[We note in relation to this section and in this encyclical in general that the Christian message concerning life is essentially a message concerning supernatural life, the life of the Christian in the state of Grace, and not a message about natural life as this section would appear to suggest.]
The Gospel of Life is ‘the proclamation of the very person of Jesus’ who is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (St. John 14.6) and ‘The Resurrection and the Life’ (St. John 11.25). ‘In Jesus, ‘the Word of Life’, God’s eternal life is…proclaimed and given. Thanks to this proclamation and gift, our physical and spiritual life, also in its earthly phase, acquires its full value and meaning, for God’s eternal life is in fact the end to which our living in this world is directed and called. In this way the Gospel of Life includes everything that human experience and reason tell us about the value of human life, accepting it, purifying it, exalting it, and bringing it to fulfilment.’
In the Old Testament ‘Israel discovered the preciousness of its life in the eyes of God’, and even Job, when overwhelmed by suffering, turns to God; but it is Jesus Christ who ‘brings life’s meaning to fulfilment’. He shows that life is a gift and a good, given meaning and value by the Father. This He shows especially to those who are afflicted by suffering and sin, but ‘Only those who recognize that their life is marked by the evil of sin can discover in an encounter with Jesus the Saviour the truth and the authenticity of their own existence’. Even in His own life there is a ‘dialectic’ between ‘the uncertainty of human life and the affirmation of its value’, and ‘it is precisely by His death that Jesus reveals all the splendour and value of life’, for it is the Cross that gives new life to all people and ‘Truly great must be the value of human life if the Son of God has taken it up and made it the instrument of the salvation of all humanity’.
Life is a good because of man’s relationship to God: man ‘is a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of His presence, a trace of His glory’, or as St. Irenaeus states: ‘Man, living man, is the glory of God’.133 The book of Genesis reveals that man is given dominion over the whole earth and is created ‘as the result of a special decision on the part of God, a deliberation to establish a particular and specific bond with the Creator. Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen. 1.26). The life which God offers to man is a gift by which God shares something of Himself with His creature.’ The Book of Sirach understands as part of this image the human faculties of reason, discernment between good and evil, and free will: man’s ability to attain truth and freedom in the image of God who is true and just.
‘The Life which God bestows upon man is much more than mere existence in time. It is a drive towards fullness of life; it is the seed of an existence which transcends the very limits of time.’ The divine breath breathed into man which gives him life also expresses his longing for God in his deepest being, and, as St. Ambrose writes, man is the work in which God is able to repose on the seventh day.
After God’s plan is marred by sin, this image shines forth anew in Christ, who ‘opens wide to everyone the gates of the Kingdom of life’. This is the purpose of Christ’s mission: ‘He is the one who comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world’ (St. John 6.33). This life ‘consists of being begotten of God and sharing in the fullness of His love’ (St. John 1.12-13). This life is eternal ‘because it is a full participation in the life of the ‘Eternal One’’: ‘This is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent’ (St. John 17.3). To know God and His Son is to accept the mystery of the loving communion of the Trinity into one’s own life ‘which even now is open to eternal life because it shares in the life of God’. The dignity of this life is established not only by its origin in God but also by its end in God. St. Irenaeus adds to his words quoted above: ‘the life of man consists in the vision of God’.134
Now man’s life comes from God and therefore God
is the sole Lord of his life, God holds his life in His loving hands. This means that man’s life is sacred and hence inviolable. The Commandment: Thou shalt not kill expresses this inviolability and reaches its culmination in the positive Commandment: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Lev. 19.18). To the man who asks Our Lord how to attain eternal life, He replies: ‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments’ (St. Matthew 19.16-17). And He quotes, as the first of these: Thou shalt not kill. To this commandment He adds (at St. Matthew 5.21) ‘But I say to you that every-one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment’. Our Lord further unveils the positive requirements flowing from the inviolability of life in terms of ‘becoming a neighbour to some-one in need, to the point of accepting responsibility for his life’ – as seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan, of loving, doing good, and praying for one’s enemies. In short, ‘the deepest element of God’s commandment to protect human life is the requirement to show reverence and love for every person and the life of every person.’
The task of accepting and serving life involves in a special way married couples in the fulfilment of their parental responsibilities, but also involves everyone especially in regard to ‘life when it is at its weakest’. ‘It is Christ Himself who reminds us of this’ when he asks to be loved in his suffering brethren: ‘the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned’ (St. Mt.25).
