Ioannes Paulus PP. II
To the Bishops
Priests and Deacons
Men and Women religious
and all People of Good Will
on the Value and Inviolability
of Human Life
1. The Gospel of life is at the
heart of Jesus' message. Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is
to be preached with dauntless fidelity as "good news" to the people
of every age and culture.
At the dawn of salvation, it is the Birth of a Child
which is proclaimed as joyful news: "I bring you good news of a great joy
which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of
David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:10-11). The source of this
"great joy" is the Birth of the Saviour; but Christmas also reveals
the full meaning of every human birth, and the joy which accompanies the Birth
of the Messiah is thus seen to be the foundation and fulfilment of joy at every
child born into the world (cf. Jn 16:21).
When he presents the heart of his redemptive mission,
Jesus says: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly"
(Jn 10:10). In truth, he is
referring to that "new" and "eternal" life which consists
in communion with the Father, to which every person is freely called in the Son
by the power of the Sanctifying Spirit. It is precisely in this
"life" that all the aspects and stages of human life achieve their
The incomparable worth of the human person
2. 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. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the
initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human
existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened
by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its
full realization in eternity (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-2). At the same time, it is
precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of
each individual's earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an
"ultimate" but a "penultimate" reality; even so, it remains
a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of
responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves
to God and to our brothers and sisters.
The Church knows that this Gospel of life, which she
has received from her Lord, 1 has a profound and persuasive echo in the
heart of every person-believer and non-believer alike-because it marvellously
fulfils all the heart's expectations while infinitely surpassing them. Even in
the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to
truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace,
come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the
sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can
affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to
the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community
and the political community itself are founded.
In a special way, believers in Christ must defend and
promote this right, aware as they are of the wonderful truth recalled by the
Second Vatican Council: "By his incarnation the Son of God has united
himself in some fashion with every human being".2 This saving
event reveals to humanity not only the boundless love of God who "so loved
the world that he gave his only Son" (Jn 3:16), but also the incomparable
value of every human person.
The Church, faithfully contemplating the mystery of
the Redemption, acknowledges this value with ever new wonder.3 She
feels called to proclaim to the people of all times this "Gospel",
the source of invincible hope and true joy for every period of history. The
Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the
Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel.
For this reason, man-living man-represents the primary
and fundamental way for the Church. 4
New threats to human life
3. Every individual, precisely by
reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh (cf. Jn 1:14), is entrusted to
the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and
life must necessarily be felt in the Church's very heart; it cannot but affect
her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God,
and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the
world and to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15).
Today this proclamation is especially pressing because
of the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals
and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenceless. In addition to the
ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war, new
threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale.
The Second Vatican Council, in a passage which retains
all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number of crimes and attacks
against human life. Thirty years later, taking up the words of the Council and
with the same forcefulness I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole
Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright
conscience: "Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of
murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever
violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments
inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults
human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment,
deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well
as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments
of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and
others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do
more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury.
Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator".5
4. Unfortunately, this disturbing
state of affairs, far from decreasing, is expanding: with the new prospects
opened up by scientific and technological progress there arise new forms of
attacks on the dignity of the human being. At the same time a new cultural
climate is developing and taking hold, which gives crimes against life a new
and-if possible-even more sinister character, giving rise to further grave
concern: 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, so that
these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance
of health-care systems.
All this is causing a profound change in the way in
which life and relationships between people are considered. The fact that
legislation in many countries, perhaps even departing from basic principles of
their Constitutions, has determined not to punish these practices against life,
and even to make them altogether legal, is both a disturbing symptom and a
significant cause of grave moral decline. Choices once unanimously considered
criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially
acceptable. Even certain sectors of the medical profession, which by its
calling is directed to the defence and care of human life, are increasingly
willing to carry out these acts against the person. In this way the very nature
of the medical profession is distorted and contradicted, and the dignity of
those who practise it is degraded. In such a cultural and legislative
situation, the serious demographic, social and family problems which weigh upon
many of the world's peoples and which require responsible and effective
attention from national and international bodies, are left open to false and
deceptive solutions, opposed to the truth and the good of persons and nations.
The end result of this is tragic: not only is the fact
of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final
stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the
fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread
conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good
and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life.
In communion with all the Bishops of the
5. The Extraordinary Consistory of
Cardinals held in Rome on 4-7 April 1991
was devoted to the problem of the threats to human life in our day. After a
thorough and detailed discussion of the problem and of the challenges it poses
to the entire human family and in particular to the Christian community, the
Cardinals unanimously asked me to reaffirm with the authority of the Successor
of Peter the value of human life and its inviolability, in the light of present
circumstances and attacks threatening it today.
In response to this request, at Pentecost in 1991 I
wrote a personal letter to each of my Brother Bishops asking them, in the
spirit of episcopal collegiality, to offer me their cooperation in drawing up a
specific document. 6 I am deeply grateful to all the Bishops who
replied and provided me with valuable facts, suggestions and proposals. In so
doing they bore witness to their unanimous desire to share in the doctrinal and
pastoral mission of the Church with regard to the Gospel of life.
In that same letter, written shortly after the
celebration of the centenary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, I drew everyone's
attention to this striking analogy: "Just as a century ago it was the
working classes which were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the
Church very courageously came to their defence by proclaiming the sacrosanct
rights of the worker as a person, so now, when another category of persons is
being oppressed in the fundamental right to life, the Church feels in duty
bound to speak out with the same courage on behalf of those who have no voice.
Hers is always the evangelical cry in defence of the world's poor, those who
are threatened and despised and whose human rights are violated".7
Today there exists a great multitude of weak and
defenceless human beings, unborn children in particular, whose fundamental
right to life is being trampled upon. If, at the end of the last century, the
Church could not be silent about the injustices of those times, still less can
she be silent today, when the social injustices of the past, unfortunately not
yet overcome, are being compounded in many regions of the world by still more
grievous forms of injustice and oppression, even if these are being presented
as elements of progress in view of a new world order.
The present Encyclical, the fruit of the cooperation
of the Episcopate of every country of the world, is therefore meant to be a
precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its
inviolability, and at the same time a pressing appeal addressed to each and
every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve life, every
human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true
freedom, peace and happiness!
May these words reach all the sons and daughters of
the Church! 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!
6. In profound communion with all my
brothers and sisters in the faith, and inspired by genuine friendship towards
all, I wish to meditate upon once more and proclaim the Gospel of life, the
splendour of truth which enlightens consciences, the clear light which corrects
the darkened gaze, and the unfailing source of faithfulness and steadfastness
in facing the ever new challenges which we meet along our path.
As I recall the powerful experience of the Year of the
Family, as if to complete the Letter which I wrote "to every particular
family in every part of the world",8 I look with renewed
confidence to every household and I pray that at every level a general
commitment to support the family will reappear and be strengthened, so that
today too-even amid so many difficulties and serious threats-the family will
always remain, in accordance with God's plan, the "sanctuary of
To all the members of the Church, the people of life
and for life, I make this most urgent appeal, that together we may offer this
world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity
will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the
building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.
