianism of the 1970s, towards renewed emphases upon reasonable norms as action guides, upon the cultivation of virtues, and upon formation and the exercise of responsibiity within community.

The effect of this change is to refocus reflection upon the ideological and structural background to moral decision making—the ideas and relationships which most influence how people behave. Bioethics becomes social criticism. Here the encyclical is at its most creative and insightful. While not buying into the reduction of all evil to the social and impersonal (with the attendant danger of evading personal responsibility, and becoming fatalistic and alienating), the Pope readily adopts the best of contemporary moral reflection on the corrupting effect of a certain ethos and the possibility of ‘structural evil’. He unmasks ‘powerful cultural, economic and political currents’ which are contributing to the spiral of violence (ch. 1). He expresses himself as especially alarmed by

today’s tendency for people to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters. Symptoms of this trend include 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… (8; cf. 18-20)

The theme of solidarity, so potent in Catholic social teaching during the past century but especially in the present papacy, is now carried through to the bioethical realm. And to it he adds the notion of ‘the moral conscience of society’: like individuals, whole societies can be morally responsible for evils they tolerate or foster (24).

Another particular merit of The Gospel of Life is that its final chapter offers a range of positive strategies for building up the sense of justice and solidarity, ‘an authentic civilization of truth and love’. In the background to his proposals there would seem to be the model of the three-fold mission common to the baptised and ordained priesthoods which Vatican II took from the tradition: the call to be priest, prophet and king. The Pope recognizes that there are ‘many different acts of selfless generosity, often humble and hidden, carried out by men and women, children and adults, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick’ (86). Nonetheless there must also be specific programmes ‘proclaiming, celebrating and serving the Gospel of life’ (28): NFP, marriage and family counselling, and pregnancy help centres; communities and associations for care of drug addicts, minors, the mentally ill, AIDS patients, the disabled and the dying; adequate responses to the needs of the elderly and the terminally ill, including family support, good palliative care, good hospitals, clinics and convalescent homes (88). Some people will devote themselves specifically to the vocations of parenting and healthcare (87, 89); others will engage in voluntary work and social activism of various kinds (90); legislators and those with economic clout should make just laws and policies which support respect for life, the family and the elderly (92-94); teachers, academics and the media can assist in moral education or in the development of a culture and life-styles which give primacy to being over having, the person over things (96-98); women must develop a pro-life feminism (99); and all need to develop a deep critical sense and a prayer-life of awe and gratitude before the mystery of life (95, 100).



Given recent developments in our part of the world, the Pope’s remarks on euthanasia are of more than passing interest. I have already noted some of the social and ideological factors identified in Evangelium Vitæ as contributing to a culture inclined to such ‘solutions’. He suggests several further special factors which contribute to the call for euthanasia. There are personal ones:

In the sick person the sense of anguish, of severe discomfort, and even of desperation brought on by intense and prolonged suffering can be a decisive factor. Such a situation can threaten the already fragile equilibrium of an individual’s personal and family life, with the result that, on the one hand, the sick person, despite the help of increasingly effective medical and social assistance, risks feeling overwhelmed by his or her own frailty; and on the other hand, those close to the sick person can be moved by an understandable even if misplaced compassion. (15)

And there are social ones:

All this is aggravated by a cultural climate which fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs…. [There is also] a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands… As well as for reasons of a misguided pity at the sight of the patient’s suffering, euthanasia is sometimes justified by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and which weigh heavily on society. Thus it is proposed to eliminate malformed babies, the severely handicapped, the disabled, the elderly, especially when they are not self-sufficient, and the terminally ill. (15; cf. 64)

The implications of the absolute prohibition on killing the innocent for the euthanasia issue should be obvious enough: ‘euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person’ (65). But John Paul presents a carefully nuanced position here. He makes the necessary distinctions between euthanasia (‘an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering’) and appropriate pain relief or non-treatment. In the current debate this has been obscured by pro-euthanasia campaigners. But the Pope is adamant: Catholic teaching does not require and never has required the prolongation of life at all costs; ‘aggressive’, ‘heroic’, ‘extraordinary’ or ‘disproportionately burdensome’ treatments may properly be foregone, especially when death is clearly imminent and inevitable, ‘so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted’ (the Pope probably has food and fluids in mind here). People should aim to have and should be given the opportunity to have a good death, i.e., a death as free as possible from unnecessary suffering, supported and accompanied by others, enabled ‘to satisfy their moral and family duties’ and adequately prepared ‘for their definitive meeting with God’. Thus the Pope emphasizes Church support for the use of appropriate palliative care, even when this results (unintentionally, if predictably) in a diminution of consciousness or life-span; his is not a ‘grin-and-bear-it’ Catholicism. In modern Western societies pain in a dying or chronically sick person generally indicates poor pain management; with good palliative care this should rarely if ever happen.

