THE CHURCH’S POSITION ON ABORTION is stated most fully in the recent Encyclical Evangelium Vitae where it is placed in the context of a contemporary clash between a ‘culture of death’ and a ‘culture of life’ and is understood in the light of the Gospel of Life which is Christianity. The analysis is both wide-ranging and profound and for these reasons merits to be presented in its context, at length, and with extensive quotations. The sections into which the following résumé is divided correspond to the sections of the Encyclical.
For the sake of clarity it is important to distinguish the three forms of dignity (as specified in chapter 2) that are treated in this encyclical: the dignity of vocation which is treated in the introduction and conclusion; the natural dignity of man and the supernatural dignity of man which are treated in sections II and IV particularly. It is also important to distinguish between natural life and supernatural life, the former bearing the greater emphasis here (see the comments in chapter three, particularly the penultimate section).
The Pope states that the purpose of the encyclical is to make ‘a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability… and a pressing appeal … to respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!’ The encyclical begins with a meditation on Christmas joy: ‘The source of this ‘great joy’ is the Birth of the Saviour, but Christmas also reveals the full meaning of every human birth.’ ‘By His Incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every human being.131 This saving event reveals… the incomparable value of every human person.’ [See the discussion on the dignity of the person in chapter 2]
The meaning and value of human life is revealed by man’s vocation to union with God: ‘Jesus says: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’… Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase.’
Gaudium et Spes 22. 274 Proclamation of the Gospel of Life is especially urgent in view of new threats to human life. The Second Vatican Council condemns: ‘Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction…’, but in the intervening years the situation is worsening: ‘broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment but even authorization by the State’.132 This has resulted not only in the destruction of multitudes of human lives but in the distortion and contradiction of ‘the very nature of the medical profession’ and a degradation of the dignity of those who practise it, and finally in a darkening of the conscience which finds it ‘increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life’.
Present-day Threats to Human Life
‘God did not make death, and He does not delight in the death of the living.’ (Wisdom 1.13) ‘Death came into the world as a result of the devil’s envy and the sin of our first parents.’ (cf. Genesis chs. 2 and 3) A meditation on the Biblical account of Cain and Abel reveals certain universal features of murder. Death entered the world through an act of violence, ‘a concession to the ‘thinking’ of the evil one’, an act of envy and anger. When God asks Cain where his brother is, he replies with a lie: ‘I do not know’. He denies his responsibility for his brother: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ and yet ‘life, especially human life belongs only to God: for this reason whoever attacks human life, in some way attacks God Himself’. God punishes Cain, but places a mark on him lest any man should kill him: in His mercy He does not deprive him of his personal dignity [although see the remarks on the effect of sin on the dignity of the person in chapter 2].
The voice of Abel’s blood cries to God from the ground, as does the bloodshed by all men over the generations. The Lord’s question: ‘What have you done?’ is addressed also to the people of today with regard to ‘murder, war, slaughter, and genocide’, to ‘violence against life done to millions of human beings, especially children who are forced into poverty, malnutrition, and hunger’, and death resulting from the arms trade, from the tampering with the world’s ecological balance, the spreading of drugs, and the promotion of certain forms of sexual immorality. Of all these crimes the encyclical is concerned particularly with abortion and euthanasia, crimes which are considered as rights which ‘strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty when it lacks any means of self-defence’, and which are most often carried out in the bosom of the family ‘which by its nature is called to be the ‘sanctuary of life’.’ Amongst the factors that have caused this situation must be noted a ‘scepticism in relation to the very foundations of knowledge and ethics, and which makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is’, the prevalence of suffering, in particular solitude, poverty, and violence, especially against women. Yet even more significant is ‘an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity, and in many cases takes the form of a veritable culture of death’, a culture excessively concerned with efficiency which constitutes ‘a war of the powerful against the weak’: … A person who, because of illness, handicap, or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed, ‘a conspiracy which amounts to ‘scientifically and systematically programmed threats’ against life. Amongst those implicated in this conspiracy are international institutions which promote contraception, sterilization and abortion, and the mass media which promote the same evils, as well as euthanasia, as ‘a mark of progress and a victory of freedom’.
Enormous financial resources are invested in research into methods of abortion. Abortion and contraception are often ‘fruits of the same tree’ on the view that ‘the life that could result from a sexual encounter… [is] an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception’. The techniques of artificial reproduction, apart from being morally unacceptable in themselves, expose the embryo to a high risk of death and lead to the destruction of ‘spare embryos’ or their use in research where human life is ‘reduced to the level of simple ‘biological material’ to be freely disposed of’. Prenatal diagnosis frequently occasions eugenic abortion. By the same logic, infants born with severe handicaps or illnesses are allowed to die, and proposals are advanced for infanticide by the arguments used to justify abortion.
