A Culture of Life at the Service of the Gospel of Life
Comment on Evangelium Vitae, Chapter 4
The last section of Evangelium Vitae exhorts us on the innumerable ways Catholics can contribute to building a culture of life by being at the service of the gospel of life. The subtitle of chapter four speaks of a “new culture of human life”, which has become shortened to “a culture of life”. I prefer the precision of the phrase a “culture of human life” because it is the human quality of life that needs affirmation and protection today. All life is precious but human life is at greatest risk as we seemingly progress down the road of modern advanced civilization.
It is becoming more evident with each passing month that the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of each human life at all stages are the bulwark and the glue holding Western culture together. The vision of the human person as a dignified and unified entity capable of transcending himself, created by God with an eternal destiny needs to be better understood, explained, and defended with greater clarity and confidence by those who profess faith in God. American Catholics are surrounded by people often thoughtlessly embracing the culture of death in the name of compassion and tolerance. It is impossible to promote a culture worthy of the human person without study of Catholic teaching on the human person and study of the cultural issues that challenge that teaching.
“We are a people of life because God, in His unconditional love, has given us the Gospel of life and by this same Gospel we have been transformed and saved”. §79
As members of the people of life we do not have to assume the work of changing the culture alone. We are part of a redeemed community in Christ and it is part of every Christian’s vocation to evangelize in our family, among our friends, wherever we find ourselves. The task of changing the culture, of fighting the abortion mentality, can seem overwhelming to us as individuals but God has given us His grace and called us to work together, sending us out to affirm human life, “to become a neighbor” of everyone.
The Gospel of life is a gift, not something we have made. When political leaders deliberately distort the Church’s affirmation of the scientific fact that life begins at conception they demonstrate their cafeteria mentality toward Church teaching and science. Clinging to their Catholic identity they arrogantly deny their responsibility to defend life so as to support women’s rights, especially the right to abortion, because that will win votes.
Several individual bishops and the bishops’ conference have answered this affront to faithful Catholics and to Church leaders. They must defend the gift of the gospel of life even if it means prominent New York Times headlines and alienating some people. The bishops’ choices to defend the gospel of life are not as onerous (yet) as Thomas More’s choice to defend Church teaching on marriage in sixteenth-century England. He stood out because most of the bishops and lay leaders wanted to please the king and follow his wishes and save their lives. Only a handful wanted to remain faithful to truth and face death. Prominent Catholic leaders who support anti-life teaching and policies only serve the culture of death.
“Together we all sense our duty to preach the Gospel of life, to celebrate it in the Liturgy and in our whole existence, and to serve it with the various programs and structures which support and promote life”. §79
After the experience of September 11, 2001, and our loss of people that we knew in the terrorist attacks on both Washington and New York, several friends and I felt a profound need to celebrate the lives and gifts of our friends in a new, more conscious way. That event made one see the fragility of life that is always in God’s hands. That insight translated into remembering people’s birthdays, praying for people in special ways, getting together to remember one of our group, Barbara Olson, who now has a memorial bench at the new Pentagon memorial. For our country the September 11th annual memorials have a religious tone and have made us think about virtues of heroism, patriotism, and taking joy in the gift of everyday life.
“To proclaim Jesus is itself to proclaim life”. §80
John Paul uses a beautiful quote from Saint Gregory of Nyssa to explain how grace through Jesus raises the human being to sublime dignity. He says, “Man, as a being, is of no account; he is dust, grass, vanity. But once he is adopted by the God of the universe as a son, he becomes part of the family of that Being, whose excellence and greatness no one can see, hear or understand. What words, thoughts or flight of the spirit can praise the superabundance of this grace? Man surpasses his nature: mortal, he becomes immortal; perishable, he becomes imperishable; fleeting, he becomes eternal; human, he becomes divine.”
C. S. Lewis complements this insight with one of his own in Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat [Lat., “truly hides”] the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself is truly hidden” (Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces, London, Fount, 1991, p 109).
The great truth is grace transforms nature. God has created us and wants us to flourish forever. Sharing this good news is bringing salvation to our culture. That is why we must oppose efforts to redefine marriage, motherhood, virginity, the meaning of man and woman, even the meaning and value of human life. Today the good news includes holding to the supreme value and eternal dimension of human life in a hostile culture.
Witnessing to the Gospel of Life “involves proclaiming the core of this Gospel”. §81
The pope then describes the essential concepts of his theology of the body: the affirmation of the inseparable connection between the person, his life and his bodiliness; that life is a gift of God; that the human body speaks the language of love demonstrating that we are made for interpersonal communion and self-giving love; and that Christ has a unique relationship with every person. The consequences of this gospel are that abortion and euthanasia are unacceptable. Human life is to be protected and cared for, not disposed of as a throw-away thing. Science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development, a theme the pope developed in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, and in many other writings.
In all the ways we teach the gospel of life the pope urges us to emphasize “the anthropological reasons upon which respect for every human life is based”. §82
This is so important for all involved in the formation of consciences, an on-going experience for all of us at all stages of life. There are many cultural ideas about how to be human today, many of them superficial, materialistic and self-centered. We see them in movies like “Sex and the City”, innumerable TV shows, on the internet, and hear them in radio ads for things like Viagra.
