The Problem of Threats to Human Life
Vatican City, April 4-7, 1991
(Note: This consistory was a key preparatory moment for the
preparation of the Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae.)
SUMMARY OF THE CONSISTORY OF CARDINALS ON THREATS TO LIFE
The present summary concerns the Consistory of Cardinals held on 4-6 April
1991 on the subject of threats against life.
The documents presented are:
I. Text of the
presentation by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
II. Summary of the presentations from the various
(Cardinal John Joseph O'Connor. Cardinal Giacomo Biffi. Cardinal Jose
Freire Falcao. Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi. Cardinal Jean Margeot.)
III. Brief summary of the
results of the language groups ("circuli minores").
(Italian A: A. Casaroli, moderator; G. Biffi, spokesman. Italian B: U.
Poletti, moderator; S. Piovanelli, spokesman. English A: E. B. Clancy,
moderator; J. Bernardin, spokesman. English B: S.U. Pimenta, moderator; E.C.
Szoka, spokesman. French A: G. Danneels, moderator; A. Decourtray, spokesman.
French B: P. Zoungrana, moderator; J. Margeot, spokesman. Portuguese: A.
Ribeiro, moderator; J. Freire Falcao, spokesman. Spanish: R. F. Primatesta,
moderator; A. Lopez Trujillo, spokesman. German: J.
Meisner, moderator; F. Wetter, spokesman.)
IV. Summaries of the interventions from the floor.
(Speakers: Cardinals Hickey, Etchegaray, Thiandoum, Lopez
Trujillo, Deskur, Law, Hume, Tzadua, Pimenta, Bernardin, Arinze, Clancy,
Casaroli, Meisner, Poletti, Gonzales Martin, Konig, Ekandem, McCann, Lustiger,
(Click here for letter of the Pope
to all the Bishops upon the conclusion of the consistory.)
REPORT OF CARDINAL RATZINGER
I. The biblical foundations
To deal adequately with the problem of threats to life and to find the most
effective way to defend human life against these threats, we must first of all
determine the essential components, positive and negative, of the contemporary
The essential point of departure is, and remains, the biblical vision of man,
formulated in an exemplary way in the accounts of creation. The Bible defines
the human being in his essence (which precedes all history and is never lost in
history) with two distinctive features:
1. Man is created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:26); the second
account of creation expresses the same idea, saying that man, taken from the
dust of the earth, carries in himself the divine breath of life. Man is
characterized by an immediacy with God that is proper to his being; man is
capax Dei and because he lives under the personal protection of God he is
"sacred": "If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for
in the image of God has man been made" (Gn 9:6). This is an apodictic
statement of divine right which does not permit exceptions: human life is
untouchable because it is divine property.
2. All human beings are one because they come from a single father,
Adam, and a single mother, Eve, "the mother of all the living" (Gn 3:20).
This oneness of the human race, which implies equality and the same basic rights
for all, is solemnly repeated and inculcated again after the flood. To affirm
again the common origin of all men, the tenth chapter of Genesis fully describes
the origin of all humanity from Noah: "These three were the sons of Noah, and
from them the whole earth was peopled" (Gn 9:19).
Both aspects, the divine dignity of the human race and the oneness of its
origin and destiny, are definitively sealed in the figure of the second Adam,
Christ: the Son of God died for all, to unite everyone in the definitive
salvation of divine filiation. And so the common dignity of all men appears with
total clarity: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,
there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal
This biblical message, identical from the first page to the last, is the
bedrock of human dignity and human rights; it is the great inheritance of the
authentic humanism entrusted to the Church, whose duty is to incarnate this
message in every culture, and in every constitutional and social system.
II. The dialectics of the modern age
If we look briefly at the modern age, we face a dialectic which continues
even today. On the one hand, the modem age boasts of having discovered the idea
of human rights inherent in every human being and antecedent to any positive
law, and of having proclaimed these rights in solemn declarations. On the other
hand, these rights, thus acknowledged in theory, have never been so profoundly
and radically denied on the practical level. The roots of this contradiction are
to be sought at the height of the modern age: in the theories of the
Enlightenment concerning human knowledge and the vision of human freedom
connected with them, and in the theories of the social contract and their idea
The fundamental dogma of the Enlightenment is that man must overcome the
prejudices inherited from tradition; he must have the boldness to free himself
from every authority in order to think on his own, using nothing but his own
reason. From this point on, the search for truth is no longer conceived of as a
community effort, in which human beings joined in space and time help each other
to discover better what is difficult to discover on one's own. Reason, free from
any bond, from any relation with what is other, is turned back on itself. It
ends by being thought of as a closed, independent tribunal. Truth is no longer
an objective datum, apparent to each and everyone, even through others. It
gradually becomes something merely external, which each one grasps from one's
own point of view, without ever knowing to what extent one's viewpoint
corresponds to the object in itself or with what others perceive.
The very truth about the good becomes unattainable. The idea of the good in
itself is put outside of man's grasp. The only reference point for each person
is what he can conceive on his own as good. Consequently, freedom is no longer
seen positively as a striving for the good which reason discovers with help from
the community and tradition, but is rather defined as an emancipation from all
conditions preventing the individual from following his own reason. It can be
called a "freedom of indifference".
As long as at least an implicit reference is made to Christian values in
order to orient the individual reason toward the common good, freedom will
impose limits on itself in service of a social order and of a liberty to be
guaranteed to all.
