The Church's Love Letter to the World

by Rev. Richard John Neuhaus

Evangelium Vitae is a love letter to the whole world. At the same time, it is a prophetic indictment of what we human beings are increasingly doing to one another at the end of the twentieth century, at the threshold of the third millennium. Love and prophecy are not opposed to one another. On the contrary, true prophecy is always driven by love. And true love dares to speak the truth that is necessary for the welfare of the beloved. Love that deceives is neither truthful nor loving. The Apostle Paul tells us that we are to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Evangelium Vitae is a powerful example of doing just that.

Sometimes the truth is painful. Prophetic love does not pander. It tells us not what we want to hear but what we need to hear. The Old Testament prophets, such as Jeremiah and Isaiah, were sometimes harshly critical of the people of Israel, but always because they thought so highly of them. The prophets were calling them back to their high destiny as the elect people of God. Criticisms and warnings were driven by a love that could not betray the truth without betraying the beloved. Throughout history, this has been the mark of prophetic love.

This is also true in our own time and in our country. Whatever the alleged moral failings in his personal life, Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophetic figure in American history. Dr. King was fond of saying, "Whom you would change you must first love, and they must know you love them." Every good parent knows that, every good teacher knows that, every good priest knows that. People do not accept criticism from those whom they see as enemies. In Evangelium Vitae the Holy Father says a firm no to this and a firm no to that. It is a great mistake, however, to think the message is essentially negative. Every no is premised upon a prior and greater yes.

The Church's yes is nothing less than a yes to the human project itself, a project to which God has irrevocably committed himself by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ. Therefore the teaching of Evangelium Vitae and of the Catholic Church is aptly described as prophetic humanism. In this encyclical John Paul II quotes St. Irenaeus (130-200): "The glory of God is man fully alive" (Gloria Dei vivens homo). Prophetic humanism knows that the choice is not between the will of God and the well-being of humanity. Rather, the will of God is for our well-being, and our well-being is in doing the will of God. Jesus said, "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (Jn 10:10). This is the great truth of prophetic humanism that gives such urgency to the love letter that is Evangelium Vitae: "May these words reach all the sons and daughters of the Church!" the encyclical declares. "May they reach all people of good will who are concerned for the good of every man and woman and for the destiny of the whole of society!" (no. 5)

At the dawn of the modern era, Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679) famously described the state of nature: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes and other thinkers of the secular Enlightenment said that a relatively humane world could only be secured by people forming a "social contract" based upon self-interest. In the eighteenth century intellectuals invested their hope for the human future in bringing everything under rational control. In the nineteenth century they looked to scientific and technological progress. That dream was shattered by the awful bloodletting of the First World War, and much of humanity then turned its eyes toward ideology, notably Marxist-Leninism and, in Germany, National Socialism. The idols of ideology heaped up mountains of corpses and unleashed rivers of blood, making the century that is now coming to an end the most lethal in all of human history. This terrible history is the background for Evangelium Vitae.

When the encyclical speaks about "the culture of death," it is not simply warning us about something that could happen in the future. It is reminding us of the past and alerting us to the world in which we now live. John Paul retells the story of Cain and Abel, the very first murder in our common history. This is not just a page of history about something that happened long ago. Rather, he says, it continues to have "universal significance: it is a page rewritten daily, with inexorable and degrading frequency, in the book of human history" (no. 7). It is a page being rewritten this very day.

If in the third millennium we are to turn from death to life, we must learn that a humane society cannot be secured on the basis of rationally calculated self-interest, nor by technological and scientific progress, nor by grand ideological schemes. The turn toward life requires that each of us, one by one, reject the response of Cain when God asked him about his brother Abel. Cain's response was, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The right answer to that question is "Yes, we are our brother's keeper." Recognizing the "personal dignity" of the other, we recognize that we owe each one "respect, generosity, and service." When this is forgotten, when we value others only for their abilities or their usefulness to us, "the first to be harmed are women, children, the sick or suffering, and the elderly." "This," says Evangelium Vitae, "is the supremacy of the strong over the weak" (no. 23) that is the way of the long, dreary, blood-drenched history of Cain and Abel that is rewritten every day.

The Gospel of Life is a call to conversion, one by one, to the Lord of life. Without such personal conversion, all our efforts to change society and the world are but delusions, and dangerous delusions at that. The culture of death has its roots in our declaration of independence from God. We declare that we are autonomous selves who, in the manner of Hobbes, rationally calculate with other autonomous selves to construct a society that serves our convenience and liking. The culture of life begins with acknowledging our dependence on the Lord of life and the dependence of others upon us. This is the foundation of our "solidarity with society's weakest members." Love of God and love of neighbor are not two separate commandments; they stand or fall together. "Cain's killing of his brother at the very dawn of history is thus a sad witness of how evil spreads with amazing speed: man's revolt against God in the earthly paradise is followed by the deadly combat of man against man" (no. 8).

Personal conversion, one by one, is the beginning of the turn away from the culture of death and toward the culture of life. The personally converted, however, then turn toward converting others, and each of the converted accepts responsibility for turning society itself toward life. Evangelium Vitae reflects a keen awareness of how fragile is the moral fabric of a decent society. It can never be taken for granted.

Moral laws are intimately connected to the task that is properly called political. Aristotle defined politics as "free persons deliberating the question, How ought we order our life together?" The "ought" in that question indicates that the political task is, above all, a moral task. There are moral laws or moral truths that determine the right ordering of our life together in human community. Today that proposition is thought to be highly controversial. Many who agree that the laws or truths of nature cannot be violated with impunity deny that there are any such things as moral laws or moral truths. "You have your morality and I have my morality, and who is to say which is true?" It is commonly claimed that the one thing we must never, never do is "impose" our morality on others.