CHAPTER I - THE
VOICE OF YOUR BROTHER'S BLOOD CRIES TO ME FROM THE GROUND
THREATS TO HUMAN LIFE
"Cain rose up against his brother
Abel, and killed him" (Gen 4:8): the roots of violence against life
7. "God did not make death, and
he does not delight in the death of the living. For he has created all things
that they might exist ... God created man for incorruption, and made him in the
image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the
world, and those who belong to his party experience it" (Wis 1:13-14;
The Gospel of life, proclaimed in the beginning when
man was created in the image of God for a destiny of full and perfect life (cf.
Gen 2:7; Wis 9:2-3), is contradicted by the painful experience of death which
enters the world and casts its shadow of meaninglessness over man's entire
existence. Death came into the world as a result of the devil's envy (cf. Gen
3:1,4-5) and the sin of our first parents (cf. Gen 2:17, 3:17-19). And death
entered it in a violent way, through the killing of Abel by his brother Cain:
"And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel,
and killed him" (Gen 4:8).
This first murder is presented with singular eloquence
in a page of the Book of Genesis which has universal significance: it is a page
rewritten daily, with inexorable and degrading frequency, in the book of human
Let us re-read together this biblical account which,
despite its archaic structure and its extreme simplicity, has much to teach us.
"Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a
tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an
offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his
flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his
offering, but for Cain and his offering he had not regard. So Cain was very
angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, ?Why are you angry and
why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And
if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but
you must master it'.
"Cain said to Abel his brother, ?Let us go out to
the field'. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother
Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ?Where is Abel your brother?'
He said, ?I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?' And the Lord said, ?What
have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the
ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to
receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall
no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on
the earth'. Cain said to the Lord, ?My punishment is greater than I can bear.
Behold, you have driven me this day away from the ground; and from your face I
shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and
whoever finds me will slay me'. Then the Lord said to him, ?Not so! If any one
slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold'. And the Lord put a mark
on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. Then Cain went away from
the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden" (Gen
8. Cain was "very angry"
and his countenance "fell" because "the Lord had regard for Abel
and his offering" (Gen 4:4-5). The biblical text does not reveal the
reason why God prefers Abel's sacrifice to Cain's. It clearly shows however
that God, although preferring Abel's gift, does not interrupt his dialogue with
Cain. He admonishes him, reminding him of his freedom in the face of evil: man
is in no way predestined to evil. Certainly, like Adam, he is tempted by the
malevolent force of sin which, like a wild beast, lies in wait at the door of
his heart, ready to leap on its prey. But Cain remains free in the face of sin.
He can and must overcome it: "Its desire is for you, but you must master
it" (Gen 4:7).
Envy and anger have the upper hand over the Lord's
warning, and so Cain attacks his own brother and kills him. As we read in the
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "In the account of Abel's murder by his
brother Cain, Scripture reveals the presence of anger and envy in man,
consequences of original sin, from the beginning of human history. Man has
become the enemy of his fellow man".10
Brother kills brother. Like the first fratricide,
every murder is a violation of the "spiritual" kinship uniting
mankind in one great family, 11 in which all share the same fundamental
good: equal personal dignity. Not infrequently the kinship "of flesh and
blood" is also violated; for example when threats to life arise within the
relationship between parents and children, such as happens in abortion or when,
in the wider context of family or kinship, euthanasia is encouraged or
At the root of every act of violence against one's
neighbour there is a concession to the "thinking" of the evil one,
the one who "was a murderer from the beginning" (Jn 8:44). As the Apostle
John reminds us: "For this is the message which you have heard from the
beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the
evil one and murdered his brother" (1 Jn 3:11-12). 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.
After the crime, God intervenes to avenge the one
killed. Before God, who asks him about the fate of Abel, Cain, instead of
showing remorse and apologizing, arrogantly eludes the question: "I do not
know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9). "I do not know":
Cain tries to cover up his crime with a lie. This was and still is the case,
when all kinds of ideologies try to justify and disguise the most atrocious crimes
against human beings. "Am I my brother's keeper?": Cain does not wish
to think about his brother and refuses to accept the responsibility which every
person has towards others. We cannot but think of today's tendency for people
to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters. Symptoms of
this trend include the lack of solidarity towards society's weakest
members-such as the elderly, the infirm, immigrants, children- and the
indifference frequently found in relations between the world's peoples even
when basic values such as survival, freedom and peace are involved.
9. But God cannot leave the crime
unpunished: from the ground on which it has been spilt, the blood of the one
murdered demands that God should render justice (cf. Gen 37:26; Is 26:21; Ez
24:7-8). From this text the Church has taken the name of the "sins which
cry to God for justice", and, first among them, she has included wilful
murder. 12 For the Jewish people, as for many peoples of antiquity,
blood is the source of life. Indeed "the blood is the life" (Dt 12:23), and life,
especially human life, belongs only to God: for this reason whoever attacks
human life, in some way attacks God himself.
Cain is cursed by God and also by the earth, which will
deny him its fruit (cf. Gen 4:11-12). He is
punished: he will live in the wilderness and the desert. Murderous violence
profoundly changes man's environment. From being the "garden of Eden"
(Gen 2:15), a place of
plenty, of harmonious interpersonal relationships and of friendship with God,
the earth becomes "the land of Nod" (Gen 4:16), a place of
scarcity, loneliness and separation from God. Cain will be "a fugitive and
a wanderer on the earth" (Gen 4:14): uncertainty and
restlessness will follow him forever.
And yet God, who is always merciful even when he
punishes, "put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill
him" (Gen 4:15). He thus gave
him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to
protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to
avenge Abel's death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God
himself pledges to guarantee this. And it is pre- cisely here that the
paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God is shown forth. As Saint
Ambrose writes: "Once the crime is admitted at the very inception of this
sinful act of parricide, then the divine law of God's mercy should be
immediately extended. If punishment is forthwith inflicted on the accused, then
men in the exercise of justice would in no way observe patience and moderation,
but would straightaway condemn the defendant to punishment. ... God drove Cain
out of his presence and sent him into exile far away from his native land, so
that he passed from a life of human kindness to one which was more akin to the
rude existence of a wild beast. God, who preferred the correction rather than
the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the
exaction of another act of homicide".13
"What have you done?" (Gen 4:10): the eclipse of
the value of life
10. The Lord said to Cain:
"What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me
from the ground" (Gen 4:10).The voice of the blood shed by men continues
to cry out, from generation to generation, in ever new and different ways.
The Lord's question: "What have you done?",
which Cain cannot escape, is addressed also to the people of today, to make
them realize the extent and gravity of the attacks against life which continue
to mark human history; to make them discover what causes these attacks and
feeds them; and to make them ponder seriously the consequences which derive
from these attacks for the existence of individuals and peoples.
