Twenty-five years after it was issued, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) still matters to everyone struggling to increase respect for human life.
First, it explained what we knew deep down: that the legal and cultural struggles over abortion and euthanasia were always about much more. They were about whether or not truth existed, whether God was the Lord of Life, and whether we were first self-maximizing individuals or rather interdependent members of a community with special responsibility for the weakest. It always seemed to members of the communities fighting for respect for life that we were fighting for this and more.
John Paul II gave this voice. He pointed to elements of the spirit of the age, which he described as: skeptical or even in denial about the existence of truth; wedded to individual autonomy; categorically opposed to suffering and dependency; and convinced of individualistic, material and man-made notions of progress and freedom.
His words were oddly reassuring to those concerned about promoting respect for life. In the course of a typical argument, our opponents seemed to deny everything written in embryology textbooks, the fact of radical human weakness and interdependence, and God. Evangelium Vitae confirmed that this was probably true in many cases, meaning that a full-blown “pro-life” argument always also needed to engage these points, as well. This predisposition of the spirit of the age also helped to explain why it’s so darn hard to change another person’s mind. Respect for human life is always also about all these other things, not just about whether or not it’s okay to end another human life.
Second and closely related, Evangelium Vitae brought us to the full realization of how impoverished our understanding of “family” had become. Instead of thinking about our family as the human beings hand-picked for us to specially care for, the movements for abortion and euthanasia suggested that we had a special right to terminate the lives of family members. As John Paul II wrote:
“Even more serious is the fact that, most often, those attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family — the family which by its nature is called to be the ‘sanctuary of life’” (11).
The work of respect for life at every stage would have to pay attention to strengthening a sense of obligation and service to family, especially the weakest members.
Third, Evangelium Vitae explained that, no, we weren’t crazy to wonder how “abortion rights” or the “right to die” got so popular precisely at the same time as a noticeable intensifying of movements on behalf of human rights. John Paul II wondered aloud, too, asking how “[t]he process which once led to discovering the idea of ‘human rights’ — rights inherent in every person and before any constitution and state legislation — is today marked by a surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed … the very right to life is being denied.” He added further that the state is allowing “attacks [against] human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any means of self-defense.”
In other words, the pro-life movements are also charged with convincing our hard-charging, self-maximizing, autonomy-craving friends and neighbors that a truly human life and a valid set of human rights pays extraordinary attention to the weakest, including the unborn, the disabled and the elderly in particular.
And fourth, Evangelium Vitae reminded even the cynics among us of the gorgeous case for the value and beauty of every human life. Its sweeping review of both the Old and the New Testament evidence makes the case that — against all the odds, it seems — God finds us worthy of love and wants us to make this visible to all those “given to us” in the Good Samaritan way. This usually begins with family but extends to all who are strewn across our path.
So did Evangelium Vitae’s insights make everything all right? Of course not, but it put all the movements for life on a superior footing and revealed the full extent of their vocation. The movements could better understand what is really ailing contemporary society and the breadth of the work before them. They are ever more aware that no one wants to have a baby without a loving community to welcome them — and that no one wants to live at all without the hope of deep, abiding relationships.
John Paul II’s call in Evangelium Vitae for a “new feminism” — for women to take leadership roles so as to “transform culture so that it supports life” — has also been a galloping success. It is stunning to see the number of women today running not only centers for pregnant women, but a wide array of the leading pro-life efforts.
At the same time, it must be said that some of the trends John Paul II highlighted have stayed the same or worsened. The notion of the “self-made” man or woman has reached new heights/depths with the movement for transgenderism. Demands for human rights still and regularly fail to mention the unborn, the elderly and the disabled; and they more often prescribe death as the compassionate solution to their problems.
Still, Evangelium Vitae reminds all of us in the trenches that we are in excellent company and executing worthy work — work that accomplishes far more than meets the eye, even as it clashes with powerful and entrenched worldviews. And it reminds us that we have the constant companionship in our labors of one of the great intellects, hearts and souls of the 20th and 21st centuries: Pope St. John Paul II.
Helen Alvaré is a professor
of law at Antonin
Scalia Law School at
George Mason University.