One year ago, even before the unthinkable effects of the pandemic and the social unrest and division that we are now witnessing, a piece in the New York Times stated: “The world we live in now is one in which no place is safe, no lives really matter, when it comes to violence” (9/2/19). This statement was prompted by the tragedy of repeated mass shootings in our country. To this we must now add the outbreaks of random violence and the deaths that have prompted outrage and have called into question the level of force employed by law enforcement in some cases, especially with regard to people of color.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life), written by Pope St. John Paul. He urged the world to uphold the sacred value and inviolability of human life rather than giving way to a culture of manipulation and choice in life matters, as evidenced in abortion, euthanasia, biological engineering, ecological destruction and unnecessary recourse to the death penalty. Violating the right to life, the Pope stated, only results in the destruction of values that are fundamental not only for the preservation of the lives of individuals and families, but of society as well. This message has been strongly echoed by Popes Benedict and Francis.
Amid all the ominous polarization, acrimony and even violence that are increasing in our country, we would do well to ponder Pope St. John Paul’s teaching. He said that respect for innocent human life from conception until natural death is a “transcendent truth” that surpasses any one religion, philosophy, law code or system of government. Religion can and should serve that truth, but it does not create it. If there is no God-given higher truth about the human person than the one we feel free to create, then everything degenerates into competing views of personhood and life itself; the “force of power” prevails, and the inalienable God-given meaning of the human person, and his or her dignity and right to life, are trampled.
Until recent times the religious beliefs of the vast majority of Americans did acknowledge the transcendent truth that all innocent human life is to be respected as inviolable. Indeed, the first thing that struck the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville about the United States in 1831 was its “religious atmosphere.” He wrote: “… while the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare.” Religion taught virtuous behavior, which is essential if liberty is to be ordered to the common good. By bringing a moral dimension to issues, religion also helped ensure that majority rule not deteriorate into an immoral tyranny. Religion in America also created an allegiance and devotion among its adherents that counteracted the tendency of government to swallow up all aspects of life.
Today the withering away of respect for the transcendent truth about the right to life, and for traditional religious teaching about the sin and crime of taking innocent human life, has created what Pope St. John Paul called a “culture of death.” It is reflected in the words we cited from the New York Times that “the world we live in now is one in which no place is safe, no lives really matter, when it comes to violence.” In his new encyclical Fratelli tutti Pope Francis speaks of a “throwaway” world in which “persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected” (n. 18). Hopefully the 25th anniversary of Evangelium vitae will be an inspiration for all people of good will to work for a “culture of life” that cherishes, serves, defends, and protects human life from conception until natural death.
Local pro-life leaders across the world are currently conducting an annual 40 Days for Life campaign that runs through November 1. Walking with Moms in Need is a year of service where Catholic parishes and communities “walk in the shoes” of local pregnant and parenting women in need. And then there is Project Rachel, a network of caregivers, including clergy, mental health professionals and others who provide one-on-one care to those struggling after involvement in an abortion. The church continues to advocate strongly for hospice care for the dying, not death imposed by others or by suicide, and for an end to the death penalty because it is no longer needed to protect society.
For well over half a century the U.S. Bishops have spoken out nationally as a body about the evil of racism, most recently in 2018, calling yet again for Catholics and all Americans to take to heart in particular the lived experience—past and present—of African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. Without equal respect and opportunity for the life and dignity of each and all we cannot hope to have a nation at peace with itself.
Likewise, Pope Francis has dramatically and urgently spoken of the plight of refugees, immigrants and all those who are vulnerable and at risk across the world. Our Church strives to uphold the life and dignity of every person by providing education, health care and works of charity on a large scale, and by advocating for economic justice, immigration reform, and the alleviation of the desperate plight of so many of the world’s migrants, near and far.
These are just some of the ways the Catholic Church is working to promote a gospel of life. We invite you to join us, so that, in the words of Pope St. John Paul, “together we may offer this world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.”