Some threats come from nature itself, but they are
made worse by the culpable indifference and negligence of those who could in
some cases remedy them. Others are the result of situations of violence, hatred
and conflicting interests, which lead people to attack others through murder,
war, slaughter and genocide.
And how can we fail to consider the violence against
life done to millions of human beings, especially children, who are forced into
poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources
between peoples and between social classes? And what of the violence inherent
not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade, which spawns the
many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood? What of the spreading of
death caused by reckless tampering with the world's ecological balance, by the
criminal spread of drugs, or by the promotion of certain kinds of sexual
activity which, besides being morally unacceptable, also involve grave risks to
life? It is impossible to catalogue completely the vast array of threats to
human life, so many are the forms, whether explicit or hidden, in which they
11. Here though we shall concentrate
particular attention on another category of attacks, affecting life in its
earliest and in its final stages, attacks which present new characteristics
with respect to the past and which raise questions of extraordinary
seriousness. It is not only that in generalized opinion these attacks tend no
longer to be considered as "crimes"; paradoxically they assume the
nature of "rights", to the point that the State is called upon to
give them legal recognition and to make them available through the free
services of health-care personnel. Such attacks strike human life at the time
of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any means of self-defence. Even more
serious is the fact that, most often, those attacks are carried out in the very
heart of and with the complicity of the family-the family which by its nature
is called to be the "sanctuary of life".
How did such a situation come about? Many different
factors have to be taken into account. In the background there is the profound
crisis of culture, which generates 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 meaning of his rights and his
duties. Then there are all kinds of existential and interpersonal difficulties,
made worse by the complexity of a society in which individuals, couples and
families are often left alone with their problems. There are situations of
acute poverty, anxiety or frustration in which the struggle to make ends meet,
the presence of unbearable pain, or instances of violence, especially against
women, make the choice to defend and promote life so demanding as sometimes to
reach the point of heroism.
All this explains, at least in part, how the value of
life can today undergo a kind of "eclipse", even though conscience
does not cease to point to it as a sacred and inviolable value, as is evident
in the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final
stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact
that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person.
12. In fact, while the climate of
widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity
and gravity of today's social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the
subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are
confronted by 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". This culture is actively fostered by powerful
cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society
excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point
of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful
against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care
is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore
rejected in one way or another. 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. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal,
family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging
and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and
13. In order to facilitate the
spread of abortion, enormous sums of money have been invested and continue to
be invested in the production of pharmaceutical products which make it possible
to kill the fetus in the mother's womb without recourse to medical assistance.
On this point, scientific research itself seems to be almost exclusively
preoccupied with developing products which are ever more simple and effective
in suppressing life and which at the same time are capable of removing abortion
from any kind of control or social responsibility.
It is frequently asserted that contraception, if made
safe and available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion. The
Catholic Church is then accused of actually promoting abortion, because she
obstinately continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception. When
looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many
people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of
abortion. But the negative values inherent in the "contraceptive
mentality"-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in
respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact
strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro-
abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church's teaching on
contraception is rejected. Certainly, from the moral point of view
contraception and abortion arespecifically different evils: the former
contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of
conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former
is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the
virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment "You shall
But despite their differences of nature and moral
gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of
the same tree. It is true that in many cases contraception and even abortion
are practised under the pressure of real- life difficulties, which nonetheless
can never exonerate from striving to observe God's law fully. Still, in very
many other instances such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality
unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a
self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to
personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus
becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only
possible decisive response to failed contraception.
The close connection which exists, in mentality,
between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming
increasingly obvious. It is being demonstrated in an alarming way by the
development of chemical products, intrauterine devices and vaccines which,
distributed with the same ease as contraceptives, really act as abortifacients
in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being.
14. The various techniques of
artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and
which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new
threats against life. Apart from the fact that they are morally unacceptable,
since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal
act, 14 these techniques have a high rate of failure: not just failure
in relation to fertilization but with regard to the subsequent development of
the embryo, which is exposed to the risk of death, generally within a very
short space of time. Furthermore, the number of embryos produced is often
greater than that needed for implantation in the woman's womb, and these
so-called "spare embryos" are then destroyed or used for research
which, under the pretext of scientific or medical progress, in fact reduces
human life to the level of simple "biological material" to be freely
Prenatal diagnosis, which presents no moral objections
if carried out in order to identify the medical treatment which may be needed
by the child in the womb, all too often becomes an opportunity for proposing
and procuring an abortion. This is eugenic abortion, justified in public
opinion on the basis of a mentality-mistakenly held to be consistent with the
demands of "therapeutic interventions"-which accepts life only under
certain conditions and rejects it when it is affected by any limitation,
handicap or illness.
Following this same logic, the point has been reached
where the most basic care, even nourishment, is denied to babies born with
serious handicaps or illnesses. The contemporary scene, moreover, is becoming
even more alarming by reason of the proposals, advanced here and there, to
justify even infanticide, following the same arguments used to justify the
right to abortion. In this way, we revert to a state of barbarism which one
hoped had been left behind forever.
15. Threats which are no less
serious hang over the incurably ill and the dying. In a social and cultural
context which makes it more difficult to face and accept suffering, the
temptation becomes all the greater to resolve the problem of suffering by
eliminating it at the root, by hastening death so that it occurs at the moment
considered most suitable.
Various considerations usually contribute to such a
decision, all of which converge in the same terrible outcome. In the sick
person the sense of anguish, of severe discomfort, and even of desperation
brought on by intense and prolonged suffering can be a decisive factor. Such a
situation can threaten the already fragile equilibrium of an individual's
personal and family life, with the result that, on the one hand, the sick
person, despite the help of increasingly effective medical and social assistance,
risks feeling overwhelmed by his or her own frailty; and on the other hand,
those close to the sick person can be moved by an understandable even if
misplaced compassion. All this is aggravated by a cultural climate which fails
to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering
the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs. This is especially the case
in the absence of a religious outlook which could help to provide a positive
understanding of the mystery of suffering.
On a more general level, there exists in contemporary
culture a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can
control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands.
What really happens in this case is that the individual is overcome and crushed
by a death deprived of any prospect of meaning or hope. We see a tragic
expression of all this in the spread of euthanasia-disguised and surreptitious,
or practised openly and even legally. As well as for reasons of a misguided
pity at the sight of the patient's suffering, euthanasia is sometimes justified
by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and which
weigh heavily on society. Thus it is proposed to eliminate malformed babies,
the severely handicapped, the disabled, the elderly, especially when they are
not self-sufficient, and the terminally ill. Nor can we remain silent in the
face of other more furtive, but no less serious and real, forms of euthanasia.
These could occur for example when, in order to increase the availability of
organs for transplants, organs are removed without respecting objective and
adequate criteria which verify the death of the donor.
