The good to be done is not added to life as a burden which weighs on it, since the very purpose of life is that good and only by doing it can life be built up.
The Gospel of Life, 48
By: Prof. Janet Benestad, Professor of Philosophy
Saint John’s Seminary
Evangelium vitae, The Gospel of Life, was written and promulgated by Pope Saint John Paul II on March 25, 1995, the feast of the Annunciation. It proclaimed the incomparable dignity of every human person, created by God in his own image and redeemed by Jesus Christ, from the moment of conception to death. At the time it was published, more than a million abortions a year were being performed in the United States alone.
The encyclical addresses the worth of each person with stark clarity. “Whoever attacks human life,” it says, “attacks God himself” (The Gospel of Life, 9). So uncompromising is the teaching that even the life of Cain, who killed his own brother, is not exempt from protection, says the pope (9). The encyclical describes what an abortion does to a family. “Performed in the heart of the family,” directed at the most frail and defenseless, reliant upon sometimes uncertain prenatal diagnoses, able to be performed even without medical assistance—abortion separates the pregnant woman and the child from the natural, normal love and affection of family and friends.
Legalized abortion, says John Paul II, creates a culture insistent upon a woman’s right to abort against all other claims. This culture opens the pregnant woman to manipulation by powerful sources, like the media and political conglomerates, who have purely self-serving interests in her and her child. They generate an exclusive, often deafening, message: the law that protects her right not to have a child depends upon the denial of the unborn child’s right to live. Added social pressures on the woman include the tendency to redefine real violations against life as “legitimate expressions of freedom” and “actual rights” (18). Opponents of population growth seize upon these messages to “promote and impose a massive program of birth control,” says the pope. These interests are like “[t]he Pharaoh of old, haunted by the presence and increase of the children of Israel, [who] submitted them to every kind of oppression and ordered that every male child born of the Hebrew women was to be killed (cf. Ex 1:7-22)” (16).
The words of Cain haunt the woman: “Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes, “the pope answers, “every man is his ‘brother’s keeper,’ because God entrusts us to one another” (19). In fact, it is God who gives us freedom to love one another in the first place, and it is the liberal state which is ordinarily the last worldly resort against violations of that freedom. “. . . But when freedom is made absolute in an individualistic way,” says the pope, the person no longer takes truth about good and evil as the point of reference for his own choices, and life even in a free society becomes distorted (19). The state, is “no longer the ‘common home’ where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality but . . . a tyrant state . . . How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted?” asks the pope (20).
God intends a different reality, says John Paul II. The glory of God shines on the face of every man,” he says, quoting St. Ambrose (35). The Old and New Testaments extol the worth of every person in the womb and outside of it. The Psalms proclaim awe and wonder at life in the womb, and the gospel of Luke proclaims the joy of the meeting of Jesus and his cousin, John, in their mothers’ wombs (44). “Jesus is the guarantor,” says the pope, “of every person’s life” and “every person is a sign of Jesus’ presence, a trace of his glory . . .” Every person is made for eternity . . .” (31-38).
It is for this reason—that every child is made for eternity—that the pope instructs that abortion is not just one offense among many. “No one more absolutely innocent can be imagined,” he says, warning explicitly that the child’s father, the family, the doctor and medical personnel, and legislators who enacted the law all share in responsibility for the child’s life (58-59).
What is at stake is so important that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason . . . the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception . . .” (my emphasis, 60).
Twenty-seven years have passed since Pope Saint John Paul II wrote The Gospel of Life. The teaching is even more relevant today than in 1995. Today, as a result of the first U.S. Supreme Court decision in our nation’s history ever to explicitly protect the life of the unborn, our country is brutally divided over whether and how a state may regulate the practice of abortion. Some states, like Mississippi that figured in the now famous case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), seek to restrict abortion to the earliest months of pregnancy or to outlaw it entirely. Others seek to legalize abortion during all nine months of pregnancy, some even up to minutes before the child’s birth.