Evangelium Vitæ recognizes that those who seek euthanasia may do so out of anguish, desperation or conditioning, thus lessening or removing their subjective responsibility, and that those who engage in euthanasia may be motivated by (misguided) pity rather than a selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering (15, 66). It nonetheless argues that euthanasia is ‘false mercy’, 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 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… Thus 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. (66)

This is contrasted with ‘the way of love and true mercy’ which recognizes that ‘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. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail.’ (66)

The Pope reiterates Christ’s promise of resurrection, and Paul’s call in the meantime to ‘live to the Lord’ (recognizing that suffering, while an evil and a trial, can become a source of good if it is experienced with love through sharing in Christ’s suffering) and to ‘die to the Lord’ (being ready to meet death well, in obedience at ‘the hour’ willed and chosen by God) (67).

What, then, are pro-life people to do in a society such as ours which seems doomed to follow a course towards legalised euthanasia? Democracy, the Pope reminds us, is not infallible; it should not ‘be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality’ (70). Majority votes for euthanasia do not make it right; rather, they undermine the legitimacy of that very political and social unit. It is a primary function of civil law to ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain innate human rights, such as the right to life, by recognizing and guaranteeing those rights in civil laws. Thus while governments might sometimes tolerate things the prohibition of which would cause greater harm, they can never presume to legitimize as a right of individuals—even if they are the majority of the members of society—an offence against other persons…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 duty to protect itself against abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom. (71)

Indeed such legitimation of euthanasia by the State ‘contributes to lessening respect for life and opens the door to ways of acting which are destructive of trust in relations between people’; such laws are contrary to the good of individuals and the common good and ‘as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity’; a law authorizing euthanasia would not in fact be a true, morally binding civil law (72). ‘There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection’ and no one may licitly campaign for, vote for, or obey such a law (73).
In his multi-faceted pro-life programme in the final part of the letter, John Paul proposes that special attention must be given to the elderly:

Neglect of the elderly or their outright rejection are intolerable…. It is therefore important to preserve, or to re-establish where it has been lost, a sort of ‘covenant’ between generations. In this way parents, in their later years, can receive from their children the acceptance and solidarity which they themselves gave to their children when they brought them into the world… The elderly are not only to be considered the object of our concern, closeness and service. They themselves have a valuable contribution to make to the Gospel of life. Thanks to the rich treasury of experiences they have acquired through the years, the elderly can and must be sources of wisdom and witnesses of hope and love. (94; cf. 46)



Having elaborated at length The Gospel of Life John Paul exhorts preachers and pastors to proclaim ‘the core of this Gospel’.

It is the proclamation of a living God who is close to us, who calls us to profound communion with himself and awakens in us the certain hope of eternal life. It is the affirmation of the inseparable connection between the person, his life and his bodiliness. It is the presentation of human life as a life of relationship, a gift of God, the fruit and sign of his love. It is the proclamation that Jesus has a unique relationship with every person, which enables us to see in every human face the face of Christ. It is the call for a ‘sincere gift of self’ as the fullest way to realize our personal freedom.
It also involves making clear all the consequences of this Gospel. These can be summed up as follows: human life, as a gift of God, is sacred and inviolable. For this reason procured abortion and euthanasia are absolutely unacceptable. Not only must human life not be taken, but it must be protected with loving concern. (81)

Many of us will not be able to remember when last we preached, or heard preached, a homily which spoke so frankly on these matters. We tend to avoid it because of a ‘pastoral’ concern to be sensitive to people’s feelings and not to reproach or alienate members of our congregations. And, if we are frank with ourselves, we probably avoid such subjects partly because of a desire to be popular, and partly for lack of confidence in the knowability and livability of pro-life norms. The Pope responds:

In the proclamation of this Gospel, we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity which might conform us to the world’s way of thinking. We must be ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’, drawing our strength from Christ, who by his Death and Resurrection has overcome the world (cf. Jn 16:33). (82)

If priests and pastoral workers are to offer such a testimony to the world, they must foster in themselves and others a contemplative outlook, a deep religious awe of the person, and respond with songs of praise and thanksgiving for the priceless gift of life (83). The Pope himself breaks out into prayer not merely in his customary concluding Marian devotion (102-105), but also somewhat unexpectedly in the middle of the letter (51). He suggests that we must make the liturgy, particularly the sacraments, occasions for celebrating and proclaiming the Gospel of Life: ‘We are called to express wonder and gratitude for the gift of life and to welcome, savour and share the Gospel of life not only in our personal and community prayer, but above all in the celebrations of the liturgical year’ (84). Celebrations of the sacraments of baptism and anointing would seem to be especially apposite occasions for such preaching and for allowing the liturgy itself to speak. He adds a proposal for an annual ‘Day for Life’ to be celebrated each year in every country


to foster in individual consciences, in families, in the Church and in civil society a recognition of the meaning and value of human life at every stage and in every condition. Particular attention should be drawn to the seriousness of abortion and euthanasia, without neglecting other aspects of life which from time to time deserve to be given careful consideration, as occasion and circumstances demand. (85)


The Gospel of Life presents to all people of good will and especially to members of the Church an exciting challenge: to be and to become ‘the people of life and for life… that together we may offer this world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love’ (6). In what is arguably his greatest epistolary tour de force John Paul has set the tone for Catholicism for the next century.