Thus, the great theories about liberty and democratic institutions, for
example Montesquieu's, always presuppose the recognition of a law antecedently
guaranteed by God, and of universal values which these institutions work
together to safeguard by limiting individual liberties, thus making it possible
to exercise them. In this dynamic, the great declarations on human rights were
The theories of the social contract were founded on the idea of a law
antecedent to individual wills which was to be respected by them. From the
moment when religions showed themselves unable to guarantee peace, being rather
a cause of war, theories of the "social contract" were elaborated at the end of
the 17th century (cf. Hobbes): that which would bring harmony among men was a
law recognized by reason and commanding respect by an enlightened prince who
incarnates the general will.
Here, too, when the common reference to values and ultimately to God is lost,
society will then appear merely as an ensemble of individuals placed side by
side, and the contract which ties them together will necessarily be perceived as
an accord among those who have the power to impose their will on others.
To illustrate one aspect of this dialectic between theoretical affirmation of
human rights and their practical denial, I would like to refer to the Weimar
Constitution of the first German Republic of 11 August 1919. This Constitution
does indeed speak of basic rights, but puts them in a context of relativism and
of indifferentism regarding values, which the legislators considered to be a
necessary consequence of tolerance, and therefore obligatory. But precisely this
absolutizing of tolerance to the point of total relativism also relativized
basic rights in such a way that the Nazi regime saw no reason to have to remove
these articles, the foundation of which was too weak and ambiguous to offer an
indisputable protection against their destruction of human rights.
Thus, by a dialectic within modernity, one passes from the affirmation of the
rights of freedom, detached from any objective reference to a common truth, to
the destruction of the very foundations of this freedom. The "enlightened
despot" of the social contract theorists became the tyrannical state, in fact
totalitarian, which disposes of the life of its weakest members, from an unborn
baby to an elderly person, in the name of a public usefulness which is really
only the interest of a few.
This is precisely the striking characteristic of the great drift today
regarding respect for life: it is no longer a question of a purely individual
morality, but one of social morality, ever since States and even international
organizations became guarantors of abortion and euthanasia, passing laws which
authorize them, and providing the wherewithal for those who put them into
III. The war on life today
If, in fact, today we can observe a mobilizing of forces for the defense of
human life in the various "pro-life" movements, a mobilization which is
encouraging and gives cause for hope, we must nevertheless frankly realize that
till now the opposite movement has been stronger: the spread of legislation and
practices which deliberately destroy human life, above all the life of the
weakest: unborn babies. Today we are the witnesses of a true war of the mighty
against the weak, a war which looks to the elimination of the disabled, of those
who are a nuisance, and even of those who are poor and "useless", in all the
moments of their existence. With the complicity of States, colossal means have
been used against people, at the dawn of their life, or when their life has been
rendered vulnerable by accident or illness, or when it is near death.
A violent attack is made on life in the womb by abortion (evidence shows that
there are 30 to 40 million a year worldwide), and to facilitate abortion
millions have been invested to develop abortifacient pills (RU 486). Millions
more have been budgeted for making contraception less harmful to women, with the
result that most chemical contraceptives on sale now act primarily against
implantation, i.e., as abortifacients, without women knowing it. Who will be
able to calculate the number of victims from this unseen holocaust?
Surplus embryos, the inevitable product of in vitro fertilization, are
frozen and eliminated, unless they join their little aborted brothers and
sisters who are to be turned into guinea-pigs for experimentation or into raw
materials for curing illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes. In
vitro fertilization itself frequently becomes the occasion for "selective"
abortions (e.g. choice of sex), when there are undesired multiple pregnancies.
Prenatal diagnosis is almost routinely used on so-called women "at risk" to
eliminate systematically all fetuses which could be more or less malformed or
diseased. All of those who have the good fortune of being carried to term by
their mother, but have the misfortune of being born disabled, run the serious
risk of being eliminated immediately after birth or of being deprived of
nourishment or the most elementary care.
Later, those whom illness or accident cause to fall into an "irreversible"
coma will frequently be put to death in order to meet the demand for organ
transplants, or will even be used for medical experiments ("warm cadavers").
Finally, when the prognosis is terminal, many will be tempted to hasten its
arrival by euthanasia.
IV. Reasons for the opposition to life - the logic of death
But why is there this victory of legislation and antihuman practice precisely
at the time when the idea of human rights seemed to have reached the point of
universal and unconditional recognition? Why do even Christians, even persons of
great moral formation, think that the norms regarding human life could and
should be part of the compromises necessary to political life? Why do they fail
to see the insuperable limits of any legislation worthy of the name - the point
at which "right" becomes injustice and crime?
1. At the first stage of our reflection, I think I can point to two reasons,
behind which others are probably hidden. One reason is reflected in the opinion
of those who hold that there must be a separation between personal ethical
convictions and the political sphere in which laws are formulated. Here, the
only value to be respected would be the complete freedom of choice of each
individual, depending on his own private opinions. In a world in which every
moral conviction lacks a common reference to the truth, such a conviction has
the value of a mere opinion. It would be an expression of intolerance to seek to
impose that conviction on others through legislation, thus limiting their
freedom. Social life, which cannot be established on any common, objective
referent, should be thought of as the result of a compromise of interests, with
a view to guaranteeing the maximum freedom possible for each one. In reality,
however, wherever the decisive criterion for recognizing rights becomes that of
the majority, wherever the right to express one's own freedom can prevail over
the right of a voiceless minority, might has become the criterion of right.
