“What is urgently called for is a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life.”
— Pope St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, ¶95
The release of St. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae in 1995 marked a watershed moment in the history of the pro-life moment.
The Catholic Church, of course, had always stubbornly supported efforts to defend life, even as most other Christian denominations had succumbed one-by-one to the spirit of the age. However, by the time St. Pope John Paul II released his encyclical it was clear that, at least for the time being, the momentum was firmly on the side of the Culture of Death. The Catholic Church’s position had become a minority position, while most of the money, power, and celebrity were concentrated on pushing the culture further down the trajectory initiated by Roe v. Wade.
Initial naïve hopes among pro-lifers that the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion would quickly be overturned had been replaced with dismay when this did not happen, and then a stoic resignation. Indeed, it had become increasingly clear that the mindset on which abortion fed – above all a hedonistic understanding of sexuality – had become so deeply enmeshed in our culture and way of life that it had assumed a perverse aura of the sacred, the untouchable.
Furthermore, it was becoming distressingly apparent that abortion was merely the first fruit of the sexual revolution, and that more, and – if possible – more perverse fruits had arrived or were on the horizon: e.g. the vast, industrial destruction of human embryos in research, reproductive technologies that removed all the sense of the sacred from procreation, legalized euthanasia, the deconstruction of marriage and gender, the normalization of pornography, etc.
Most discouraging of all, however, to the many Catholics and Christians who had held the line against the agents of death, often at great personal sacrifice, was the near-silence from the pulpits of many of their churches and their diocesan chanceries. Officially the institutional Church was pro-life but compared to the gravity of the abortion holocaust and other attacks on life, the energy many of Her ministers put into backing the official teaching with words and deeds seemed less than meager.
Into this dark cultural moment fell Evangelium Vitae. Not only did Evangelium Vitae diagnose the cultural situation with unflinching bluntness and penetrating detail, but it provided a comprehensive, Gospel-based intellectual and spiritual apologia for the existence and efforts of the pro-life movement. No longer was it possible to accuse the pro-life movement of being a narrowly “political” movement excessively obsessed with one issue. As St. Pope John Paul II expressed it, to be pro-life was to be pro-love, pro-goodness, pro-freedom, and pro-human, in the fullest sense. As Fr. John Neuhaus put it: “Evangelium Vitae is much more than instructions on what is necessary to advance ‘the Culture of Life’ joined to warnings about the encroaching ‘Culture of Death.’ Instructions and warnings there certainly are and must be, but the message is one of a comprehensive and compelling vision of the human project itself.”
The “Great Campaign in Support of Life”
Equally as importantly, Evangelium Vitae concluded with a resounding, passionate call to arms directed at all Catholics and people of good will. What the Church and the world needed, exclaimed St. Pope John Paul II, was a “great campaign in support of life”! “All together, we must build a new Culture of Life,” he urged:
New, because it will be able to confront and solve today’s unprecedented problems affecting human life; new, because it will be adopted with deeper and more dynamic conviction by all Christians; new, because it will be capable of bringing about a serious and courageous cultural dialogue among all parties. While the urgent need for such a cultural transformation is linked to the present historical situation, it is also rooted in the Church’s mission of evangelization. The purpose of the Gospel, in fact, is “to transform humanity from within and to make it new”. Like the yeast which leavens the whole measure of dough (cf. Mt 13:33), the Gospel is meant to permeate all cultures and give them life from within, so that they may express the full truth about the human person and about human life. — EV, ¶95
Above all, St. Pope John Paul II advocated a “renewal of a Culture of Life within Christian communities themselves.” If there is to be any such “great campaign,” it must begin in Christian communities, amongst those who have not succumbed to the pessimism of the age, but who, inspired by Scripture and Tradition, recognize the divine spark in every human life. “Too often,” the pope lamented:
It happens that believers, even those who take an active part in the life of the Church, end up by separating their Christian faith from its ethical requirements concerning life, and thus fall into moral subjectivism and certain objectionable ways of acting. With great openness and courage, we need to question how widespread is the Culture of Life today among individual Christians, families, groups and communities in our Dioceses. — EV, ¶95
The Holy Father concluded the encyclical with calls to arms aimed specifically at educators, married couples, intellectuals, members of the media, and women, as well as a broad appeal to all people, urging a profound conversion of life that would serve to drive the dagger into the heart of the culture of consumerism and utilitarianism on which the Culture of Death feeds.
In a word, we can say that the cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to adopt a new life-style, consisting in making practical choices – at the personal, family, social and international level – on the basis of a correct scale of values: the primacy of being over having, of the person over things. This renewed life-style involves a passing from indifference to concern for others, from rejection to acceptance of them. Other people are not rivals from whom we must defend ourselves, but brothers and sisters to be supported. They are to be loved for their own sakes, and they enrich us by their very presence. — EV, ¶98
Respect Life Month – Chance to Realize St. Pope John Paul II’s Dream
There is no doubt that the growth, energy, and many successes of the pro-life movement since the release of Evangelium Vitae are, to one degree or another, attributable to the “shot in the arm” provided by the sainted pope. On the other hand, twenty-three years later, it is also difficult to argue that we are anywhere near to realizing the full scope of the “great campaign in support of life” that the pope advocated.
In conversations with many pro-life priests and laypersons around the world, it is clear that the problem of silence from the pulpit and the chanceries on the life issues has not become appreciably better. Many lay people tell me that they have never heard a homily in their parish that forthrightly addresses issues such as abortion, contraception, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc. Meanwhile, it remains true that only a minority of Christians, including Church-going Catholics, ever personally involve themselves in the fight for life. Too many are far too comfortable. Too little is being done. Too few sacrifices are being made.
The opportunities to turn this situation around are myriad. But today I wish to highlight only one: The declaration by the U.S. bishops of October as “Respect Life Month.” The theme of this year’s Respect Life Month is: “Every Life: Cherished, Chosen, Sent!”
Acknowledging many of the recent scandals affecting the Church Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the USCCB Chairman on Pro-life Activities, states in announcing Respect Life Month: “At such a time as this, we become even more aware of the need for messengers of God’s love and instruments of His healing. We realize again, with renewed urgency, our personal call to help others encounter God’s transforming, life-giving love and to defend the sanctity of every person’s life, at every stage and in every circumstance.”
Respect Life Month presents the perfect opportunity to bring the pro-life message to your parish, and (if necessary) to respectfully challenge your pastor to actively promote pro-life efforts through preaching and other support. The USCCB provides a variety of materials to support you and your parish, including bulletin announcements, posters, preaching supports, and prayers. They advocate “five steps” to promote Respect Life Month. However, any parish could easily go beyond these basic steps, organizing such things as Holy Hours in support of life, silent prayer outside abortion clinics, and educational initiatives (i.e. talks, conferences, round-table discussions, movie-showings) designed to help Catholics in the pews grasp the gravity of the attacks on life. Get creative and get involved!
As I have travelled around participating in HLI’s missionary apostolate (most recently New Zealand), I have witnessed firsthand the desperate need to preach the Gospel of Life and evangelize at every level of society – calling for the radical transformation of hearts and minds. Sadly, secularism and anti-life ideologies saturate policies and lifestyles of a great majority of peoples and societies, including many Christians. This tragic and scandalous reality, especially among those claiming to be a disciple of Jesus, must be transformed. Moreover, we must boldly proclaim with fervor and resolve that no one is exempt from the calling to fully participate in the “great campaign in support of life.”
“We are called and sent to be messengers of God’s love, treating one another as cherished and chosen by Him,” states Cardinal Dolan. “In doing so, we help build a culture that respects all human life. The Body of Christ needs you. The world needs you.”