The Problem of Threats to Human Life

Consistory of Cardinals

April 04, 1991


(Note: This consistory was a key preparatory moment for the preparation of the Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae.)

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 continents.

(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, Gagnon.)

(Click here for letter of the Pope to all the Bishops upon the conclusion of the consistory.)



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 anthropological discussion.

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 3:28).

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 of society.

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 pronounced.

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 practice.

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 arbitrarily.

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 strongest.

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 open.

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 just described?

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 implantations.

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 moral law.

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 means.

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.



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 pluralistic society;

- 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 programs.

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 errors.

Consequences of the legalization of abortion:

- the spread of an insidious confusion between good and evil (inversion of values);

- 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 beginning;

- 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 necessary;

- 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 principles.

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.



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 man.

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 are born.

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.



- 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 protector.

- The Encyclical should be to life what Rerum Novarum was to the social question.

- 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 effective.

- 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 promoted.

- The appropriateness of establishing a World Day for Life was also emphasized.

- 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 any cost.

- 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.

Priests for Life
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