Evangelium Vitae, however, teaches that it is not a matter of "imposing" our truths upon others. Moral truths are imposed, so to speak, by nature itself. More precisely, moral truths are built into, are inherent in, human ecology, just as natural truths are inherent in biological ecology. This is better understood if one reads Evangelium Vitae in conjunction with the great 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). What is at stake in the dispute over abortion and euthanasia and eugenics are, of course, the lives of untold numbers of unborn, elderly, and handicapped human beings. Also at stake is whether there is any such thing as moral truth. The culture of death is made possible, indeed is made inevitable, by moral subjectivism or relativism, which, when pressed to their logical conclusion, end up in nihilism. Nihilism is the absolute denial of absolute truth, the belief that nothing is the only thing that a rational person can believe. In a nihilistic world, all relationships are reduced to a question of power. In such a world, there is no rational argument against "the supremacy of the strong over the weak."

In such a world, life for the weak is indeed "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." But not only for the weak. In such a world, the strong are also degraded and dehumanized. What is distinctively human is erased as people—often very smart and technologically advanced people—become captive to their basest passions and instincts. Evangelium Vitae notes how, in the absence of an acknowledgment of moral truth, sophisticated people can approve of the killing of the sick, the dying, and the genetically "inferior," and do so in the name of progress. Such measures, including infanticide, are approved "following the same arguments used to justify the right to abortion" (no. 14). Far from being progressive, those arguments reflect a massive regression, a retreat from what is distinctively human, a denial of human dignity. "In this way," the encyclical says, "we revert to a state of barbarism which one hoped had been left behind forever" (no. 14).

The long and tortuously difficult ascent from barbarism has been made possible by recognition of "the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its [natural] end." Only then is it possible to "affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good [of life] respected to the highest degree." "Upon the recognition of this right," says John Paul, "every human community and the political community itself are founded" (no. 2). Recall the definition of politics as the deliberation of the question, "How ought we to order our life together?" The "ought" in that question indicates the moral nature of the political task. The dispute over abortion and other "life issues" touches also on the "we" in that question. The disagreement over the morality of abortion is not about when human life begins. That is a scientific question on which there is no credible disagreement. From fertilization until natural death, there is no doubt that this is life, this life is human, and therefore this is human life. Whether at the beginning or at the end of the continuum of life, it is no less human because it is small or weak or incapable of defending itself.

The question in the abortion argument is not "When does life begin?" but "Who belongs to the we for whom we accept common responsibility?" This is a question that no political community can evade. It is inescapably a public question, and no political community can survive without answering it. If we ask, "How ought we to order our life together?" we must know who belongs to the we. The long, bloody ascent from barbarism has been a constant battle against the impulse to limit the we to those who have the power to assert that they belong. There is also an impulse to limit the we to "our own kind," to those who seem most like us. Many people look at a picture of a four-week-old embryo and say that it does not look like a human being. But of course they are wrong. That is exactly what a four-week-old unborn baby looks like; it is exactly what we looked like when we were four weeks old.

The Gospel of life is inclusive, ever maintaining the fullest definition of the we for whom we accept common responsibility. In the United States, slaves of African descent were for a long time excluded from the we. As with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 excluded an entire sector of humanity from the we of the legal and political community. It took a bloody civil war to right that horrible wrong.

Encyclicals are of course written to the universal Church, but we in America would not go wrong in thinking the Holy Father is addressing us when he notes that countries with laws that exclude classes of human beings from common protection are "perhaps even departing from basic principles of their Constitutions" (no. 4).

The American constitutional order is premised upon certain moral truths. The Declaration of Independence asserts, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," and goes on to affirm that human beings are endowed by the Creator with unalienable rights, including, most importantly, the right to life. No Supreme Court, not even a majority of the people, can deny such rights without undermining the moral authority of the government. Evangelium Vitae quotes John XXIII's famous encyclical Pacem in Terris: "Authority is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience. . . ; indeed the passing of such laws undermines the very nature of authority and results in shameful abuse" (no. 72; quoting Pacem in Terris, no. 271).

To sense how solemn this prophetic warning is, it is only necessary to look at the footnotes to that passage of the encyclical. There the Holy Father refers to the 1937 encyclical of Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety) and other papal statements condemning the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

Is this alarmist? Can it be that we in the United States are facing the horror posed by Nazism? We understandably recoil at the thought.

The thought is truly alarming, but it is not alarmist. It is the purpose of prophecy to set off alarms. When the powerful exclude the weak from the communal we, when law is divorced from the moral order, the pope is telling us that we do not need to speculate about the consequences. We know from terrible historical experience what those consequences are.

The message for Catholics, indeed for all people of conscience, is unmistakably clear: "Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection." We can in no way cooperate with a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, nor can we "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it" (no. 73). On most issues in political dispute, people of intelligence and good will can legitimately disagree. Not so with abortion, euthanasia, and other laws that deprive our weaker brothers and sisters of the fundamental right to life. We can never, never cooperate with the taking of an innocent life.

That resounding no is premised upon an uncompromisable yes—yes to life, yes to those who need our care and protection, yes to God. Evangelium Vitae sees our world standing at a turning point as crucial as any in the long history of humankind. The third millennium will witness a flowering of the culture of life or a continuing descent into the abyss of the culture of death. In this prophetic love letter to the world, John Paul repeats the word of God spoken through Moses, "I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live" (Dt 30:19). We Christians have the great privilege and responsibility of persuading the world to choose life—for God's sake, for our sake, for the sake of humanity. "The glory of God is man fully alive" (Gloria Dei vivens homo).

Father Neuhaus is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and editor in chief of First Things, the monthly journal of religion and public life.