This result is even more obvious and is extremely serious when, in the name
of freedom for those who have power and voice, the fundamental right to life is
denied to those who do not have the possibility of making themselves heard. In
reality, in order to exist, any political community must recognize at least a
minimum of objectively established rights, not granted by way of social
conventions, but antecedent to any political system of law. The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself, signed by almost all the
countries of the world in 1948, after the terrible experience of the Second
World War, expresses fully, even in its title, the awareness that human rights
(the most basic of which is the right to life) belong to man by nature,
that the State recognizes them but does not confer them, that they belong
to all human beings inasmuch as they are human beings, and not because of
secondary characteristics which others would have the right to determine
One understands, then, how a State which arrogates to itself the prerogative
of defining which human beings are or are not the subject of rights, and which
consequently grants to some the power to violate others' fundamental right to
life, contradicts the democratic ideal to which it continues to appeal and
undermines the very foundations on which it is built. By allowing the rights of
the weakest to be violated, the State also allows the law of force to prevail
over the force of law. One sees, then, that the idea of an absolute tolerance of
freedom of choice for some destroys the very foundation of a just mode of social
life. The separation of politics from any natural content of law, which is the
inalienable patrimony of everyone's moral conscience, deprives social life of
its ethical substance and leaves it defenseless before the will of the
But someone may ask when precisely does the person, the subject of basic
rights which must be absolutely respected, begin to exist. If we are not dealing
with a social concession, but rather a re-cognition, the criteria for
this determination must be objective as well. Now, as Donum Vitae (I, 1)
has confirmed, modern genetics show that "from the time that the ovum is
fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the
mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth". Science
has shown "that from the first instant, the program is fixed as to what this
living being will be; a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects
already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a
human life, and each of its great capacities require time to develop, and to be
in a position to act". The recent discoveries of human biology recognize that
"in the zygote resulting from fertilization the biological identity of a new
human individual is already constituted". Certainly no experimental datum can be
in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul;
nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a
valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at
the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual
not be a human person? Regarding this question, although the Magisterium has not
expressed itself in a binding way by a philosophical affirmation, it has still
taught constantly that from the first moment of its existence, as the product of
human generation, the embryo must be guaranteed the unconditional respect which
is morally due to a human being in his spiritual and bodily totality. "The human
being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception;
and therefore, from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized,
among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human
being to life".
2. A second reason which explains the extent of a mentality opposed to life
appears to me to be connected with the very concept of morality that is
widespread today. Often, a merely formal idea of conscience is joined to an
individualistic view of freedom, understood as the absolute right to
self-determination on the basis of personal convictions. This view is no longer
rooted in the classical conception of the moral conscience, in which (as Vatican
II said) a law resounds which man does not give himself, but which he must obey,
a voice which ever summons him to love and to do what is good and to avoid what
is evil, and which when it is necessary says clearly to his heart: do this, keep
away from that (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 16). In this conception, which
belongs to the entire Christian tradition, conscience is the capacity to be open
to the call of truth that is objective, universal, and the same for all who can
and must seek it. It is not isolation, but communion: cum scire in
the truth concerning the good, which brings human beings together in the
intimacy of their spiritual nature. It is in this relationship with common and
objective truth that conscience finds its justification and its dignity, a
dignity which must always be accurately guaranteed by a continuing formation.
For the Christian this naturally entails a sentire cum Ecclesia, and so,
an intrinsic reference to the authentic Magisterium of the Church.
On the other hand, in the new conception, clearly Kantian in origin,
conscience is detached from its constitutive relationship with a content of
moral truth and is reduced to a mere formal condition of morality. Its
suggestion, "do good and avoid evil", would have no necessary and universal
reference to the truth concerning the good, but would be linked only with the
goodness of the subjective intention. Concrete actions, instead, would depend
for their moral qualification on the self-understanding of the individual, which
is always culturally and circumstantially determined. In this way, conscience
becomes nothing but subjectivity elevated to being the ultimate criterion of
action. The fundamental Christian idea that nothing can be opposed to conscience
no longer has the original and inalienable meaning that truth can only be
imposed in virtue of itself, i.e. in personal interiority. Instead, we have the
divinization of subjectivity, the infallible oracle of which is conscience,
never to be doubted by anyone or anything.
V. The anthropological dimensions of the challenge
1. However, it is necessary to investigate the roots of this opposition to
life more deeply. And so on a second level, reflecting a more personalist
approach, we find an anthropological dimension which we should pause to
consider, however briefly.
It should be noted here that western culture increasingly affirms a new
dualism, in which some of its characteristic traits converge: individualism,
materialism, utilitarianism, and the hedonist ideology of self-fulfillment by
oneself. In fact, the body is no longer perceived spontaneously by the subject
as the concrete form of all of one's relations with God, other persons, and the
world, i.e. as that datum which makes one part of a universe being built, a
conversation in course, a history rich in meaning, in which one can participate
in positively only by accepting its rules and its language. Rather, the body
appears to be a tool to be utilized for one's well-being, worked out and
implemented by technical reasoning which figures out how to draw the greatest
profit from it.
In this way even sexuality becomes depersonalized and exploited. Sexuality
appears merely as an occasion for pleasure and no longer as an act of
self-giving or as the expression of a love in which another is accepted
completely as he or she is, and which opens itself to the richness of life it
brings, i.e. a baby who will be the fruit of that love. The two meanings of the
sexual act, unitive and procreative, become separated. Union is impoverished,
while fruitfulness is reduced to the sphere of a rational calculation: "A child?
Certainly. But when and how I want one".
