The Vatican’s summary of “Evangelium vitae”
by Msgr. Gammy D. Tulabing JCD, PC

From its very title, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the encyclical of Pope John Paul II demonstrates its highly positive character and its great spiritual thrust.

While realistically countering unprecedented threats to life and the spread of a “culture of death,” the primary intention of the papal document is to proclaim the good news of the value and dignity of each human life, of its grandeur and worth, also in its temporal phase.

The cause of life is in fact at the same time the cause of the Gospel and the cause of man, the cause entrusted to the church.

The encyclical is presented with great doctrinal authority: It is not only an expression, like every other encyclical, of the ordinary magisterium of the Pope, but also of the episcopal collegiality which was manifested first in the extraordinary consistory of cardinals in April 1991 and subsequently in a consultation of all the bishops of the Catholic Church, who unanimously and firmly agree with the teaching imparted in it (No. 5). This teaching is in substance “a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability,” and also “a pressing appeal addressed to each and every person in the name of God: Respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness”.

1. Present-day Threats to Human Life

The first chapter of the papal document is devoted to an analysis of the lights and the shadows of the present-day situation with regard to human life.

First there is a denunciation of the proliferation and increased intensity of threats to life, especially when life is weak and defenseless at its very beginning and at its end: abortion, immoral experimentation on human embryos, euthanasia. There is a clear description of the unprecedented and specific features of these crimes against life: At the level of public opinion they are claimed to be rights based on individual freedom; there is a trend toward their recognition in law; they are carried out with the help of medical science. This involves a distortion of society’s nature and purpose and of the constitutional state itself: Democracy, if detached from its moral foundations and linked to an unlimited ethical relativism, risks becoming the pretext for a war of the stronger against the weaker; the roles of health care personnel tend to be subverted: Instead of respectful service of life, they lend themselves to actions which bring about death.

The causes of this “culture of death” which threatens man and civilization are traced by the Holy Father to a perverse idea of freedom, which is seen as disconnected from any reference to truth and objective good, and which asserts itself in an individualistic way, without the constitutive link of relationships with others.

Associated with this is a practical materialism which gives priority to having over being, the satisfaction of personal pleasure over respect for those who are weak, and which ends by considering life worthwhile only to the extent that it is productive and enjoyable; suffering is considered useless, sacrifice for the sake of others unjustified.

Underlying all this is a loss of the sense of God. But “when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man”.

These threats are interpreted by the pope in the context of that perennial conflict between life and death which emerged at the very beginning of human history and which sacred Scripture testifies to in the events of *Cain, who because of envy “rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Gn. 4:8); *of the ancient pharaoh who, viewing as a threat the increasing numbers of the children of Israel, ordered that every newborn male of the Hebrew women should be put to death; *of Herod who, out of fear for his throne, “sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem” (Mt. 2:16); and finally, *of the apocalyptic conflict in which “the dragon stood before the woman ...that he might devour her child when she brought it forth” (Rv. 12:4).

Human life, especially when weak and defenseless, has always been threatened by the forces of evil.

Although the blood of Abel and of all innocent victims of violence cries out to God, the precious blood of Christ, the sign of his self-gift (Jn. 13:1), “speaks more eloquently” (Heb. 12:24).

It reveals the value of human life in the eyes of God, who for the sake of life gave his only Son, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

This is the basis of the absolute certainty that, according to God’s plan, the victory will belong to life. In fact there are already signs of this victory, signs of hope, sometimes more hidden, less obtrusive, but significant: families which freely accept abandoned children and older people; volunteer work in service of life; movements and programs of social consciousness raising in support of life; generous and respectful involvement in the medical profession and in scientific research; sensitivity to bioethical questions and ecology; a growing aversion to the death penalty. Above all, the daily gestures of welcome, sacrifice and selfless concern shown to the “little ones” and to the most needy are spreading around the world “the civilization of life and of love.”

4. Life as a Task to Be Promoted

But the commandment “you shall not kill” establishes only the point of departure of a journey to true freedom, a journey which must lead to the active promotion of life, the development of attitudes and modes of behavior which serve life. It is to this positive and constructive prospect that the fourth and final chapter of the document of Pope John Paul II is devoted: “for a new culture of human life.”

First of all, the Pope points out that the “Gospel of life” is at the heart of the evangelizing mission of the Church, which must proclaim Jesus, the “Word of life” (1 Jn. 1:1), the one in whom “the life was made manifest” (1 Jn. 1:2). The Church, defined in a new and expressive way as “the people of life,” has the task of proclaiming, celebrating and serving life.

Against doubts, skepticism, obscurity and falsehoods, it is a question of proclaiming in its entirety the joyful message of the value of life; the commandment “you shall not kill” is also part of this message. Ever nourished by the word of God, the Church has the primary task of ensuring that the Gospel of Life reaches every heart of every man and woman, and that it finds its way into the hidden recesses of the whole of society.

She is called also to celebrate the gift of life, considering it with a contemplative and grateful spirit in the light of God’s love made manifest in his Son Jesus. The sacraments of the church in an eminent manner, but also the many rituals of various popular and cultural traditions as well as those of everyday life must be means of experiencing joy for this gift, means which help to sustain people in moments of trial and by which their gaze is fixed on the Creator, from whom life comes and to whom it returns.

The mission of the Christian and of the Church on behalf of life is fulfilled through the service of charity because charity leads us “to show care for all life and for the life of everyone”, with a profound attitude of solidarity in every condition and situation, without prejudice or discrimination. (To be continued)

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