In a society that ‘fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs’, there is a temptation to hasten the death of the incurably ill and the dying. The temptation is strengthened by misguided pity and the desire to save society from burdensome financial costs. ‘Thus it is proposed to eliminate malformed babies, the elderly, especially when they are not self-sufficient, and the terminally ill.’ The problem of overpopulation is treated not by ‘serious family and social policies, programmes of cultural development and of fair production and distribution of resources’, but by anti-birth policies: contraception, sterilization and abortion.
While the right to life is trampled upon, and crimes against life are claimed as rights, the ‘primary objective and boast’ of society and of ‘distinguished international assemblies’ to protect human rights becomes a ‘merely futile exercise of rhetoric’. The roots of this contradiction are to be found in a concept of extreme subjectivism which ‘recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy’ and in a mentality which equates ‘personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication’, criteria which clearly exclude the unborn, or dying, or indeed any who are completely at the mercy of others. Another root cause of this contradiction is a ‘completely individualistic concept of freedom’, which ignores the essentially relational meaning of freedom: its relation to other persons and its relation to objective and universal Truth, placing it instead at the mercy of ‘subjective and changeable opinion, or indeed [a person’s] selfish interest and whim’. This view of freedom leads to the domination of the weak by the strong on the personal, political and governmental level; this view bears a ‘perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others’. True freedom dies, genuine human co-existence breaks down, the state disintegrates, and democracy moves towards totalitarianism, the tyrant State.
The deepest roots of the struggle between the ‘culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death’ is ‘the eclipse of the sense of God and of man’: ‘When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life; in turn, the systematic violation of the moral law, especially in the serious matter of respect of human life and its dignity, produces a kind of progressive darkening of the capacity to discern God’s living and saving presence.’ Consequently man is viewed merely as ‘a thing’, life itself becomes a mere ‘thing’ to be controlled and birth and death, instead of being primary experiences demanding to be ‘lived’, become things to be merely ‘possessed’ or ‘rejected’.
The eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism which breeds individualism, utilitarianism, and hedonism… the so-called ‘quality of life’ is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions – interpersonal, spiritual, and religious – of existence… Suffering… is ‘censored’, rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil, always and in every way to be avoided.’ The body and sexuality are exploited for pleasure, the latter becoming merely the ‘occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts’; procreation, the ‘enemy’ to be avoided in sexual activity, is welcomed only if ‘it expresses a desire, or indeed the intention, to have a child at all costs’; ‘others are considered not for what they ‘are’ but for what they ‘have, do and produce’. This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak.’
This eclipse occurs at the heart of the moral conscience of the individual and of society, which ‘encourages the ‘culture of death’, creating and consolidating actual ‘structures of sin’ which go against life.’ As described by St. Paul in Romans I: ‘Men have by their wickedness suppressed the truth and having denied God… have become futile in their thinking… their senseless minds were darkened… claiming to be wise they became fools, carrying out works deserving of death… they not only do them but approve those who practise them.’ ‘When conscience… calls ‘evil good and good evil’, it is already on the path to the most alarming corruption and the darkest moral blindness.’
And yet the voice of the Lord in every conscience cannot be stifled and it is from here that ‘a new journey of love, openness and service to human life can begin. The blood of Abel and of every innocent victim of murder cries to God, but the blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ cries to God in an absolutely singular way: it is the ‘sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel’. (Hebrews 12:22,24) The blood of Christ ‘shows how precious man is in God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life’; it shows that ‘the greatness [of man] and therefore his vocation consists in the sincere gift of self’; it shows with ‘absolute certitude that in God’s plan life will be victorious.’ There are indeed already signs of this victory: in initiatives in support of the weak, in married couples who welcome the birth of children, in families who accept the abandoned and rejected, in centres for the welfare of pregnant women, in the advance of medical science in the fostering of life, in efforts to remedy poverty and suffering in afflicted countries, and in the emergence of pro-life movements. ‘Furthermore, how can we fail to mention all those daily gestures of openness, sacrifice, and unselfish care which countless people lovingly make in families, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the elderly, and other centres…’ Additionally there is a new sensitivity opposed to war and the death penalty, and a reawakening of ethical reflection on issues concerning human life.
Such a situation reveals that ‘we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’ with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life. The words of Moses (in Dt. 30) are an invitation to us also: ‘I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live’. ‘The unconditional choice for life reaches its full religious and moral meaning when it flows from, is formed by, and nourished by faith in Christ… who became man and dwelt among men so that they may have life, and have it abundantly’.
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.