It becomes clear that such a dualism between technical reasoning and the body
viewed as an object permits man to flee from the mystery of being. In reality,
birth and death, the appearance and the passing of another, the arrival and the
dissolution of the ego, all direct the subject immediately to the question of
his own meaning and his own existence. And perhaps to escape this anguishing
question, he seeks to guarantee for himself the most complete dominion possible
over these two key moments in life; he seeks to put them under his own control.
It is an illusion to think that man is in complete possession of himself, that
he enjoys absolute freedom, that he can be manufactured according to a plan
which leaves nothing uncertain, nothing to chance, nothing mysterious.
2. A world which makes such an absolute option for efficiency, a world which
so approves of a utilitarian logic, a world which for the most part thinks of
freedom as an absolute right of the individual and conscience as a totally
solitary, subjectivist court of appeal, necessarily tends to impoverish all
human relations to the point of considering them finally as relations of power,
and of not allowing the weakest human beings to have the place which is their
due. From this point of view, utilitarian ideology heads in the direction of
machismo, and feminism becomes the legitimate reaction against the
exploitation of woman.
However, so-called feminism is frequently based on the same
utilitarian presuppositions as machismo and, far from liberating woman,
contributes rather to her enslavement.
When, in line with the dualism just described, woman denies her own body,
considering it simply as an object to be used for acquiring happiness through
self-fulfillment, she also denies her own femininity, a properly feminine gift
of self and her acceptance of another person, of which motherhood is the most
typical sign and the most concrete realization.
When woman opts for free love and reaches the point of claiming the right to
abortion, she helps to reinforce a notion of human relations according to which
the dignity of each one depends, in the eyes of the other, on how much he is
able to give. In all of this, woman takes a position against her own femininity
and against the values of which she is the bearer: acceptance of life,
availability to the weakest, unconditional devotion to the needy. An authentic
feminism, working for the advancement of woman in her integral truth and for the
liberation of all women, would also work for the advancement of the whole human
person and for the liberation of all human beings. This feminism would, in fact,
struggle for the recognition of the human person in the dignity which is due to
him or her from the sole fact of existence, of being willed and created by God,
and not for his or her usefulness, power, beauty, intelligence, wealth, or
health. It would strive to advance an anthropology which values the essence of
the person as made for the gift of self and the acceptance of the other, of
which the body, male or female, is the sign and instrument.
It is precisely by developing an anthropology which presents man in his
personal and relational wholeness that we can respond to the widespread argument
that the best way to fight against abortion would be to promote contraception.
Each of us has already heard this rebuke leveled against the Church: "It is
absurd that you want to prevent both contraception and abortion. Blocking access
to the former means making the latter inevitable". Such an assertion, which at
first sight seems totally plausible, is, however, contradicted by experience:
the fact is that generally an increase in the rate of contraception is
paralleled by an increase in the rate of abortion. The paradox is only apparent.
It must be noted, in fact, that contraception and abortion both have their roots
in that depersonalized and utilitarian view of sexuality and procreation which
we have just described and which in turn is based on a truncated notion of man
and his freedom.
It is not a matter of assuming a stewardship that is responsible and worthy
of one's own fertility as the result of a generous plan that is always open to
the possible acceptance of unforeseen new life.
It is rather a matter of ensuring complete control over procreation, which
rejects even the idea of an unplanned child. Understood in these terms,
contraception necessarily leads to abortion as a "backup solution". One cannot
strengthen the contraceptive mentality without strengthening at the same time
the ideology which supports it, and therefore without implicitly encouraging
abortion. On the contrary, if one develops the idea that man only discovers
himself fully in the generous gift of himself and in the unconditional
acceptance of the other, simply because the latter exists, then abortion will
increasingly be seen to be a senseless crime.
An individualistic type of anthropology, as we have seen, leads one to
consider objective truth as inaccessible, freedom as arbitrary, conscience as a
tribunal closed in on itself. Such an anthropology leads woman not only to
hatred of men, but also to hatred of herself and of her own femininity, and
above all, of her own motherhood.
More generally such an anthropology leads human beings to hatred of
themselves. Man despises himself; he is no longer in accord with God who found
his human creation to be "something very good" (Gn 1:31). On the contrary, man
today sees himself as the destroyer of the world, an unhappy product of
evolution. In reality, man who no longer has access to the infinite, to God, is
a contradictory being, a failed product. Thus we see the logic of sin: by
wanting to be like God, man seeks absolute independence. To be self-sufficient,
he must become independent, he must be emancipated even from love, which is
always a free grace, not something that can be produced or made. However, by
making himself independent of love, man is separated from the true richness of
his being and becomes empty. Opposition to his own being is inevitable. "It is
not good to be a human being" - the logic of death belongs to the logic of sin.
The road to abortion, to euthanasia and the exploitation of the weakest lies
To sum up everything, then, we can say: the ultimate root of hatred for human
life, of all attacks on human life, is the loss of God. Where God disappears,
the absolute dignity of human life disappears as well. In the light of the
revelation concerning the creation of man in the image and likeness of God, the
inviolable sacredness of the human person has appeared. Only this divine
dimension guarantees the full dignity of the human person. Therefore, a purely
vitalist argument, as we often see used (e.g. in the sense intended by A.
Schweitzer), can be a first step, but remains insufficient and never reaches the
intended goal. In the struggle for life, talking about God is indispensable.
