Fr Piotr Gasior
We reflect again on the encyclical ‘Evangelium vitae’ in the context of the new pastoral year in Poland that has the motto ‘Let us care for life.’ John Paul II gave us 14 encyclicals, out of which ‘Evangelium vitae’ was the eleventh. This encyclical was written at the clear request of the bishops from the whole world and it was consulted with them. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger classified it as one of the three anthropological encyclicals (besides ‘Veritatis splendor’ and ‘Fides et ratio’). John Paul II embraced the basic contents in four chapters: I – about the present-day threats to human life; II and III – about the Christian message based on the God’s holy law ‘You shall not kill’ and IV – about the need of a new culture.
Crisis of culture
Chapter I begins with the analysis of the text of Cain killing Abel. Taking this text the Holy Father explains that every killing destroys both blood and spiritual relationships. The phenomenon of murders has become so common that we can talk about the return of the epoch of barbarism. Overwhelming lies that are used to conceal evident crimes intensify that deep crisis of culture. The terminology like abortion instead of infanticide, euthanasia instead of killing serves this purpose. Recently someone has said an intelligent joke in this context that we could speak about ‘voluntary end of receiving retirement allowances.’
Ideology of success
The culture of death is doing well, especially in the highly developed countries because of their specific ideology of success. Ordinary people, sometimes not being aware of that, are so much influenced by this ideology that they actually profess it at the cost of health, life and peace of conscience. The obvious expressions of this attitude include the so-called contraception mentality, which has influenced even those who regard themselves as very religious. A certain priest from Asia straight described us, Europeans, as people who as if have contraception in their heads.
According to John Paul II the poisoning root is contemporary hedonism. All societies have been poisoned. For example, the effects can be seen in the field of sexual life. Today, even among Catholics the concept of marriage or engagement is very much distorted. Fortunately, one can see certain signs of moral renewal. I was impressed by the testimony of some young man who decided to part with his girl-friend when he could not convince her that they would not use contraception in their future marriage.
Culture of death
The culture of death has also stayed in the thinking of many scientists and doctors. Many a time John Paul II pointed to the problem of the so-called prenatal examination and eugenic abortion. He also discussed the question of the value of pain and the sense of suffering. As we know he himself experienced suffering many times and the last example of experiencing illness, medical operation and dying will perhaps remain an argument that can never be refuted.
Contemporary pharaohs proclaim a degenerated vision of human liberty. Therefore, one should re-establish the proper hierarchy in people’s thinking. Freedom is important on the one hand, but the truth and good must be at its basis. What use we have of such freedom that would be unreal and would not bring authentic good?
If the societies that regard themselves as highly developed civilisations have rejected these fundamental principles they will fall into contradiction. On the one hand, they promulgate various documents about individuals’ rights and on the other hand, they allow – and supposedly in the name of law – e.g. infanticide or euthanasia. The adults who make such laws are depravation for young people. The civilisation of the West is seen as morally blind. The cause of blindness is acknowledging that the right to life is for those who have some autonomy or can communicate. Everything can be a matter of agreement and negotiations. And since in some regions there is actually no sensitivity to God man begins establishing his own rules of life. Indeed, he pursues the so-called quality of life (secure job, proper diet, visits to SPA centres) but this is life only in its material dimension. Many matters (suffering, death, remorse, sin, hell) are absolutely taboo subjects.
The Gospel of life
Chapters II and III form in a way a whole in ‘Evangelium vitae.’ For John Paul II, one of the greatest anthropologists of Christianity, the Gospel of life was not one of sophisticated theories but it was the very Person. The Gospel of life is simply Jesus Christ. The Holy Father based every intervention on the deepened reflection on man who was created in the Image and Likeness of the One God who is always in the Holy Trinity. For only such a vision can discover that a relational dimension was inscribed in the nature of human person. Communio Personarum of the Most Holy Trinity is the source and aim of human life. That’s why even if man disturbed this original dignity and ability to be a gift for other people Christ, through his passion, restored our original humanity. Therefore, egoistic life is not only some concrete evil but also simply an anthropological mistake.
The thought of John Paul II was extremely well considered. He eagerly encouraged people to look at their earthly lives as leases entrusted. We have time to cultivate the earth of our existence well. We must not destroy it. We will be held accountable for everything. Man is neither the master of life nor the master of death. Bearing children should be seen as a humble contribution to the work of creation. Parents are collaborators of the Creator and not owners of the conceived children. Children can never be treated as products. And life itself, although it is exceptionally precious, is not an absolute value for believers. For example, faithfulness to the Word of God is more important.
We do not guard life because it is our hobby. It is our most sacred obligation. The clear commandment ‘You shall not kill!’ helps us in it. This ‘not’ is the impassable limit. At the same time it is the beginning of the way of freedom, i.e. freeing from offences and chance to go towards perfect freedom.
Moreover, we remember that the commandment ‘You shall not kill!’ was not given only to avoid victims. It also exists so that there are no murderers. Christians have always treated murder as one of three worst sins (besides apostasy and adultery). Speaking about this John Paul II referred to the fragment of ‘Didache’, ‘There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways…And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.’
The biggest enemy
Only Satan can rejoice at the death of the living. During his speech in Valencia in 2006 Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz said, ‘John Paul II realised that the biggest enemy of family and happy life of people who form it is evil, Satan. That’s why, for example on the last day of 1981 during Mass in the Roman Church Il Gesu he made people understand that «darkness wants to destroy life». Among various offences against life listed in ‘Evangelium vitae’ the Pope especially emphasized abortion, which is constantly subject to excommunication by right of law, experiments on embryos treated as sources of organs for transplantations and euthanasia, which he called absurd and inhuman. With all precision he showed how democracies that do not take natural law into account become totalitarian systems.
Testimony of hope
Chapter IV is an excellent example of what attitude we should assume towards the culture of death. The Holy Father, being himself a witness of hope, teaches us not to forget that as Christ’s disciples we are people of life and for this life we were redeemed from the bond of death at a great price. Therefore, our obligation is to be at the service of life. Furthermore, this task is strictly ecclesial. We cannot simply be silent – and not testify by our example – about life. We must speak only about life. There is no room for private views. Introducing any confusion in believers’ minds is giving anti-witness. Using evangelical vocabulary we can clearly say that anyone that wreaks havoc is worthy to be called ‘whitewashed tomb’.
The essence of pastoral ministry
Life is sacred and the sanctuary of life is, according to our Pope, family. That’s why in his Letter for Holy Thursday 1994 John Paul II wrote to all priests that pastoral care of the family was the essence of pastoral activities. One cannot conduct this ministry through actions. This pastoral care must be well considered and reliable.