16. Another present-day phenomenon,
frequently used to justify threats and attacks against life, is the demographic
question. This question arises in different ways in different parts of the
world. In the rich and developed countries there is a disturbing decline or
collapse of the birthrate. The poorer countries, on the other hand, generally
have a high rate of population growth, difficult to sustain in the context of
low economic and social development, and especially where there is extreme
underdevelopment. In the face of over- population in the poorer countries, instead
of forms of global intervention at the international level-serious family and
social policies, programmes of cultural development and of fair production and
distribution of resources-anti-birth policies continue to be enacted.
Contraception, sterilization and abortion are
certainly part of the reason why in some cases there is a sharp decline in the
birthrate. It is not difficult to be tempted to use the same methods and
attacks against life also where there is a situation of "demographic explosion".
The Pharaoh of old, haunted by the presence and
increase of the children of Israel, 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). Today not a few of the powerful of the earth act in the same
way. They too are haunted by the current demographic growth, and fear that the
most prolific and poorest peoples represent a threat for the well-being and
peace of their own countries. Consequently, rather than wishing to face and
solve these serious problems with respect for the dignity of individuals and
families and for every person's inviolable right to life, they prefer to
promote and impose by whatever means a massive programme of birth control. Even
the economic help which they would be ready to give is unjustly made
conditional on the acceptance of an anti-birth policy.
17. Humanity today offers us a truly
alarming spectacle, if we consider not only how extensively attacks on life are
spreading but also their unheard-of numerical proportion, and the fact that
they receive widespread and powerful support from a broad consensus on the part
of society, from widespread legal approval and the involvement of certain
sectors of health-care personnel.
As I emphatically stated at Denver, on the occasion
of the Eighth World Youth Day, "with time the threats against life have
not grown weaker. They are taking on vast proportions. They are not only
threats coming from the outside, from the forces of nature or the ?Cains' who
kill the ?Abels'; no, they are scientifically and systematically programmed
threats. The twentieth century will have been an era of massive attacks on
life, an endless series of wars and a continual taking of innocent human life.
False prophets and false teachers have had the greatest
success".15 Aside from intentions, which can be varied and perhaps
can seem convincing at times, especially if presented in the name of
solidarity, we are in fact faced by an objective "conspiracy against
life", involving even international Institutions, engaged in encouraging
and carrying out actual campaigns to make contraception, sterilization and
abortion widely available. Nor can it be denied that the mass media are often
implicated in this conspiracy, by lending credit to that culture which presents
recourse to contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia as a
mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of
freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life.
"Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen
4:9): a perverse idea of freedom
18. The panorama described needs to
be understood not only in terms of the phenomena of death which characterize it
but also in the variety of causes which determine it. The Lord's question:
"What have you done?" (Gen 4:10), seems almost like an invitation
addressed to Cain to go beyond the material dimension of his murderous gesture,
in order to recognize in it all the gravity of the motives which occasioned it
and the consequences which result from it.
Decisions that go against life sometimes arise from
difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total
lack of economic pros- pects, depression and anxiety about the future. Such
circumstances can mitigate even to a notable degree subjective responsibility
and the consequent culpability of those who make these choices which in
themselves are evil. But today the prob- lem goes far beyond the necessary
recognition of these personal situations. It is a problem which exists at the
cultural, social and political level, where it reveals its more sinister and
disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret the
above crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to
be acknowledged and protected as actual rights.
In this way, and with tragic consequences, a long
historical process is reaching a turning-point. The process which once led to
discovering the idea of "human rights"-rights inherent in every
person and prior to any Constitution and State legislation-is today marked by a
surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the
person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the
very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more
significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death.
On the one hand, the various declarations of human
rights and the many initiatives inspired by these declarations show that at the
global level there is a growing moral sensitivity, more alert to acknowledging
the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any
distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class.
On the other hand, these noble proclamations are
unfortunately contradicted by a tragic repudiation of them in practice. This
denial is still more distressing, indeed more scandalous, precisely because it
is occurring in a society which makes the affirmation and protection of human
rights its primary objective and its boast. How can these repeated affirmations
of principle be reconciled with the continual increase and widespread
justification of attacks on human life? How can we reconcile these declarations
with the refusal to accept those who are weak and needy, or elderly, or those
who have just been conceived? These attacks go directly against respect for
life and they represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights.
It is a threat capable, in the end, of jeopardizing the very meaning of
democratic coexistence: rather than societies of "people living
together", our cities risk becoming societies of people who are rejected,
marginalized, uprooted and oppressed. If we then look at the wider worldwide
perspective, how can we fail to think that the very affirmation of the rights
of individuals and peoples made in distinguished international assemblies is a
merely futile exercise of rhetoric, if we fail to unmask the selfishness of the
rich countries which exclude poorer countries from access to development or
make such access dependent on arbitrary prohibitions against procreation,
setting up an opposition between development and man himself? Should we not
question the very economic models often adopted by States which, also as a
result of international pressures and forms of conditioning, cause and
aggravate situations of injustice and violence in which the life of whole
peoples is degraded and trampled upon?
19. What are the roots of this
We can find them in an overall assessment of a
cultural and moral nature, beginning with the mentality which carries the
concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a
subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient
autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. But how
can we reconcile this approach with the exaltation of man as a being who is
"not to be used"? The theory of human rights is based precisely on
the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be
subjected to domination by others. We must also mention the mentality which
tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or
at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these
presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn
or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who
appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and
can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of
affection. In this case it is force which becomes the criterion for choice and
action in interpersonal relations and in social life. But this is the exact
opposite of what a State ruled by law, as a community in which the
"reasons of force" are replaced by the "force of reason",
historically intended to affirm.
At another level, the roots of the contradiction
between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in
practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an
absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and
service of them. While it is true that the taking of life not yet born or in
its final stages is sometimes marked by a mistaken sense of altruism and human
compassion, it cannot be denied that such a culture of death, taken as a whole,
betrays a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by
becoming the freedom of "the strong" against the weak who have no
choice but to submit.
It is precisely in this sense that Cain's answer to
the Lord's question: "Where is Abel your brother?" can be
interpreted: "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9).
Yes, every man is his "brother's keeper", because God entrusts us to
one another. And it is also in view of this entrusting that God gives everyone
freedom, a freedom which possesses an inherently relational dimension. This is
a great gift of the Creator, placed as it is at the service of the person and
of his fulfilment through the gift of self and openness to others; but when
freedom is made absolute in an individualistic way, it is emptied of its
original content, and its very meaning and dignity are contradicted.
There is an even more profound aspect which needs to
be emphasized: freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor
leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects
its essential link with the truth. When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate
itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most
obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation
of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the
sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about
good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his
selfish interest and whim.