Only in this way does the metaphysical foundation of human dignity become
apparent; only in this way does the value of the weak, of the disabled, of the
nonproductive, of the incurably ill become apparent; only in this way can we
relearn and rediscover the value of suffering too: the greatest lesson on human
dignity always remains the Cross of Christ; our salvation has its origin not in
what the Son of God did, but in what he suffered, and the person who does not
know how to suffer does not know how to live.
Possible responses to the challenge of our time
What should be done in this situation in order to respond to the challenge
For my part, I would like to confine myself to the possibilities associated
with the function of the Magisterium. Magisterial statements on this problem
have not been wanting in recent years. The Holy Father tirelessly insists on the
defense of life as a fundamental duty of every Christian; many bishops speak of
it with great competence and force. In the past few years the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith has published several important documents on the moral
themes regarding respect for human life. In 1974,
the Congregation issued a Declaration on Procured Abortion; in
1980, with the Instruction Iura et Bona, it published a statement
on the problems of euthanasia and care for the terminally in; in 1987, the
Instruction Donum Vitae, confronted, in the context of dealing with
medically assisted procreation, the problem of respect for human embryos, of the
so-called "surplus" products of in vitro fertilization, of their freezing
and destruction, as well as that of selective abortion following multiple
In spite of these position statements, in spite of very numerous papal
addresses on some of these problems or on their particular aspects, the field
remains wide open for a global restatement on the doctrinal level, one which
would go to the deepest roots of the problem and denounce the most aberrant
consequences of the "death mentality".
One could therefore think of a possible document on the defense of human
life, which in my opinion should have two original characteristics in respect to
the preceding documents. First of all, it should not merely develop its
treatment of individual morality, but should also give consideration to social
and political morality. The various threats against human life could be
confronted more in detail from five points of view: the doctrinal, the cultural,
the legislative, the political, and finally the practical.
From the specifically doctrinal point of view, the Magisterium today could
propose a solemn affirmation of the principle that "the direct killing of an
innocent human being is always a matter of grave sin". Without being a formal
dogmatic pronouncement, this affirmation would nevertheless have the weight of a
dogmatic pronouncement. Its key elements: "direct killing", "innocent human
being", "a matter of grave sin", can in fact be precisely defined. Neither
biblical foundations nor those of tradition are lacking.
Such a strictly doctrinal position taken with a high degree of authority
could have the greatest importance at a time of widespread doctrinal confusion.
However, that is not enough. The reasonableness of our faith, its human
evidence, must be apparent in the context of our time. Hence the need to develop
the Church's teaching by following other points of view.
The cultural point of view would allow for a denunciation of the antilife
ideology which is based on materialism and justified by utilitarianism.
The legislative point of view could present an outline of the different types
of legislation which already exist or are being planned in regard to abortion,
the embryo trade, euthanasia, etc. This would make it possible to highlight the
implicit presuppositions of these laws, to show that they are intrinsically
immoral, and to clarify the proper function of civil law in relation to the
The political point of view could be one of the most important elements. It
would be a matter of showing how laws are always the implementation of a social
plan, and how the implicit intention in anti-life laws is basically totalitarian
within society and imperialistic on the part of the developed countries of the
West in regard to the Third World countries. The former are seeking to contain
the latter on the pretext of demographic policies and are not shunning any
From the practical point of view, finally, we could commit ourselves to
making people aware of the malice involved in using certain abortifacient or
contraceptive-abortifacient means, of the evil implicit in belonging to or
promoting so-called "right to death with dignity" associations or in
distributing pamphlets which teach how to commit suicide.
In this context, one could also speak of the role of the mass media, of
parties and elected representatives, of doctors and health care personnel,
always mentioning the positive and negative aspects: on the one hand denouncing
any complicity, and on the other encouraging, praising, and motivating those
activities which favor life.
And so we arrive at the second original feature of a possible new document:
although there should be room for condemnation, this would not be the main
feature. Above all, it would be a matter of giving a joyous restatement of the
message about the immense value of each and every human being, however poor,
weak, or suffering he or she may be. The statement would show how this value is
seen in the eyes of philosophers, but above all in the eyes of God, as
Revelation teaches us.
It would be a matter of recalling with wonder the marvels of the Creator
towards his creation, the marvels of the Redeemer towards those he came to meet
and save. It would be a matter of showing how receptivity to the Spirit entails
a generous availability to other people, and thus a receptivity towards every
human life from the first moment of its existence until the time of its death.
In short, against all ideologies and policies of death, it is a matter of
recalling all that is essential in the Christian Good News: beyond all
suffering, Christ has opened the way to thanksgiving for life, in both its human
and divine aspects.
More important than any document will be a clear and committed proclamation
of the Gospel of life by preachers throughout the world in order to restore the
clarity and joy of the faith, and to offer believers the reasons for our hope (1
Pt 3:15), which can also convince non-believers.
RESUME OF THE REPORTS BY CONTINENTS
The reports concentrated on the distressing problem of abortion, with some
attention to the subject of euthanasia as well. Some of the reports also touched
to a greater or lesser degree upon various forms of physical and moral threats
against life: violence, guerrilla activity, inhuman prisons, degrading working
conditions, the buying and selling of young people, famine, war, tyranny,
dictatorship, kidnapping, natural disasters, traffic accidents, etc.
The Legalization of Abortion
Generally, there is a growing movement to promote the legalization of
abortion practices or at least to make their illegality irrelevant. Often the
starting point for this has been the introduction of sterilization for
therapeutic, psychological and socio-economic reasons. Only with difficulty can
societies which have embraced the contraceptive mentality reject the
legalization of abortion, which in fact ends by being considered the ultimate
effective means of birth control, despite the fact that this is contrary to the
agreement signed at the World Conference on Population (Mexico, 1985).