The Bible does not explicitly demand the protection of human life at its very beginning and end, but this is because ‘the mere possibility of harming, attacking, or actually denying life in these circumstances is completely foreign to the religious and cultural way of thinking of the People of God’. The Old Testament expresses the view that numerous offspring are a blessing and that human life originates in God. In Jeremiah (1.5) it is written ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you’ and similar sentiments appear in Job and throughout the Psalms. The mother of the seven sons in Machabees sees the creation of man by God as the foundation for the hope of new life for him after death.
The New Testament celebrates the value of the person from the moment of conception in the Visitation where it is the unborn children ‘who reveal the advent of the Messianic age’. As St. Ambrose writes: John is the first to experience Grace at the arrival of the Lord, the Holy Spirit first fills him and then, through him, his mother.135 Similarly ‘old age is characterized by dignity and surrounded with reverence’. In life, death and illness man must trust and hope in God. The mission of Jesus ‘shows God’s great concern even for man’s bodily life’ and yet ‘the life of the body in its earthly state is not an absolute good … what is more important is remaining faithful to the word of
the Lord even at the risk of one’s life’ (St. Mt. 6.17).
In fact it is not only the commandment Thou shalt not kill which protects life but ‘the entire Law of the Lord… because it reveals that truth in which life finds its full meaning’. In the same vein as Moses’ words (at Dt. 30.15): ‘If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… then you shall live’, Our Lord says (At St. Mt 4.4 quoting Dt. 8.3): ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but… by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord’.
It is difficult to remain faithful to this ‘Law of Life’, and when the people of Israel fail, they are rebuked by the prophets, but at the same time called to new life, a new spirit, and a new heart, so they may ‘appreciate and achieve the deepest and most authentic meaning of life: namely that of being a gift which is most fully realized in the giving of self’. This truth is expressed in Isaiah 53: ‘When he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his life… he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied’.
This Law is fulfilled in Jesus Christ ‘who gave His life for His friends’ and it is in the Cross that we can discover ‘the fulfilment and the complete revelation of the whole Gospel of Life’. Amidst ‘the massive conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between life and death’ like the contemporary conflict between the ‘culture of death’ and ‘the culture of life’, the glory of the Cross ‘shines forth ever more radiantly and brightly, and is revealed as the centre, meaning, and goal of all history and of every human life’. In His ‘greatest powerlessness’ the Roman centurion exclaims of Jesus ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’ and Jesus works that salvation which is ‘the bestowal of life and resurrection’: ‘the forgiveness of sins, that is… setting man free from his greatest sickness and in raising him to the very life of God’. On the Cross he attains the heights of love: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (St. John 15.13). And he died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5.8).’ In this way, Jesus proclaims that life finds its centre, its meaning, and its fulfilment when it is given up. Indeed, we are all called to give our lives for our brethren ‘and thus to realize in the fullness of truth the meaning and destiny of life.
Thou Shalt Not Kill
‘Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves ‘the creative action of God’.’ For this reason it is inviolable and ‘no-one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being’. Put in another way: ‘God proclaims that He is absolute Lord of the life of man who is formed in His image and likeness (Gen.1 26-28). Human life is thus given a sacred and inviolable character… Precisely for this reason God will severely judge every violation of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. He is the ‘goel’, the defender of the innocent’.
This commandment is found in the Decalogue and in the covenant between God and humanity after the flood. Although negatively formulated, ‘it encourages a positive attitude of absolute respect for life’. This commandment and any other commandment are summed up in this phrase ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’. (Rom. 13.9)
To this day the Church permits the taking of human life only in cases of absolute necessity, as for example in the case of legitimate defence against an unjust aggressor or in applying the death penalty ‘when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society’. [We note here that the Church in her traditional teaching justifies the death penalty rather in relation to the Common Good.]
In relation to innocent human life the commandment is absolute. It is taught by Sacred Scripture, Church Tradition and the Magisterium. It is the result of that supernatural sense of the faith which is inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit. It is confirmed by the present Holy Father as the successor of Peter and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church as follows: ‘I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral’. Quoting from the Declaration on Euthanasia136 he states: ‘Nothing and no-one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a foetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying.’
