THE VATICAN'S SUMMARY OF "EVANGELIUM VITAE"
Released by the Vatican on March 30, 1995 along with the
From its very title, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the new
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" (No. 5).
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" (No. 21).
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 the 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." In this dramatic
conflict, which has lasted throughout history and is taking on new
characteristics in our time, God's call is heard clearly and powerfully: "See, I
have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.... Therefore choose
life, that you and your descendants may live" (Dt. 30:15, 19).
2. Life as Gift
The second chapter is in the form of a meditation on the Christian message
regarding life. In fact, "the Gospel of life is something concrete and personal,
for it consists in the proclamation of the very person of Jesus" (No. 29). As
St. Paul says, it was "our Savior Christ Jesus who abolished death and brought
life and immortality to light through the Gospel." (2 Tm. 1:10).
The light of revelation, which reaches its fullness in Jesus Christ, confirms
and completes all that human reason can grasp concerning the value of human
life. Precious and fragile, full of promises and threatened by suffering and
death, man's life on earth bears within itself that seed of immortal life
planted by the Creator in the human heart (cf. No. 31). That life is the object
of God's tender and intense love, especially in the poor, the weak and the
defenseless: "Truly great must be the value of human life if the Son of God has
taken it up and made it the instrument of the salvation of humanity!"(No. 33).
At this point we come to the decisive question, Why is life a good? Why is it
always a good? The answer is simple and clear: because it is a gift from the
Creator, who breathed into man the divine breath, thus making the human person
the image of God. While sin darkens life by threatening it with death and
throwing into doubt its nature as a gift, redemption, achieved in the
incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, redeems its worth,
lifting it up to unheard-of heights in the prospect of the gift of eternal life.
Gratuitously the Father calls each individual, in his Son, to partake of the
fullness of divine life by becoming "sons and daughters in the Son." The sublime
dignity of human life thus shines forth not only in the light of its origin, but
even more so in the light of its destiny.
Earthly life, which is at once both relativized and given new value, opens up
to the prospect of eternal life. It is not an absolute value in itself: It is
entrusted to man as a beginning to be made fruitful for eternity as a first gift
which will reach its fullness if, after the example of Christ and with his
power, it succeeds in becoming a gift of love of God and of others. This is the
truest and most profound meaning of life: The gift is accomplished in
self-giving. "For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses
his life for my sake and the Gospel's will save it" (Mk. 8:35). The martyrs
freely gave their lives out of love, showing that our earthly existence is not
something absolute to which we should cling at all costs. "No one, however, can
arbitrarily choose whether to live or die; the absolute master of such a
decision is the Creator alone, in whom 'we live and move and have our being'
(Acts 17:28)" (No. 47).
3. Life as Responsibility
As a precious and fragile gift which is meant to bear fruits of love, life is
entrusted to man's responsibility. From its very beginning until its natural
end, life is sacred and inviolable: It belongs to the Lord, it is under his
special protection and individuals cannot dispose of it at their own whim. "From
man in regard to his fellowman (the Lord) will demand an accounting for human
life" (Gn. 9:5). This original truth, testified to by all of humanity's great
religious and philosophical traditions, his truth which lies in the depths of
every individual's conscience like an echo of the voice of the Creator, is also
at the center of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The
commandment "you shall not kill," which expresses it in the form of a concise
command, is at the heart of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai (cf. Ex. 34:28).
In the New Testament, Jesus not only repeated this commandment as the first to
be kept in order to enter into life (cf. Mt. 19:16-18), but also showed its
positive implications (cf. Mt. 5:21ff), which involve the heart and which extend
to everyone, to the point of loving even one's enemies (cf. Mt. 5:44). Thus,
"only when people are open to the fullness of the truth about God, man and
history will the words 'you shall not kill' shine forth once more as a good for
man in himself and in his relations with others" (No. 48).
It is this commandment not to kill, in the light of the Gospel of life, that
the third chapter of the encyclical seeks to put forward once more, applying it
to the unprecedented situations in which life is being threatened today. The
pope wishes to reaffirm the absolute and permanent value of the commandment not
to kill which is at the heart of God's covenant with man. He shows that the
commandment is not a limit but a gift, which invites freedom to follow the paths
of respect, service and love of life. The negative formulation of the moral
imperative indicates the outer limit which can never be crossed, but implicitly
it encourages a positive and constructive attitude, one of commitment in favor
After recalling certain traditional moral distinctions concerning the
legitimacy of self-defense against an unjust aggressor and concerning capital
punishment, of which morally justifiable applications today are said to be "very
rare, if not practically nonexistent" (No. 56), the papal document proposes
certain moral truths in relation to respect for human life.
In the first place it declares "the direct and voluntary taking of all
innocent human life" as "always gravely immoral" (No. 57). This principle is
then applied to abortion and euthanasia. Regarding procured abortion (defined as
"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. 58]), the encyclical affirms that "direct abortion,
that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave
moral disorder" (No. 62). This moral judgment is also to be applied to forms of
intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes
legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos,
either in experimentation or their use and the use of human fetuses as
"biological material" or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants (cf.