So far only two countries in Europe (Malta and Ireland) have resisted this
movement, whereas the majority of those in Africa (except for 6) and in Latin
America have done so, even though drafts of laws aimed at legalizing abortion
practices are being prepared for their various legislative bodies.
Recent decades have seen a change in attitude to crimes against life in its
earliest stages. The reasons vary:
- the population explosion;
- campaigns by feminist extremists;
- a decline in faith and religious practice, if not an outright rejection of
God in the more prosperous societies;
- the transition from a religiously pluralistic society to a morally
- a distortion of moral values;
- the complicity of the mass media.
In addition there is sometimes inducement by powerful organizations which
offer economic assistance on condition that governments introduce birth control
The Position of the Catholic Church
The Church has never ceased insisting on her teaching concerning abortion. In
fact, the Episcopal Conferences, presenting the teaching of the Magisterium,
have opposed the legalization of abortion practices.
At the same time they have frequently appealed to the Christian community to
help couples and women in difficulties. In full fidelity to the teaching and
principles of the Magisterium, we must help those who make mistakes and find it
hard to live according to the truth. Compassion for those who err, not for their
Consequences of the legalization of abortion:
- the spread of an insidious confusion between good and evil (inversion of
- a devastating effect on consciences, with bitter reactions against the
Church, which, it is asserted, continues to foster the sense of guilt;
- the growth of the phenomenon of clandestine abortions, which it was thought
would be reduced by permissive laws;
- negative repercussions on faith and even on reason: human nature is on the
side of life;
- the creation of a world of lies (ambiguous language, captious reasoning):
the lie of abortion is truly the cause of the Devil, a murderer from the
- an undermining of the foundations of the right to life; the hypothesis is
put forward that euthanasia is obligatory, like the theory that abortion is
- permissive civil legislation has become the great teacher of the peoples.
We need to recognize courageously that it is not possible to be a Christian by
trying to make everyone happy.
The Church's pastoral activity (some concrete indications)
The service which the Church must offer to humanity in this area demands
first of all that the clear voice of her Magisterium should be heard by all. The
seriousness of a possible silence, to say nothing of outright dissent from her
doctrine, as happens in the case of some representatives of the Church, is clear
to all: it helps in fact to weaken the power of truth.
But to ensure that the teaching of the Magisterium is accessible, we need to
prepare groups of instructors who will work closely with couples. Specially
recommended therefore is the practical method of educating couples, as promoted
by movements, associations and family counselors inspired by Christian
These are the principal courses of action:
- To instruct couples in awareness of their own anatomy, physiology and
psychology. To guide them, through the method of self-observation, to realize
the rich resources they possess. This is more effective than encouraging a war
against contraceptive imperialism. It is not a matter of a technique but of an
education in knowledge and respect.
- To prepare competent and credible instructors. They can even be couples
with a limited educational background but who know how to transmit a way of
living. Natural methods can be applied only if the spouses have discovered the
interpersonal dimension of sexuality.
- To avoid detaching life from love. Fertility is not an illness but a rich
resource of the couple: we need to react against a language which presents a
child as a threat or a risk.
- To prepare young people for marriage by a serious education in love.
Intelligent pastoral care for the family must include in an integrated way the
various aspects of the doctrine that is being taught and must suggest concrete
ways of living it out.
- To present Humanae Vitae in a correct way: it has been a great
defense of married love, a prophetic cry protecting the privacy of the couple
and a protest against the interference of the State in the right to transmit
life. Non-Christians too can accept this way of stating respect for spouses, the
value to be placed on love, and the protection to be given to life.
SUMMARY OF THE WORK OF THE "CIRCULI
The statements made by the Cardinals were based on the following questions:
First Question: Do you think that the situation of grave threat to which
our society exposes the fundamental gift of life demands an authoritative
intervention of the Church's Magisterium on the subject, with particular
reference to abortion?
The gravity of the phenomenon. The Cardinals consider the present world
situation with regard to crimes and threats against human life as being very
serious. The phenomenon is alarming both in its extent and its gravity. One sees
evidence of a real arrogance on the part of certain Organizations, Governments
and Legislative Bodies which are working to create an anti-life mentality, a
sort of "culture of death". Refined techniques are being employed in the service
of death. Awareness of the preeminent gift of life is gradually being lost and
there is a diminishing sense of sin itself. This reflects a moral crisis which
comes from rejecting God and human dignity.
Request for an authoritative intervention. All the "circuli" are
agreed in asking for an authoritative intervention by the Magisterium. Such an
intervention is considered urgent, necessary for informing consciences and
prophetic. What is needed is a courageous defense of life, one which will engage
and challenge the consciences of all. The intervention, according to the
majority, should be at the highest level.
The literary genre proposed. Almost all the "circuli" show a
preference for an Encyclical of the Holy Father which would have as its
subject the defense of human life. A solemn document of this kind, which will
have the support of all the Bishops, should mobilize all the forces available
and thus open a historical era in the promotion and safeguarding of life as one
of the central aims of the Church's pastoral activity.
Possible contents. Some wish the document, in its overall form, to
include the many different threats to life such as poverty, war, etc. All
consider that its central theme should be abortion. Some have pointed out
the urgency of also highlighting euthanasia, together with other questions of
bioethics (contraception, sterilization, artificial insemination, in vitro
fertilization, etc.). Others prefer that questions regarding euthanasia and the
various forms of insemination should continue to be (as they have been in the
past) the subject of declarations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, by reason of the complexity of this area of medical morals.
