ADDRESS OF JOHN PAUL II TO THE PARTICIPANTS IN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE
PONTIFICAL ACADEMY FOR LIFE
Wednesday 27 February 2002
1. Dear and Illustrious Members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, once
again we hold a meeting that is always for me a source of hope and joy. I warmly
and personally greet each of you. I want to thank your President, Juan de Dios
Vial Correa, for his kind words of homage on behalf of all of you. I want to
greet your Vice-President, Bishop Sgreccia, and thank him for being the force
behind the activity of your Academy.
2. This week you are participating in your eighth General Assembly and for this
reason, coming together from many countries, to address a crucial subject, in
the context of a broader reflection on the dignity of human life: "The nature
and dignity of the human person as the foundation of the right to life: the
challenges raised by the approach of contemporary culture".
You have chosen to deal with one of the connecting links at the foundation of
any further discussion, either of ethical applications in the field of
bio-ethics or of socio-cultural thought for the promotion of a new pro-life
For many contemporary thinkers, the concepts of "nature" and of "natural law"
appear to apply only to the physical and biological world, or, as a way of
expressing the order of the cosmos, in scientific research and in the field of
ecology. Unfortunately, in such a view, it becomes difficult to use natural law
to mean human nature in a metaphysical sense and to use natural law for
the moral order.
What makes it more difficult to see the depth of reality is the fact
that our culture has greatly restricted the concept of creation, a concept that
refers to the entire cosmic reality, and that takes on a particular meaning in
relation to man. We see in this change the influence of the weakening of
confidence in reason, so much a part of contemporary philosophy, as I pointed
out in the Encyclical Fides et ratio (cf. n. 61).
What is needed, therefore, is a conscious effort that returns to its original
meaning, with all its force, namely, to the anthropological and ethical meaning
of natural law and of the related concept of natural right. In fact, we are
discussing if and how it is possible to "recognize" the
distinguishing characteristics of the human being, which form the basis of the
right to life in its various historical formulations. Only on this basis, can
there be a true dialogue and authentic collaboration between believers and
3. Daily experience reveals the existence of a fundamental reality common to all
human beings by which they can recognize each other as such. It is necessary to
refer always "to man's proper and primordial nature, the "nature of the human
person, that is the person himself in the unity of soul and body, in the
unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific
characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end" (Veritatis splendor, n.
50; cf. also Gaudium et spes, n. 14).
This distinctive nature is the foundation for the rights of every human
individual, who has the dignity of personhood from the moment of his conception.
This objective dignity, that has its origin in God the Creator, is founded on
the spiritual nature that belongs to the soul, but also extends to the
corporeality that is an essential component. No one can take human dignity away;
rather all must respect it in themselves and in others. It is this dignity that
is equal for all and that remains entire at every stage of the individual human
The recognition of such natural dignity is the foundation of the social
order, as Vatican II reminds us: "Furthermore, while there are rightful
differences between people, their equal dignity as persons demands that we
strive for fairer and more humane conditions" (Gaudium et spes, n. 29).
The human person, with his reason, is capable of recognizing both this
profound and objective dignity of his own being, and the ethical requirements
that derive from it. In other words, man can discern in himself the value and
the moral requirements of his own dignity. It is a discernment that entails
a discovery open to further refinement following the coordinates of the
"historicity" that are typical of human knowledge.
This is what I pointed out in the Encyclical Veritatis splendor on the
subject of the natural moral law, that, according to the words of St Thomas
Aquinas, "is nothing else than the light of understanding infused in us by God.
As a result of it we know what must be done and what must be avoided. God has
given this light and this law to man at creation" (n. 40, cf. Catechism of the
Catholic Church, nn. 1954-1955).
4. It is important to help our contemporaries understand the positive and
humanizing value of the natural moral law, clarifying a number of
misunderstandings and false interpretations.
The first misunderstanding to be eliminated is "the alleged conflict between
freedom and nature" that "has repercussions on the interpretation of certain
specific aspects of the natural law, especially its universality and
immutability (Veritatis splendor, n. 51). In fact, freedom belongs to
the rational nature of the human being and can and should be guided by reason:
"Precisely because of this "truth' the natural law involves universality.
Inasmuch as it is inscribed in the rational nature of the person, it makes
itself felt to all beings endowed with reason and living in history (ibid.).
5. Another point to be clarified is the presumed static and fixed
connotation given to the notion of natural moral law, that is perhaps prompted
by an erroneous analogy with the concept of nature used for physical reality. In
truth, the fact of its universality and obligatory nature is what incites and
urges the person to develop. "In order to perfect himself in his specific
order, the person must do good and avoid evil, be concerned for the transmission
and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world,
cultivate social life, seek truth, practise good and contemplate beauty" (Veritatis
splendor, n. 51; cf. St Thomas I-II, q. 94, a. 2).
In fact, the magisterium of the Church appeals to the universality and to
the dynamic and perfective character of the natural law when referring to
the transmission of life, whether it be to maintain the fullness of the spousal
union in the procreative act, and to preserve the openness to life in the
conjugal act (cf. Humanae vitae, n. 10; Instruction Donum Vitae,
II. 1-8). In the same way the magisterium speaks on the subject of the respect
for innocent human life: our thought goes to abortion, euthanasia, the
suppression and destructive experimentation on embryos and human fetuses (cf.
Evangelium vitae, nn. 52-67).
6. The natural law, in so far as it regulates human social relationships is
defined as "natural rights" and as such requires complete respect for the
dignity of individuals in the realization of the common good. An authentic
conception of the natural right, understood as the protection of the illustrious
and inalienable dignity of every human being, is the guarantee of equality and
gives real substance to those "rights of man" that serve as the foundation of
The rights of man, in fact, should refer to what man is by nature and by
force of his own dignity and not to the expression of the subjective choices of
those who are able to participate in social life or of those who obtain the
consensus of the majority. In the Encyclical Evangelium vitae I warned
against the serious threat that such a false interpretation of the rights of man
seen as the subjective rights of an individual or a group, free from any
reference to the truth of human nature, can pose, leading even democratic
systems of government to turn into an effective totalitarianism (cf. nn. 19-20).
Particularly, among the fundamental rights of man, the Catholic Church claims
for every human being the right to life as the primary right. She does it
in the name of the truth about man and to protect his freedom, that cannot be
sustained without respect for the right to life. The Church affirms the right to
life of every innocent human being and at every moment of his existence. The
distinction sometimes implied in international documents between "human being"
and "human person", so as to limit the right to life and to physical integrity
to persons already born is an artificial distinction, without any scientific
or philosophical foundation: every human being, from the moment of his
conception until the moment of his natural death, possesses an inviolable right
to life and deserves all the respect owed to the human person (cf. Donum
vitae, n. 1).
7. My dear friends, in conclusion, I want to encourage your reflection on the
natural moral law and natural rights with the hope that from your discussions
will come fresh zeal for establishing the true good of the human being and a
just and peaceful social order. It is always by returning to the deep roots of
human dignity and of the true good of the human being, and by building on the
foundation of what exists as everlasting and essential in man, that a
fruitful dialogue can take place with men of every culture in order to build
a society inspired by the values of justice and brotherhood.
With gratitude for your collaboration, I entrust the activity of the
Pontifical Academy for Life to the Mother of Jesus, Word made flesh in her
virginal womb so that she may be with you as you fulfil the mission that the
Church has entrusted to you for the defence and promotion of the gift of life
and of the dignity of every human being.
With this prayerful wish, I grant you and your loved ones my heartfelt