In most cases they ignore the ethical side of life as if it were unimportant. They all lack the integral vision of the human person presented by the Catholic Church that affirms the unity of the person and his or her body. How we understand what it means to be human will influence how we make decisions, who we will marry, what career we will follow, and our eternal destiny. In writing his theology of the body the pope expressed his concern that dissent from Church teaching on sexuality was taking people down a path to ruin and loss of their humanity.
Sexuality is part of our bodily life and respect for the eternal truths of man and woman as created by God is not given much consideration today. Instead there is a willingness even in marriage to subordinate the truth about the human body and its capacity to give life to techniques that deny that capacity, thereby introducing a lie into the love relationship of marriage. As Dr. William May often says, anti-life behavior often becomes anti-love behavior. If man is made for love and communion and this reality is written into the language of the body there are great consequences from denying that truth. Love becomes lust and the spouse becomes the object. When the truth of the conjugal relationship is denied a deep human truth is lost. The culture of death can begin in the bedroom. Understanding that human life is created by God as male and female and oriented to communion with God and with each other is essential to ever finding a happy life. We can overcome a sense of alienation when we discover and live the nuptial meaning of the body and take up the task of learning self-mastery and self-gift, the example Jesus gave us.
“Volunteer workers have a specific role to play: they make a valuable contribution to the service of life when they combine professional ability and generous, selfless love. §90
Pope John Paul continues, “The Gospel of life inspires them to lift their feelings of good will towards others to the heights of Christ’s charity; to renew every day, amid hard work and weariness, their awareness of the dignity of every person; to search out people’s needs and, when necessary, to set out on new paths where needs are greater but care and support weaker”.
He goes on to say that through families, groups and associations we influence the culture and protect basic human values. Legislative leaders are included in this category. The actions of these groups and the laws they support “influence patterns of thought and behavior”. The struggle to defend traditional values against the onslaught of progressive values like homosexual marriage is played out in legislatures and in the courts.
In California, for example, the people voted in 2000 that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Their mandate was overturned by the state court. In November 2008, the people once again voted to reinstate that definition of marriage (Proposition 8). Enormous effort by many groups and associations went into getting the issue before the people of California a second time. Without their effort a marriage license would eliminate the words “bride” and “groom” and substitute “Party A” and “Party B”. Marriage would be considered gender-neutral. When a state redefines marriage in law it undermines the dignity of marriage, influences the behavior of all citizens and compromises the educational system, which then teaches the young this new set of pseudo-values.
In this section the pope says it is the role of Christians in a pluralistic society “not to give in” and to work hard for policies that support families and motherhood and the life values. The attitude of “not giving in” is extremely important today. It has to be combined with a certain realism about the consequences of bad policies and this requires thought. The ability to think can no longer be assumed to be operative on a wide scale. We see this so clearly in the Roe v. Wade decision, the icon of feminism, which frames a woman’s right to murder innocent life as a right protected by the Constitution. There is nothing feminine about this act, which is an objectively immoral act protected by judicial fiat of the highest Court in the land in a decision with no legal reasoning in it. How could this happen that something so evil is presented as a good?
We seem to have lost our ability to reason about facts that are right before us. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy that it seems as if “the whole modern world is at war with reason; and the tower already reels”. People seem to have given up their ability to think through an issue and arrive at a rational conclusion. We have Catholics who claim to be pro-life but voted for Senator Obama and saw their choice as pro-life. We have politicians who say that the Church is confused about its position on abortion when it is not.
Many Catholics, especially young Catholics, think there is nothing wrong with same-sex marriage as long as it does not affect them. This sentimental approach to issues does not rise to the level of thinking. It relies instead on feelings of tolerance, a live-and-let-live attitude, and a desire for change that is mindless.
The desire for “change” as an object in itself is a dead end. When we lose our ability to set a standard to measure change, to identify good and bad change, then we are choosing to go along with trends, or with friends, or to feel accepted in certain circles, not because of a reasoned choice. Those who worship change will regard those who want to measure it thoughtfully as Neanderthals and backward.
Proclaiming the gospel of life requires a return to thought and making the argument that faith is not unreasonable, but that, on the contrary, faith and reason together are the only sure path of truly human life that seeks to live in freedom and not be shackled by emotionalism and irrationalism. We are up against modern skepticism that there is any truth at all. “Service of the Gospel of life is thus an immense and complex task.” As we work for the gospel of life we are witnessing to many important truths, to the dignity of the human person, to faith in God, to the affirming effects of charity, and to faith in reason itself, without which we cannot be fully human.
Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.
**Women for Faith & Family operates solely on your generous donations!
WFF is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.
Voices copyright © 1999-Present Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.
All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Women for Faith & Family,except as specified below.
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.
Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, without prior permission. For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and WFF + URL (i.e., “Women for Faith & Family www.wf-f.org.)
Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Women for Faith & Family should be listed as the author. For example: Women for Faith & Family (St Louis: Women for Faith & Family, 2005 + URL)
Link to Women for Faith & Family web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to www.wf-f.org or to individual pages within our site.