A suggestion has been made that provision be made for offering a
philosophical and theological foundation for respect for human life, emphasizing
the importance of including in the document certain truths of Humanae Vitae,
especially in matters regarding the issue of separating the unitive and
procreative meanings of human sexuality.
The authoritative intervention will help to enlighten and form consciences
which today are being negatively influenced by the environment.
Second Question: Should the Bishops of the world be consulted beforehand
or should an Extraordinary Synod be convened?
Although a consultation on the doctrinal aspects is not considered necessary,
since these are already sufficiently clear, the majority does feel that a
consultation on the present state of affairs concerning crimes against life,
according to the aspects brought up in Cardinal Ratzinger's report, would be
helpful and timely. This consultation would confirm the bond of unity between
the Bishops and help them to reach a clear consensus which the Holy Father, as
Head of the College of Bishops, would then take up and proclaim in defense of
With regard to the possible convening of an Extraordinary Synod aimed at
reinforcing the authority of the papal document by the consensus of the College
of Bishops, the Cardinals took varying positions:
- the majority did not consider it opportune for different reasons: the
urgency of the response which needs to be given; the heavy workload which
Bishops have already; the subject matter is not really suited to a Synod;
the delay which the preparation of a future ordinary Synod would involve;
- a small number of Cardinals called for the establishment of a preliminary
working groups and with minor differences in their approach considered
opportune the calling of an Extraordinary Synod.
Third Question: What sort of declarations would be appropriate from the
Episcopal Conferences in order to support the papal document?
All the Cardinals deemed it necessary that once the papal document is
published the Episcopal Conferences should make statements expressing their
clear and heartfelt acceptance; the unanimity of the body of Bishops should not
seem to be diminished in the eyes of public opinion even by marginal
differences. Obviously this would not be a question of theological approval,
which the document would not need, but rather an outward sign, a forceful
demonstration of unity.
As for organizing a particular joint action by the Bishops in order to make
the contents of the document known, various proposals were put forward.
A united response by theologians would obviously be important too. The
Bishops should therefore ensure, in this critical area, that theologians in
ecclesiastical faculties and seminaries impart a solid and consistent teaching
to priests and seminarians.
Also in programs of preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage a central place
should be given to the dignity and defense of life.
Another channel for making the teaching of the Encyclical known is the
Liturgy: respect for life can be instilled through prayers, intentions and
explanations during the more important seasons of the liturgical year. Outlines
can also be prepared, as is already being done in some countries, for
celebrating a special Week for the defense of life, with the provision of
material for homilies as well.
Catechesis must treat with greater attention and depth the subject of respect
for life and its dignity. For this purpose it will be helpful to work out
catechetical programs for systematic instruction at the various stages of
religious education (basic catechesis, parish groups, movements).
It will also be important to establish, direct and coordinate
specific Pro-Life Movements, by setting up Centers of assistance and protection
for life. Through such Centers, valuable use can be made of the contributions of
professionals directly involved in the various areas of defense of life
(doctors, lawyers, politicians, legislators).
Diocesan Bishops could promote study meetings, colloquia and periods of
reflection in order to make the Church's position better known. It will likewise
be their task to encourage Congregations of Women Religious to devote themselves
to projects for supporting pregnant women and taking in their babies once they
The Encyclical will also need to be supported by concrete measures in the
field of education, aimed at eliminating the ignorance and confusion which
presently exist with regard to the nature, extent and effects of abortion: in
the field of social work, by eliminating as far as possible the reasons
leading to abortion; in the field of politics, by promoting the maximum
legal protection for the unborn; and in the field of pastoral care, by
encouraging the concern of the Catholic community for women tempted to have an
abortion or who have already had one.
Fourth Question: If it is decided that an Encyclical is appropriate, what
should be its main lines and specific thrust?
It should be addressed to all people of good will (as was Pacem in
Terris), though being principally directed to Catholics. The inductive
method used by the Second Vatican Council (specifically in Gaudium et Spes)
would be preferable.
The document should have a positive tone, as a proclamation of the immense
worth of the human being, of every individual. A consistent and convincing
proclamation of the Gospel of life, which avoids sweeping negative judgments but
which is also capable of condemning with courage and with an objective force
able to challenge consciences. The language should be clear and restrained, firm
and yet respectful of all; in no way should it be clerical.
The text should be developed on two levels. First, it should present the
argument from reason (as being the basis for dialogue with all mankind),
stressing that crimes against human life -- especially when they are backed by
law -- are not only a denial of the basic rights of the person but also an
indisputable defeat for reason. Secondly, it should present the viewpoint of
faith, making reference to the data of Revelation, with a forceful reference
to God, the Creator of life and its defender, especially in the case of the
weakest. It should be placed in the context of Christian anthropology (in its
philosophical and theological aspects) and present the full truth
about man and his eminent dignity. The following are some basic indications:
human life cannot be separated from God. It is a sacred gift from God which man
is not free to do with as he wishes. For this reason, an offence against life is
an offence against God himself. Man has been created in the likeness of God and
for this reason is by his very nature ordered towards God. Being a person, he
has received from God an inviolable dignity. Opposed to this dignity is the
exploitation of man and particularly of woman, who in a special way is called to
be the guardian of life. A form of tolerance that would put good and evil on the
same level cannot be sustained. The community too is bound to moral values,
which are given to it as they are to every individual. Among these values there
is also the acceptance of suffering, the meaning of which must be rediscovered
so that people may be able to endure pain and help others to endure it as well.