In a recent interview, Lawrence Tribe, a leading constitutional lawyer, offered an astonishing recommendation for regulating abortion in a post-Dobbs world. Professor Tribe, an opponent of the ruling to return abortion to the states, was asked if any “countervailing social interests grounded . . . in secular ‘ways or reasoning acceptable to all,’ and resting on a ‘common knowledge and understanding of the world,’ could ever override a woman’s right to abort a child.” His answer: “One such interest might be to combat invidious discrimination against people with disabilities of various kinds by restricting abortions that are motivated by eugenic considerations—abortions of fetuses predicted to develop into less than “perfect” babies by prevailing social standards or, worse still, by the standards of those atop the current class hierarchy” (New York Review of Books, September 25, 2022). In other words, only to restrict a program of eugenics against children with disabilities in the womb would a state in the U.S. be justified in criminalizing abortion. In other words, in a liberal regime, almost never!
It is not an overstatement to say that Professor Tribe’s standard bodes little hope for a healthy, unwanted child in the womb in America. His position begs the question: how does the understanding of the human person go from The Gospel of Life’s, that “every person is made for eternity” and, therefore, his life may not be taken, to Professor Tribe’s, that only the lives of a class of “fetuses predicted to develop into less than ‘perfect’ babies by prevailing social standards . . .” may be spared?
At Saint John’s Seminary, the faculty have the responsibility and privilege of teaching men preparing for priesthood in the Archdiocese of Boston and other dioceses and religious communities primarily in New England. For six years, seminarians follow a program of spiritual, intellectual, pastoral, and human formation As part of their intellectual formation, they typically spend the first two years in pre-theology, the program in which I teach. They learn that natural law teachings, written upon the hearts of all men and women, help to distinguish good from evil and that to do good and avoid evil is the mark of a virtuous person. They study modern philosophers who offer standards different from that of natural law and Christian teaching who say that the teachings of science and history have replaced those of God, and that God’s teachings, not universally shared, have no place in any public forum. It is such erroneous teaching that undergirds Professor Tribe’s recommendation that the killing of a class of fetuses suffering some physical disability may be the only grounds for prohibiting the abortion of a child in the womb in a liberal regime.
As part of their four years of theology, seminarians study the teachings of Scripture, Tradition and documents of the Church. Pertaining to our subject here, they read, for example, The Gospel of Life, summarized above, and Familiaris consortio, The Christian Family in the Modern World, (1981), which expounds teachings on marriage, the family and the Church’s apostolate to humanity. They study Catholic Social Doctrine on the dignity of the human person, the common good, and the principle that, apart from the Gospel, there is no solution to social questions that result when men and women live in community. In a seminar on Bioethics in their fourth year, seminarians investigate Church teaching pertaining to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, the latter now legal in ten states in the U.S., embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, the selling of body parts, genetic engineering, and other questions pertaining to the protection of life at all stages.
This Fall, I am reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church with second year pre-theology students. Part III, “Life in Christ,” treats of the dignity of the human person, freedom, conscience and the Ten Commandments. Part IV, “Christian Prayer,” shows Jesus as the “model of prayer,” and the Our Father as the words given to us by Christ to ask God for all that we truly need. Promulgated in 1997 by Pope Saint John Paul II, the Catechism provides “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion” (Apostolic Constitution on the Publication of the Catechism, 5).
Whether explaining to a second grader the meaning of “give us this day our daily bread,” or to a legal scholar the reason every life in the womb is worthy of protection, seminarians at St. John’s Seminary are prepared to bear witness to Christ’s teaching on the dignity of the human person to the people of our time. As priests in Boston, as well as in the many dioceses and religious communities served by St. John’s, they will be the ones to celebrate Mass in our parishes, hear our confessions, and baptize our children. They will give them First Communion and prepare them for Confirmation, and marry them when they are of age. And they will be the ones who will anoint and bury us when God calls us home. They, like us, are all instruments in the hands of God learning and eventually teaching and preaching the good, “not added to life as a burden which weighs on it, since the very purpose of life is that good and only by doing it can life be built up.”