20. This view of freedom leads to a
serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is
understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of
rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has
to defend oneself. Thus soci- ety becomes a mass of individuals placed side by
side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself
independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests
prevail. Still, in the face of other people's analogous interests, some kind of
compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible
freedom is guaranteed to each individual. In this way, any reference to common
values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life
ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point,
everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of
the fundamental rights, the right to life.
This is what is happening also at the level of
politics and government: the original and inalienable right to life is
questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one
part of the people-even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a
relativism which reigns unopposed: the "right" ceases to be such,
because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person,
but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy,
contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of
totalitarianism. The State is no longer the "common home" where all
can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is
transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose
of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child
to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but
the interest of one part. The appearance of the strictest respect for legality
is maintained, at least when the laws permitting abortion and euthanasia are
the result of a ballot in accordance with what are generally seen as the rules
of democracy. Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of
legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges
and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very
foundations: "How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every
human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In
the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practised: some
individuals are held to be deserving of defence and others are denied that
dignity?" 16 When this happens, the process leading to the
breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the State
itself has already begun.
To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and
euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human
freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others
and against others. This is the death of true freedom: "Truly, truly, I
say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin" (Jn 8:34).
"And from your face I shall be
hidden" (Gen 4:14): the eclipse of
the sense of God and of man
21. In seeking the deepest roots of
the struggle between the "culture of life" and the "culture of
death", we cannot restrict ourselves to the perverse idea of freedom
mentioned above. We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by
modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and
cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles,
succeeds at times in putting Christian communities themselves to the test.
Those who allow themselves to be influenced by this climate easily fall into a
sad vicious circle: 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 for
human life and its dignity, produces a kind of progressive darkening of the
capacity to discern God's living and saving presence.
Once again we can gain insight from the story of
Abel's murder by his brother. After the curse imposed on him by God, Cain thus
addresses the Lord: "My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you
have driven me this day away from the ground; and from your face I shall be
hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds
me will slay me" (Gen 4:13-14). Cain is convinced that his sin will not
obtain pardon from the Lord and that his inescapable destiny will be to have to
"hide his face" from him. If Cain is capable of confessing that his
fault is "greater than he can bear", it is because he is conscious of
being in the presence of God and before God's just judgment. It is really only
before the Lord that man can admit his sin and recognize its full seriousness.
Such was the experience of David who, after "having committed evil in the
sight of the Lord", and being rebuked by the Prophet Nathan, exclaimed:
"My offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me. Against you,
you alone, have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done" (Ps
22. Consequently, when the sense of
God is lost, the sense of man is also threatened and poisoned, as the Second
Vatican Council concisely states: "Without the Creator the creature would
disappear ... But when God is forgotten the creature itself grows
unintelligible".17 Man is no longer able to see himself as
"mysteriously different" from other earthly creatures; he regards
himself merely as one more living being, as an organism which, at most, has
reached a very high stage of perfection. Enclosed in the narrow horizon of his
physical nature, he is somehow reduced to being "a thing", and no
longer grasps the "transcendent" character of his "existence as
man". He no longer considers life as a splendid gift of God, something
"sacred" entrusted to his responsibility and thus also to his loving
care and "veneration". Life itself becomes a mere "thing",
which man claims as his exclusive property, completely subject to his control
Thus, in relation to life at birth or at death, man is
no longer capable of posing the question of the truest meaning of his own
existence, nor can he assimilate with genuine freedom these crucial moments of
his own history. He is concerned only with "doing", and, using all
kinds of technology, he busies himself with programming, controlling and
dominating birth and death. Birth and death, instead of being primary
experiences demanding to be "lived", become things to be merely
"possessed" or "rejected".
Moreover, once all reference to God has been removed,
it is not surprising that the meaning of everything else becomes profoundly
distorted. Nature itself, from being "mater" (mother), is now reduced
to being "matter", and is subjected to every kind of manipulation.
This is the direction in which a certain technical and scientific way of
thinking, prevalent in present-day culture, appears to be leading when it
rejects the very idea that there is a truth of creation which must be ac-
knowledged, or a plan of God for life which must be respected. Something
similar happens when concern about the consequences of such a "freedom
without law" leads some people to the opposite position of a "law
without freedom", as for example in ideologies which consider it unlawful
to interfere in any way with nature, practically "divinizing" it.
Again, this is a misunderstanding of nature's dependence on the plan of the
Creator. Thus it is clear that the loss of contact with God's wise design is
the deepest root of modern man's confusion, both when this loss leads to a
freedom without rules and when it leaves man in "fear" of his
By living "as if God did not exist", man not
only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of the world
and the mystery of his own being.
23. The eclipse of the sense of God
and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds
individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism. Here too we see the permanent
validity of the words of the Apostle: "And since they did not see fit to
acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct"
(Rom 1:28). The values of
being are replaced by those of having. The only goal which counts is the
pursuit of one's own material well-being. 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.
In such a context suffering, an inescapable burden of
human existence but also a factor of possible personal growth, is
"censored", rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil, always
and in every way to be avoided. When it cannot be avoided and the prospect of
even some future well-being vanishes, then life appears to have lost all
meaning and the temptation grows in man to claim the right to suppress it.
Within this same cultural climate, the body is no
longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations
with others, with God and with the world. It is reduced to pure materiality: it
is simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to
the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency. Consequently, sexuality too is
depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love,
that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other's
richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for
self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts.
Thus the original import of human sexuality is distorted and falsified, and the
two meanings, unitive and procreative, inherent in the very nature of the
conjugal act, are artificially separated: in this way the marriage union is
betrayed and its fruitfulness is subjected to the caprice of the couple.
Procreation then becomes the "enemy" to be avoided in sexual
activity: if it is welcomed, this is only because it expresses a desire, or
indeed the intention, to have a child "at all costs", and not because
it signifies the complete acceptance of the other and therefore an openness to
the richness of life which the child represents.
In the materialistic perspective described so far,
interpersonal relations are seriously impoverished. The first to be harmed are
women, children, the sick or suffering, and the elderly. The criterion of
personal dignity-which demands respect, generosity and service-is replaced by
the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: 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.
24. It is at the heart of the moral
conscience that the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, with all its
various and deadly consequences for life, is taking place. It is a question,
above all, of the individual conscience, as it stands before God in its
singleness and uniqueness. 18 But it is also a question, in a certain
sense, of the "moral conscience" of society: in a way it too is
responsible, not only because it tolerates or fosters behaviour contrary to
life, but also because it encourages the "culture of death", creating
and consolidating actual "structures of sin" which go against life.
The moral conscience, both individual and social, is today subjected, also as a
result of the penetrating influence of the media, to an extremely serious and
mortal danger: that of confusion between good and evil, precisely in relation
to the fundamental right to life. A large part of contemporary society looks
sadly like that humanity which Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans. It
is composed "of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth"
(1:18): having denied God and believing that they can build the earthly city without
him, "they became futile in their thinking" so that "their
senseless minds were darkened" (1:21); "claiming to be wise, they
became fools" (1:22), carrying out works deserving of death, and
"they not only do them but approve those who practise them" (1:32).