The Encyclical will have to take into account the demographic problem, when
this is not an excuse for backing abortion, and will have to be based on
scientifically established data, with particular concern for social justice, for
the cultures of the various peoples and for the physical environment. It would
also be appropriate for the Encyclical to include a rejection of war as a means
for resolving disputes between nations.
The document should also strongly emphasize the formation of conscience, by
explicitly invoking the mission of educators (pastors and teachers), calling for
a better formation of those who engage in formation themselves (priests and
others), who will be entrusted in a special way with making the contents of the
Encyclical widely known.
The Encyclical should not lack a forceful reference to the responsibility of
politicians, legislators, physicians and professionals in the mass media to
commit themselves, in a way consistent with the faith they profess, to defending
life within the framework of authentic freedom and respect for every individual.
SUMMARY OF THE INTERVENTIONS FROM THE
- It was emphasized that the Encyclical should become the central point of
reference for the defense of life, of which the Church is called to be the great
- The Encyclical should be to life what Rerum Novarum was to the
- The purpose of the preliminary consultation will be the fostering of
communio around the Holy Father: the Episcopal Conferences will report on
what they are already doing and will suggest what should be done in the future.
- Emphasis was laid on the importance of promoting Centers for advanced study
on the family and on life in every country and even in every Diocese. Institutes
such as the John Paul II Institute in Rome and others like it in Washington,
Holland, Mexico, Fano, etc. can point the way for many others. Such institutes
can be meeting places for physicians, biologists, geneticists, theologians,
catechists, etc. In this way, the response to the Holy Father's appeal will be
- It will be appropriate to set up in every Diocese a special office for
dealing with the family and life, along the lines of the one which the Holy
Father set up for the Roman Curia (i.e. the Pontifical Council for the Family).
This office will have the task of promoting the values of sexuality, life and
the family, in the light of the Church's Magisterium.
- Following the example of the Holy See's presence in and contributions to
international organizations on behalf of life, it will be appropriate to provide
on the national level for contacts with politicians both Christian and
non-Christian, in order to help them gain a solid formation in these matters.
- Where commissions for dialogue with other Christians or other believers
exist, common activities in defense of life and against abortion can be
- The appropriateness of establishing a World Day for Life was also
- In countries where the right of medical students to conscientious objection
is not respected, with the result that they are prevented from specializing in
gynecology, they should be offered alternative ways of continuing their studies,
- Given their pastoral importance for the good of individuals and for witness
in defense of life, institutions set up to welcome, reconcile and heal women and
others who have been responsible for abortions (e.g. Project Rachel) should be
increased in number and scope.
- Women have a preponderant role in defending the Church's position, which on
the other hand is strongly opposed by extreme feminism. It will therefore be
necessary to coordinate their commitment to witnessing for life. Efforts will
likewise have to be made to form the consciences of journalists, politicians,
doctors and nurses, so that they will have arguments for witnessing to life and
defending it in the daily practice of their professions.
- In order that the Church's teaching can more clearly and fully reach the
faithful through preaching and catechesis, attention will have to be given to
the formation of priests. The Sacrament of Penance, which is a great tool for
forming consciences, but which is deserted nowadays, must be restored so that
the faithful can be given direction.
- A primary commitment is the exercise of vigilance to ensure that the
teaching of professors of Moral Theology in seminaries conforms to the teaching
of the Magisterium.
- Pro-Life Movements need to be directed, led and coordinated to ensure that
they are really effective. There is also a need to encourage already existing
Religious Congregations to become involved in this area, or to promote new ones
devoted to concern for and service of life.
On the contents of the Encyclical:
- It should be addressed to all men and women of good will, in addition to
being a specific teaching for the members of the "household of the faith".
Bishops should commit themselves to supporting it with pastoral statements.
- The responsibility of politicians and legislators regarding abortion laws
should be made absolutely dear. They cannot always and everywhere take refuge in
the distinction between "what is legal" and "what is moral".
- There is a need to establish a serious family policy so that mothers faced
with a new child do not feel that they are "forced" to have an abortion.
- It is urgently necessary for consciences to be enlightened concerning
euthanasia, because delays can lead to dissent in the future. There should be a
clarification in this regard as to what constitute "ordinary" and
"extraordinary" means of maintaining life, and in what circumstances it is licit
to avoid recourse to expensive and extraordinary means so as to maintain life at
- The argument against abortion should be based not only on the data of faith
but also on reasons of the natural order, such as the concepts of "human right"
and "social justice".
- It will be necessary to present the Church's position on demography, and
produce a scientific critique of the myth of overpopulation. It will also be
necessary to provide a proper presentation of responsible parenthood, by
explaining the meaning of natural methods, pointing out that their value is not
linked simply to the transmission or not of physical life but to full respect
for the person of the spouse in all of his or her dimensions.
- Emphasis should be given to the praiseworthy attitude of doctors,
health-care workers and all those who in spite of challenges promote practical
respect for life. Praise should likewise be given to the mentality of esteem for
life present in some cultures.
- Finally, it will be necessary to unmask and condemn the activity of very
powerful agencies which, with enormous structures and financial resources, try
to convince peoples and governments that humanity is heading for a disaster, and
thus eliminate, with promises of financial assistance, resistance to the various
forms of birth-control and abortion.
Teachings of the Magisterium on Life