Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae just about says it all when it comes to discussing the sanctity of human life, the numerous threats to life in the modern world, and the Catholic Church’s teachings on these issues. In a culture where the deciding factor of an action among young people tends to be “if it feels good, do it,” this encyclical isn’t usually on many students’ summer reading list.
But right now is the perfect time for my peers to turn through the pages of The Gospel of Life, for a number of reasons.
For those liberal arts students pondering the universe, Evangelium vitae covers moral issues from one end of the spectrum of human life to the other: from abortion to euthanasia, embryonic research to the death penalty, contraception to in vitro fertilization, and so on. And since this encyclical covers so many threats to life that humanity is currently facing, it is important for us to know and understand what it says. Indeed, so crucial is this document that the Vatican is hosting a celebration of Evangelium vitae on June 15 and 16 in Rome to reaffirm the encyclical’s great value and to witness to the sanctity of human life throughout all stages of development.
In Evangelium vitae, not only does John Paul condemn the immoral practices that destroy human life, but he also discusses the links between these and the rise of the “culture of death” – a culture that values self-gratification above everything else.
Two of the immoral practices condemned in this work are contraception and abortion. These inextricably linked evils are key to the culture of death throughout the world. A growing number of young people will admit that abortion is wrong, but they are not convinced that contraception is also gravely immoral. Seeing images of the unborn via ultrasounds has greatly helped to expose the lie that an unborn child is just a “clump of cells.” Contraception seems “harmless” by comparison; it is as simple as using a condom, or taking a pill. And nobody gets killed, so we’re told (though numerous women have suffered fatal side effects from contraceptive use, and some are actually abortifacient).
In Evangelium vitae, however, Pope John Paul II reaffirms the immorality of contraception because it “contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love” and promotes “a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality” (13). The immorality of contraception is rooted in a violation of the nature of the sexual act, which is an act of total self-giving to one’s spouse. Because of this contraceptive mindset, which sees the sexual act as solely a source of self-gratification, for many, procreation has become a disease to be avoided.
Though “the close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming increasingly obvious” (13), in our over-sexualized culture it is unfortunately still not very clear to the average person. Indeed, many think that contraception is the best way to decrease abortions, claiming it prevents “unwanted pregnancies.” But the numbers just don’t add up. In many countries where contraception is widely available, the abortion rate has also remained high, and even increased in some cases.
In the UK, the British government launched a “Teenage Pregnancy Strategy” program in 1999, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote contraception in an attempt to lower the teenage pregnancy rate. But abortion rates among teenage girls in the UK are now higher than before the program started.
When contraception becomes widely available, as it is today, “the life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception” (13). Not only does abortion become more “necessary” and thus widespread, but other assaults on life and human dignity naturally follow. The destruction of those who are inconvenient, whether it is an unborn child or a severely disabled person, gradually appears to be a reasonable and “enlightened” step to take.
The young pro-life generation that faithfully shows up to the Marches for Life in the U.S. and around the world must come to recognize and understand the effects of contraception on our wider culture if we truly wish to abolish abortion and defend life.
Catholics young and old, and even non-Catholics, around the world should take advantage of this weekend’s celebration to dwell on the important lessons of Evangelium vitae. It is increasingly important today for us to understand the teachings found in this document so we can know how to finally free ourselves from this culture of death in which we live.