When conscience, this bright lamp of the soul (cf. Mt 6:22-23), calls
"evil good and good evil" (Is 5:20), it is already
on the path to the most alarming corruption and the darkest moral blindness.
And yet all the conditioning and efforts to enforce
silence fail to stifle the voice of the Lord echoing in the conscience of every
individual: it is always from this intimate sanctuary of the conscience that a
new journey of love, openness and service to human life can begin.
"You have come to the sprinkled
blood" (cf. Heb 12: 22, 24): signs of
hope and invitation to commitment
25. "The voice of your
brother's blood is crying to me from the ground" (Gen 4:10). It is not only
the voice of the blood of Abel, the first innocent man to be murdered, which
cries to God, the source and defender of life. The blood of every other human
being who has been killed since Abel is also a voice raised to the Lord. In an
absolutely singular way, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us,
the voice of the blood of Christ, of whom Abel in his innocence is a prophetic
figure, cries out to God: "You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of
the living God ... to the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood
that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel" (12:22, 24).
It is the sprinkled blood. A symbol and prophetic sign
of it had been the blood of the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, whereby God
expressed his will to communicate his own life to men, purifying and
consecrating them (cf. Ex 24:8; Lev 17:11). Now all of this is fulfilled and
comes true in Christ: his is the sprinkled blood which redeems, purifies and
saves; it is the blood of the Mediator of the New Covenant "poured out for
many for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt 26:28). This blood, which flows from
the pierced side of Christ on the Cross (cf. Jn 19:34), "speaks more
graciously" than the blood of Abel; indeed, it expresses and requires a
more radical "justice", and above all it implores mercy, 19
it makes intercession for the brethren before the Father (cf. Heb 7:25), and it
is the source of perfect redemption and the gift of new life.
The blood of Christ, while it reveals the grandeur of
the Father's love, shows how precious man is in God's eyes and how priceless
the value of his life. The Apostle Peter reminds us of this: "You know
that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not
with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of
Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (1 Pt 1:18-19).
Precisely by contemplating the precious blood of Christ, the sign of his
self-giving love (cf. Jn 13:1), the believer learns to recognize and appreciate
the almost divine dignity of every human being and can exclaim with ever
renewed and grateful wonder: "How precious must man be in the eyes of the
Creator, if he ?gained so great a Redeemer' (Exsultet of the Easter Vigil), and
if God ?gave his only Son' in order that man ?should not perish but have
eternal life' (cf. Jn 3:16)!". 20
Furthermore, Christ's blood reveals to man that his
greatness, and therefore his vocation, consists in the sincere gift of self.
Precisely because it is poured out as the gift of life, the blood of Christ is
no longer a sign of death, of definitive separation from the brethren, but the
instrument of a communion which is richness of life for all. Whoever in the
Sacrament of the Eucharist drinks this blood and abides in Jesus (cf. Jn 6:56)
is drawn into the dynamism of his love and gift of life, in order to bring to
its fullness the original vocation to love which belongs to everyone (cf. Gen
It is from the blood of Christ that all draw the
strength to commit themselves to promoting life. It is precisely this blood
that is the most powerful source of hope, indeed it is the foundation of the
absolute certitude that in God's plan life will be victorious. "And death
shall be no more", exclaims the powerful voice which comes from the throne
of God in the Heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:4). And Saint
Paul assures us that the present victory over
sin is a sign and anticipation of the definitive victory over death, when there
"shall come to pass the saying that is written: ?Death is swallowed up in
victory'. ?O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'
" (1 Cor 15:54-55).
26. In effect, signs which point to
this victory are not lacking in our societies and cultures, strongly marked
though they are by the "culture of death". It would therefore be to
give a one-sided picture, which could lead to sterile discouragement, if the
condemnation of the threats to life were not accompanied by the presentation of
the positive signs at work in humanity's present situation.
Unfortunately it is often hard to see and recognize
these positive signs, perhaps also because they do not receive sufficient
attention in the communications media. Yet, how many initiatives of help and
support for people who are weak and defenceless have sprung up and continue to
spring up in the Christian community and in civil society, at the local,
national and international level, through the efforts of individuals, groups,
movements and organizations of various kinds!
There are still many married couples who, with a
generous sense of responsibility, are ready to accept children as "the
supreme gift of marriage".21 Nor is there a lack of families
which, over and above their everyday service to life, are willing to accept
abandoned children, boys and girls and teenagers in difficulty, handicapped
persons, elderly men and women who have been left alone. Many centres in
support of life, or similar institutions, are sponsored by individuals and
groups which, with admirable dedication and sacrifice, offer moral and material
support to mothers who are in difficulty and are tempted to have recourse to
abortion. Increasingly, there are appearing in many places groups of volunteers
prepared to offer hospitality to persons without a family, who find themselves
in conditions of particular distress or who need a supportive environment to
help them to overcome destructive habits and discover anew the meaning of life.
Medical science, thanks to the committed efforts of
researchers and practitioners, continues in its efforts to discover ever more
effective remedies: treatments which were once inconceivable but which now
offer much promise for the future are today being developed for the unborn, the
suffering and those in an acute or terminal stage of sickness. Various agencies
and organizations are mobilizing their efforts to bring the benefits of the
most advanced medicine to countries most afflicted by poverty and endemic
diseases. In a similar way national and international associations of
physicians are being organized to bring quick relief to peoples affected by
natural disasters, epidemics or wars. Even if a just international distribution
of medical resources is still far from being a reality, how can we not
recognize in the steps taken so far the sign of a growing solidarity among
peoples, a praiseworthy human and moral sensitivity and a greater respect for
27. In view of laws which permit
abortion and in view of efforts, which here and there have been successful, to
legalize euthanasia, movements and initiatives to raise social awareness in
defence of life have sprung up in many parts of the world. When, in accordance
with their principles, such movements act resolutely, but without resorting to
violence, they promote a wider and more profound consciousness of the value of
life, and evoke and bring about a more determined commitment to its defence.
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 or communities which defend life? Allowing herself to be guided
by the example of Jesus the "Good Samaritan" (cf. Lk 10:29-37) and
upheld by his strength, the Church has always been in the front line in
providing charitable help: so many of her sons and daughters, especially men
and women Religious, in traditional and ever new forms, have consecrated and
continue to consecrate their lives to God, freely giving of themselves out of
love for their neighbour, especially for the weak and needy. These deeds
strengthen the bases of the "civilization of love and life", without
which the life of individuals and of society itself loses its most genuinely
human quality. Even if they go unnoticed and remain hidden to most people,
faith assures us that the Father "who sees in secret" (Mt 6:6) not
only will reward these actions but already here and now makes them produce
lasting fruit for the good of all.
Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread,
at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war
as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and
increasingly oriented to finding effective but "non-violent" means to
counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a
growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is
seen as a kind of "legitimate defence" on the part of society. Modern
society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering
criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.
Another welcome sign is the growing attention being
paid to the quality of life and to ecology, especially in more developed
societies, where people's expectations are no longer concentrated so much on
problems of survival as on the search for an overall improvement of living
conditions. Especially significant is the reawakening of an ethical reflection
on issues affecting life. The emergence and ever more widespread development of
bioethics is promoting more reflection and dialogue-between believers and
non-believers, as well as between followers of different religions- on ethical
problems, including fundamental issues pertaining to human life.
28. This situation, with its lights
and shadows, ought to make us all fully aware 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". We find ourselves not only
"faced with" but necessarily "in the midst of" this
conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable
responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.
For us too Moses' invitation rings out loud and clear:
"See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. ... I
have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life,
that you and your descendants may live" (Dt 30:15, 19). This invitation is
very appropriate for us who are called day by day to the duty of choosing
between the "culture of life" and the "culture of death".
But the call of Deuteronomy goes even deeper, for it urges us to make a choice
which is properly religious and moral. It is a question of giving our own existence
a basic orientation and living the law of the Lord faithfully and consistently:
"If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you
this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping
his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live ...
therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord
your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you
and length of days" (30:16,19-20).
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. Nothing helps us so much to face positively the conflict
between death and life in which we are engaged as faith in the Son of God who
became man and dwelt among men so "that they may have life, and have it
abundantly" (Jn 10:10). It is a matter of faith in the Risen Lord, who has
conquered death; faith in the blood of Christ "that speaks more graciously
than the blood of Abel" (Heb 12:24).
With the light and strength of this faith, therefore,
in facing the challenges of the present situation, the Church is becoming more
aware of the grace and responsibility which come to her from her Lord of
proclaiming, celebrating and serving the Gospel of life.
CHAPTER II - I
CAME THAT THEY MAY HAVE LIFE
MESSAGE CONCERNING LIFE
"The life was made manifest, and we
saw it" (1 Jn 1:2): with our gaze fixed on Christ, "the Word of
29. Faced with the countless grave
threats to life present in the modern world, one could feel overwhelmed by
sheer powerlessness: good can never be powerful enough to triumph over evil!
At such times the People of God, and this includes every
believer, is called to profess with humility and courage its faith in Jesus
Christ, "the Word of life" (1 Jn 1:1). The Gospel of life is not
simply a reflection, however new and profound, on human life. Nor is it merely
a commandment aimed at raising awareness and bringing about significant changes
in society. Still less is it an illusory promise of a better future. The Gospel
of life is something concrete and personal, for it consists in the proclamation
of the very person of Jesus. Jesus made himself known to the Apostle Thomas,
and in him to every person, with the words: "I am the way, and the truth,
and the life" (Jn 14:6). This is also how he spoke of himself to Martha,
the sister of Lazarus: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who
believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and
believes in me shall never die" (Jn 11:25-26). Jesus is the Son who from
all eternity receives life from the Father (cf. Jn 5:26), and who has come among men to make them
sharers in this gift: "I came that they may have life, and have it
abundantly" (Jn 10:10).
Through the words, the actions and the very person of
Jesus, man is given the possibility of "knowing" the complete truth
concerning the value of human life. From this "source" he receives,
in particular, the capacity to "accomplish" this truth perfectly (cf.
Jn 3:21), that is, to
accept and fulfil completely the responsibility of loving and serving, of
defending and promoting human life. In Christ, the Gospel of life is
definitively proclaimed and fully given. This is the Gospel which, already
present in the Revelation of the Old Testament, and indeed written in the heart
of every man and woman, has echoed in every conscience "from the
beginning", from the time of creation itself, in such a way that, despite
the negative consequences of sin, it can also be known in its essential traits
by human reason. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, Christ "perfected
revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making himself present and
manifesting himself; through his words and deeds, his signs and wonders, but
especially through his death and glorious Resurrection from the dead and final
sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover, he confirmed with divine testimony
what revelation proclaimed: that God is with us to free us from the darkness of
sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal".22
30. Hence, with our attention fixed
on the Lord Jesus, we wish to hear from him once again "the words of
God" (Jn 3:34) and meditate
anew on the Gospel of life. The deepest and most original meaning of this
meditation on what revelation tells us about human life was taken up by the
Apostle John in the opening words of his First Letter: "That which was
from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes,
which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of
life-the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim
to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to
us-that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may
have fellowship with us" (1:1-3).
In Jesus, the "Word of life", God's eternal
life is thus 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.
"The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation" (Ex 15:2): life is always a good
31. The fullness of the Gospel
message about life was prepared for in the Old Testament. Especially in the
events of the Exodus, the centre of the Old Testament faith experience, Israel discovered the
preciousness of its life in the eyes of God. When it seemed doomed to
extermination because of the threat of death hanging over all its newborn males
(cf. Ex 1:15-22), the Lord
revealed himself to Israel as its Saviour,
with the power to ensure a future to those without hope. Israel thus comes to
know clearly that its existence is not at the mercy of a Pharaoh who can
exploit it at his despotic whim. On the contrary, Israel's life is the
object of God's gentle and intense love.
Freedom from slavery meant the gift of an identity,
the recognition of an indestructible dignity and the beginning of a new
history, in which the discovery of God and discovery of self go hand in hand.
The Exodus was a foundational experience and a model for the future. Through
it, Israel comes to learn that whenever its existence is threatened it need
only turn to God with renewed trust in order to find in him effective help:
"I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by
me" (Is 44:21).
Thus, in coming to know the value of its own existence
as a people, Israel also grows in its
perception of the meaning and value of life itself. This reflection is
developed more specifically in the Wisdom Literature, on the basis of daily
experience of the precariousness of life and awareness of the threats which
assail it. Faced with the contradictions of life, faith is challenged to
More than anything else, it is the problem of
suffering which challenges faith and puts it to the test. How can we fail to
appreciate the universal anguish of man when we meditate on the Book of Job?
The innocent man overwhelmed by suffering is understandably led to wonder:
"Why is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in
soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hid
treasures?" (3:20-21). But even
when the darkness is deepest, faith points to a trusting and adoring
acknowledgment of the "mystery": "I know that you can do all
things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).
Revelation progressively allows the first notion of
immortal life planted by the Creator in the human heart to be grasped with ever
greater clarity: "He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he
has put eternity into man's mind" (Ec 3:11). This first
notion of totality and fullness is waiting to be manifested in love and brought
to perfection, by God's free gift, through sharing in his eternal life.
"The name of Jesus ... has made this
man strong" (Acts 3:16): in the
uncertainties of human life, Jesus brings life's meaning to fulfilment
32. The experience of the people of
the Covenant is renewed in the experience of all the "poor" who meet
Jesus of Nazareth. Just as God who "loves the living" (cf. Wis 11:26)
had reassured Israel in the midst of danger, so now the Son of God proclaims to
all who feel threatened and hindered that their lives too are a good to which
the Father's love gives meaning and value.