Amongst all the crimes against life the Second Vatican Council states that ‘Abortus necnon infanticidium nefanda sunt crimina’137: abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes. The acceptance of abortion in the present age is a sign of ‘an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense’. In the words of Isaiah: ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness’ (Isaiah 5.20). In a climate of concealment, ambiguity, and self-deception, it is important clearly to understand that ‘procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth.’ The moral gravity of this act is apparent on a consideration of the elements involved: absolute innocence, weakness, and total entrustment: ‘No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears. The unborn child is totally entrusted to the protection and care of the woman carrying him or her in the womb.’ No grounds ‘however serious and tragic’ can ever ‘justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being’.
The responsibility lies with the mother, with the father if he encourages the decision or withholds his support hence mortally wounding and profaning the family ‘in its nature as a community of love and in its vocation to be the ‘sanctuary of life’’, with the wider family, friends, medical personnel and, in broader terms, legislators, and administrators of health-care centres, ‘those who have spread an attitude of sexual permissiveness and lack of esteem for motherhood’, and who have failed to ensure ‘effective family and social policies in support of families’, as well as with the international institutions which campaign for the spread of abortion, in fine a veritable ‘structure of sin’.
Christian tradition has always described abortion as a ‘particularly grave moral disorder’. The Didache, repeating the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” explicitly condemns it, and the early Christians considered as murderesses women who had undergone abortion. In recent times abortion has been condemned vigorously by Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and the Second Vatican Council (as quoted above). The gravity of the crime and the consequent need for conversion and repentance is expressed by the severe penalties which the Church has exacted for those participating in it, notably excommunication. Paul VI, in view of ‘the unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church’ declared in Humanae Vitae that ‘the tradition is unchanged and unchangeable’. Therefore the present Pope, again as successor of Peter and in communion with the Bishops, states: ‘I declare that direct abortion, that is abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder’. ‘No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church’.
This evaluation applies equally to experimentation on embryos, the exploitation of living human embryos and foetus’ ‘‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization… as biological material or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases’, and the use of prenatal diagnostic techniques with a view to eugenic abortion, which expresses an attitude which is ‘shameful and utterly reprehensible’. The courage and serenity of those suffering from serious disabilities, when shown acceptance and love, witnesses, by contrast, to that which gives authentic value to life. The Church is close to parents, natural or adoptive, who ‘with great anguish and suffering willingly accept gravely handicapped children’.
Euthanasia [which shall be treated only very briefly in this chapter] is also a grave moral evil and ‘a grave violation of the Law of God: it is ‘understood to be an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering’. This is different from foregoing ‘extraordinary or disproportionate means’ for prolonging a life, which rather ‘expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death’. With regard to euthanasia the attitude that should be cultivated is that expressed by St. Paul (Rom. 15 7-8): ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord’: Dying to the Lord means accepting one’s death at the hour willed by Him, at the completion of the earthly pilgrimage. Living to the Lord means in this context that suffering is a source of good when it is experienced as a loving participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ Crucified. The plea of a suffering person for death is a plea above all for love in face of suffering, despair, and the rebellion in the face of death, of man who bears within him an eternal seed. ‘True compassion leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear’. To kill is to usurp God’s power of life and death which he exercises with wisdom and love and to use it for injustice and exploitation.
The trend to demand legal justification for present- day attacks on human life invites reflection on the nature and purpose of law: ‘The real purpose of civil law is to guarantee an ordered social coexistence in true justice, so that all may ‘lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way’ (1.Tim)’. The first and fundamental right that it must protect is the right to life. Disregard for this right ‘precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good’. As John XXIII states: a law in contravention of the moral order is not binding; as St. Thomas Aquinas states: it is not a law at all, but an ‘act of violence’138, a ‘corruption of the law’139. The fact that it may be democratically established is irrelevant, for democracy is not a substitute for morality, but is only a means and not an end; its value depends on conformity to the moral law to which it is subject – would the crimes against humanity committed in our century ‘cease to be crimes if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus?’ In short, ‘Abortion and euthanasia are… 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.’
The ‘no’ of the negative moral precepts which include the commandment Thou shalt not kill, is the point of departure for true freedom, for the saying of ‘‘yes’ over and over again, a ‘yes’ which will gradually embrace the entire horizon of the good (cf. St. Mt 5.48).’ ‘The Creator has entrusted man’s life to his responsive concern… to preserve it with wisdom and to care for it with loving fidelity’ according to the law of reciprocity to which Christ has given new content and meaning. The commandment Thou shalt not kill is binding on all men; it can be recognized by all through the light of reason and observed by all through the working of the Spirit; it is a service of love to all which will lead to the establishment of ‘a new culture of life, the fruit of the culture of truth and of love.’
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.