No. 63). Euthanasia, which is defined as "an act or omission which of itself and
by intention causes death with the purpose of eliminating all suffering," and is
carefully distinguished from so-called "aggressive medical treatment" and from
"methods of palliative care," is called "a grave violation of the law of God"
Here we are speaking of doctrinal affirmations of very high magisterial
authority, presented with particular solemnity by the supreme pontiff.
Exercising his own magisterial authority as the successor of Peter, in communion
with the bishops of the Catholic Church, he "confirms" (or also, in the case of
abortion, "declares") a doctrine "based upon the natural law and upon the
written word of God," "transmitted by the church's tradition and taught by the
ordinary and universal magisterium." In this connection, in the case of each of
the three doctrinal formulations there is a significant reference in a note to
the teaching of the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
Lumen Gentium, which in Paragraph 25 declares that the bishops, "even though
dispersed throughout the world, but preserving for all that among themselves and
with Peter's successor the bond of communion," when "in their authoritative
teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a
particular teaching is to be held definitively," "proclaim infallibly the
doctrine of Christ."
Pope John Paul II does not fail to mention the tragic circumstances and the
pressures from the family, the living conditions and social environment which
sometimes mark those very serious choices against life and thereby diminish the
moral responsibility of the person making them. These choices are sometimes also
cloaked with specious justifications and "false mercy," while choices in favor
of life sometimes appear not only difficult but even heroic. It is for this
reason that the pope is urging a proclamation of the Gospel concerning life, its
sacred value and inviolability, the duty to respect and care for it, and its
value even in suffering and in the face of death.
The relationship between civil law and the moral law is next examined.
Indeed, "one of the characteristics of present-day attacks on human life ...
consists in the trend to demand a legal justification for them" (No. 68). The
encyclical recognizes that the task of civil law is different and more limited
than that of the moral law. Civil law cannot take the place of conscience or
dictate moral norms, but it has the specific role of "ensuring the common good
of people through the recognition and defense of their fundamental rights, and
the promotion of peace and of public morality" (No. 71). Therefore, although it
sometimes has to choose not to put a stop to something which, were it
prohibited, would cause more serious harm, it can never presume to legitimize,
as the right of individuals, the offense inflicted on other persons through the
disregarding of so fundamental a right as the right to life. In this sense,
while taking different situations into account, civil law must safeguard the
moral foundation of justice and of respect for everyone's inviolable and
inalienable rights, without which the will of the stronger replaces the import
of the rights of each individual. Democracy cannot be defined simply by
reference to the formal principle of the majority, but must be characterized by
a moral basis of respect for all and especially for the rights of the weakest
and the most defenseless, those who have no voice and no vote.
The legal norms legitimizing abortion and euthanasia, which are radically
opposed to justice, the common good and the fundamental rights of the
individual, lack authentic juridical validity. In the face of these laws, the
right to conscientious objection at least must be recognized, this being a
serious obligation for the Christian, who cannot formally cooperate in evil.
Consequently, there remains the commitment of everyone to promote more just
legislation, which will change laws contrary to the right to life and its
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 the 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" (No. 87), with a profound attitude of
solidarity in every condition and situation, without prejudice or
discrimination. Mention is made of the extraordinary history of charity in the
church, which introduced into society a host of organizations at the service of
life. The Holy Father exhorts us to strengthen and continue today the numerous
projects which have been undertaken in this regard, calling for creative
innovation in responding adequately to new challenges. In the area of
professional health care, volunteer services, education, social involvement and
political commitment and in the face of complex demographic problems, it is a
question of fostering mature attitudes and finding solutions which respect life.
In particular, at the center of attention must be the family, the "sanctuary
of life," in which life is welcomed, nourished, brought up and supported, and
taken care of in sickness. However, the family needs to be helped by a social
context which is favorable to these values and by policies which promote its
primary and irreplaceable role.
It is a question, the pope affirms, of bringing about a true transformation
of culture: the promotion of a "culture of life," in which human freedom will
find its authentic meaning by joining forces with truth, life and love. This
culture needs new lifestyles which will show respect for the dignity of every
individual, especially the weakest, which will recognize the value of human
sexuality in the development of the person, and which will accept the mysterious
meaning of suffering and of death. A very special task is entrusted to women,
who are particularly close to the mystery of life, who are called to be its
guardians and to reveal its fruitfulness when that task matures into
relationships marked by unselfish giving and willing service. These are the
demands of a "new feminism," which, free from individualism, will favor the
culture of life. The pope addresses particularly moving words to women who have
had abortions. He invites them to be open to repentance, with humility and trust
(cf. No. 99). Prayer and fasting, finally, are the great resources which will
bring about the purification of all hearts in this great undertaking of
proclaiming the Gospel of life on behalf of the whole of human society and for
the sake of peace (No. 101).
This important magisterial document of Pope John Paul II closes with a
trusting appeal to Mary, the "mother of life." Contemplating the scene in the
Book of Revelation of the struggle between the woman who is about to give birth
and the dragon which sets a snare for the life of the child, the pope invites us
to recognize that throughout history "life is always at the center of a great
struggle" (No. 104). But in the mutual relationship between the motherhood of
Mary and her own motherhood toward all men and women, the church finds a source
of great hope. Mary is the "living word of consolation" on history's difficult
journey: To her, with filial confidence, the pope entrusts the cause of life.
More on the Gospel of Life
More Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion