As we near the end of this series on how we, as people of true Christian hope, must have the courage to look honestly at the culture of death around us, and to do so with an eye toward uniting in charity and truth, let’s keep in mind that this is an ongoing process. Like our spiritual growth, our growth in understanding of Church doctrine on life and family isn’t so much a destination as a journey. The Church has, on most of the controversial moral questions of today, such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia, declared its unchanging doctrine based in natural law and revelation. But our learning of the depth and breadth of the beautiful gift of doctrine is ongoing. We need a solid foundation if we are to unite in charity and truth.
Last time we talked about Humanae Vitae and the historical situation in which it was largely rejected, to the detriment of the Church and the world. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was not only instrumental in the writing of Paul VI’s prophetic call to respect human life, but as Pope John Paul II he made it one of the key themes of his papacy to help the world understand its significance, and to approach the same moral truths from different directions.
Published in March 1995, Evangelium Vitae, like Humanae Vitae, followed a period of outreach and discernment among bishops and theologians as commissioned by the Holy Father. This time, however, those who rejected Church teaching were not given a seat at the table, and the Holy Father was able to secure an unqualified reinforcement from his brother bishops as to the unchangeable magisterial authority of the Church’s declaration of the intrinsic evil of all direct killing of innocent life, including abortion and euthanasia. True, the Holy Father does not need to take a poll on such things, but given the way Humanae Vitae was received, he felt it important to reach out on this key question.
This deserves a special emphasis — although the Holy Father has the authority to declare for the Church her magisterial position on moral matters, in charity and prudence he reached out to hear what bishops were hearing from their people in order to elevate this key teaching to the highest possible level of magisterial authority. And in Truth, he rejected dishonest assessments of previous declarations by the Holy See. Any claims that Magisterial teaching on these issues is based on an isolated declaration from an out of touch leader are nonsense.
The breadth and depth of Evangelium Vitae is challenging, as the document unites church teaching against the advancing moral evils of the day, and articulates the positive vision of the Church with respect to life as it arises from the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ. It goes well beyond the question of abortion and euthanasia, dealing also with artificial reproductive technologies and embryonic research, contraception and capital punishment (which is declared morally unacceptable in almost all cases given the ability of modern nations to protect their people from those who commit capital crimes once they are incarcerated). Because the question of euthanasia involves many complicated aspects which evolve as health technology improves, it is dealt with further in other Church documents. Yet the principle remains — the direct taking of innocent life is always “a grave violation of the law of God” (EV 65).
Sometimes in our defense of the Church on this point we hear, “I don’t think you can say that any action is always intrinsically evil — you have to know about the circumstances.” The next time you hear this, ask the person what kind of rape they find acceptable, and under what circumstances. The fact is, almost everyone agrees that there are intrinsically evil actions; they just disagree about what these are, and they are rarely honest enough with themselves to admit what they’re basing their judgments upon.
The Church at least has the clarity and the courage to declare publicly what she truly believes to “all people of good will,” why she believes it and why these truths are not subject to a vote. This is why the Church remains the primary target of the enemies of life and truth, those sad creatures who rail against the very culture that gave them life and a chance to flourish. They both loathe and envy the Church’s authority, which is why her biggest critics are the first to boast of the Church’s supposed agreement with their preferred policy choices.
This leads to our final point, which is very important: in the encyclical Blessed John Paul also looks at the intersection of the law of God and nature, and the laws adopted by nations. While laws of moral good or of mere necessity for basic order are legitimate and deserve our respect, those laws that violate natural law and the law of God do not have legitimate authority over us. We surely are dealing with this today, and faithful Catholics are discerning how to proceed with their lives as governments more aggressively seek to enshrine intrinsic evils in law. The more this assault on life and family advances in law, the more the affluent societies built on the rule of law will suffer for reasons that they don’t seem to understand any more.
We could say much more about Evangelium Vitae, obviously, and I encourage you to read the encyclical and related commentary from faithful sources. Next week we will wrap up this series on uniting in charity and truth, and why at least a basic understanding of the Church’s doctrine is essential for any lasting unity.
As we approach the birth of Our Savior during this Season of Advent, and as we continue to carefully consider its significance as we look around us, I want to leave you with one more thought. Openness to life is the only way we will know joy, peace and justice. Our brothers and sisters in the Philippines are in a fierce struggle against a radical anti-life bill being forced on them in a way that Americans would find very familiar. Prayerful solidarity is our call as Catholics, as is hope! Let’s join in prayer in support of life and family, keeping the Lord of Life, our true end, before us at all times.