A Letter from Pope John Paul II to all the World's Bishops
ON COMBATING ABORTION AND EUTHANASIA
May 19, 1991
The recent extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals, held April 4-7 in the
Vatican, included a broad and detailed discussion on the threat to human life,
and concluded with a unanimous vote: The cardinals asked the pope to "solemnly
reaffirm in a document (the majority of cardinals proposed an encyclical) the
value of human life and its inviolability in the light of present circumstances
and the attacks which threaten it today."
As you will note from the summary which will be sent to you by the
pro-secretary of state, a striking picture emerged from the reports and the work
of the consistory. In the context of the numerous and violent attacks against
human life today, especially when it is weakest and most defenseless,
statistical data point to a veritable "slaughter of the innocents" on a
worldwide scale. A source of particular concern, however, is the fact that
people's moral conscience appears frighteningly confused and they find it
increasingly difficult to perceive the clear and definite distinction between
good and evil in matters concerning the fundamental value of human life.
However serious and disturbing the phenomenon of the widespread destruction
of so many human lives, either in the womb or in old age, no less serious and
disturbing is the blunting of the moral sensitivity of people's consciences.
Laws and civil ordinances not only reflect this confusion but they also
contribute to it. When legislative bodies enact laws that authorize putting
innocent people to death and states allow their resources and structures to be
used for these crimes, individual consciences, often poorly formed, are all the
more easily led into error. In order to break this vicious circle, it seems more
urgent than ever that we should forcefully reaffirm our common teaching, based
on sacred Scripture and tradition, with regard to the inviolability of innocent
The centenary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum which the church is
celebrating this year suggests an analogy to which I would like to draw
everyone's attention. Just as a century ago it was the working classes which
were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the church courageously came to
their defense by proclaiming the sacrosanct rights of that worker as person, so
now, when another category of persons is being oppressed in the fundamental
right to life, the church feels in duty bound to speak out with the same courage
on behalf of those who have no voice. Hers is always the evangelical cry in
defense of the world's poor, those who are threatened and despised and whose
human rights are violated.
The church intends not only to reaffirm the right to life -- the violation of
which is an offense against the human person and against God the Creator and
Father, the loving source of all life -- but she also intends to devote herself
ever more fully to concrete defense and promotion of this right.
The church feels called to this by her Lord. From Christ she receives the
"Gospel of life" and feels responsible for its proclamation to every creature.
Even at the price of going against the trend, she must proclaim that Gospel
courageously and fearlessly, in word and deed, to individuals, peoples and
It is precisely this fidelity to Christ the Lord which in this area too is
the church's law and her strength. The new evangelization, which is a
fundamental pastoral necessity in today's world, cannot neglect the proclamation
of the inviolable right to life which belongs to every person from the moment of
conception until life's natural end.
At the same time the church also feels called to express, through this
proclamation and active witness, her esteem and love for man. She addresses
herself to the heart of every person -- non-believer as well as believer --
because she realized that the gift of life is such a fundamental value that
anyone can understand and appreciate its significance, even in the light of
In the recent encyclical Centesimus Annus, I recalled the church's esteem for
the democratic system, which enables all citizens to participate in political
life, but I also insisted that a true democracy can only be established on the
basis of a consistent recognition of the rights of each individual (cf. 46-47).
Having meditated and prayed to the Lord, I decided to write to you
personally, my dear brother bishop, in order to share with you the concern
caused by this major problem, and above all in order to ask your help and
cooperation, in a spirit of episcopal collegiality, in facing the serious
challenge constituted by the present threats and attacks against human life.
All of us, as pastors of the Lord's flock, have a grave responsibility to
promote respect for human life in our dioceses. In addition to making public
declarations at every opportunity, we must exercise particular vigilance with
regard to the teaching being given in our seminaries and in Catholic schools and
universities. As pastors we must be watchful in ensuring that practices followed
in Catholic hospitals and clinics are fully consonant with the nature of such
institutions. As our means permit, we must also support projects such as those
which seek to offer practical help to women or families experiencing
difficulties or to assist the suffering and especially the dying. Moreover, we
must encourage scientific reflection and legislative or political initiatives
which would counter the prevalent "death mentality."
Through the coordinated action of all the bishops and the renewed pastoral
commitment which will result, the church intends to contribute, through the
civilization of truth and love, to an ever fuller and more radical establishment
of that "culture of life" which constitutes the essential prerequisite for the
humanization of our society.
May the Holy Spirit, "the Lord and giver of life," fill us with his gifts,
and may Mary, the virgin mother who gave birth to the author of life, be at our
side in this responsibility.
Teachings of the Magisterium