"The blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have
good news preached to them" (Lk 7:22). With these
words of the Prophet Isaiah (35:5-6, 61:1), Jesus sets forth the meaning of his
own mission: all who suffer because their lives are in some way "diminished"
thus hear from him the "good news" of God's concern for them, and
they know for certain that their lives too are a gift carefully guarded in the
hands of the Father (cf. Mt 6:25-34).
It is above all the "poor" to whom Jesus
speaks in his preaching and actions. The crowds of the sick and the outcasts
who follow him and seek him out (cf. Mt 4:23-25) find in his
words and actions a revelation of the great value of their lives and of how
their hope of salvation is well-founded.
The same thing has taken place in the Church's mission
from the beginning. When the Church proclaims Christ as the one who "went
about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was
with him" (Acts 10:38), she is conscious of being the bearer of a message
of salvation which resounds in all its newness precisely amid the hardships and
poverty of human life. Peter cured the cripple who daily sought alms at the
"Beautiful Gate" of the Temple in Jerusalem, saying: "I
have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus
Christ of Nazareth, walk" (Acts 3:6). By faith in Jesus, "the Author
of life" (Acts 3:15), life which lies
abandoned and cries out for help regains self-esteem and full dignity.
The words and deeds of Jesus and those of his Church
are not meant only for those who are sick or suffering or in some way neglected
by society. On a deeper level they affect the very meaning of every person's
life in its moral and spiritual dimensions. 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. Jesus himself
says as much: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those
who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to
repentance" (Lk 5:31-32).
But the person who, like the rich land-owner in the
Gospel parable, thinks that he can make his life secure by the possession of
material goods alone, is deluding himself. Life is slipping away from him, and
very soon he will find himself bereft of it without ever having appreciated its
real meaning: "Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the
things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (Lk 12:20).
33. In Jesus' own life, from
beginning to end, we find a singular "dialectic" between the
experience of the uncertainty of human life and the affirmation of its value.
Jesus' life is marked by uncertainty from the very moment of his birth. He is
certainly accepted by the righteous, who echo Mary's immediate and joyful
"yes" (cf. Lk 1:38). But there is
also, from the start, rejection on the part of a world which grows hostile and
looks for the child in order "to destroy him" (Mt 2:13); a world
which remains indifferent and unconcerned about the fulfilment of the mystery
of this life entering the world: "there was no place for them in the
inn" (Lk 2:7). In this contrast between threats and insecurity on the one
hand and the power of God's gift on the other, there shines forth all the more
clearly the glory which radiates from the house at Nazareth and from the manger
at Bethlehem: this life which is born is salvation for all humanity (cf. Lk
Life's contradictions and risks were fully accepted by
Jesus: "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by
his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). The poverty of which Paul
speaks is not only a stripping of divine privileges, but also a sharing in the
lowliest and most vulnerable conditions of human life (cf. Phil 2:6-7). Jesus
lived this poverty throughout his life, until the culminating moment of the
Cross: "he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a
cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which
is above every name" (Phil 2:8-9). It is precisely by his death that Jesus
reveals all the splendour and value of life, inasmuch as his self-oblation on
the Cross becomes the source of new life for all people (cf. Jn 12:32). In his
journeying amid contradictions and in the very loss of his life, Jesus is
guided by the certainty that his life is in the hands of the Father.
Consequently, on the Cross, he can say to him: "Father, into your hands I
commend my spirit!" (Lk 23:46), that is, my
life. 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!
"Called ... to be conformed to the
image of his Son" (Rom 8:28-29): God's glory
shines on the face of man
34. Life is always a good. This is
an instinctive perception and a fact of experience, and man is called to grasp
the profound reason why this is so.
Why is life a good? This question is found everywhere
in the Bible, and from the very first pages it receives a powerful and amazing
answer. The life which God gives man is quite different from the life of all
other living creatures, inasmuch as man, although formed from the dust of the
earth (cf. Gen 2:7, 3:19; Job 34:15; Ps 103:14; 104:29), is a manifestation of
God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory (cf. Gen
1:26-27; Ps 8:6). This is what Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wanted to
emphasize in his celebrated definition: "Man, living man, is the glory of
God".23 Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the
intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a
reflection of God himself.
The Book of Genesis affirms this when, in the first
account of creation, it places man at the summit of God's creative activity, as
its crown, at the culmination of a process which leads from indistinct chaos to
the most perfect of creatures. Everything in creation is ordered to man and
everything is made subject to him: "Fill the earth and subdue it; and have
dominion over ... every living thing" (1:28); this is God's command to the man and
the woman. A similar message is found also in the other account of creation:
"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it
and keep it" (Gen 2:15). We see here a
clear affirmation of the primacy of man over things; these are made subject to
him and entrusted to his responsible care, whereas for no reason can he be made
subject to other men and almost reduced to the level of a thing.
In the biblical narrative, the difference between man
and other creatures is shown above all by the fact that only the creation of
man is presented 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.
Israel would ponder at
length the meaning of this particular bond between man and God. The Book of
Sirach too recognizes that God, in creating human beings, "endowed them
with strength like his own, and made them in his own image" (17:3). The
biblical author sees as part of this image not only man's dominion over the
world but also those spiritual faculties which are distinctively human, such as
reason, discernment between good and evil, and free will: "He filled them
with knowledge and understanding, and showed them good and evil" (Sir
17:7). The ability to attain truth and freedom are human prerogatives inasmuch
as man is created in the image of his Creator, God who is true and just (cf. Dt
32:4). Man alone, among all visible creatures, is "capable of knowing and
loving his Creator".24 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: "For
God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own
eternity" (Wis 2:23).
35. The Yahwist account of creation
expresses the same conviction. This ancient narrative speaks of a divine breath
which is breathed into man so that he may come to life: "The Lord God
formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath
of life; and man became a living being" (Gen 2:7).
The divine origin of this spirit of life explains the
perennial dissatisfaction which man feels throughout his days on earth. Because
he is made by God and bears within himself an indelible imprint of God, man is
naturally drawn to God. When he heeds the deepest yearnings of the heart, every
man must make his own the words of truth expressed by Saint
Augustine: "You have made us for yourself, O
Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you".25
How very significant is the dissatisfaction which
marks man's life in Eden as long as his sole point of reference is the world of
plants and animals (cf. Gen 2:20). Only the appearance of the woman, a being
who is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones (cf. Gen 2:23), and in whom the
spirit of God the Creator is also alive, can satisfy the need for interpersonal
dialogue, so vital for human existence. In the other, whether man or woman,
there is a reflection of God himself, the definitive goal and fulfilment of
"What is man that you are mindful of him, and the
son of man that you care for him?", the Psalmist wonders (Ps 8:4).
Compared to the immensity of the universe, man is very small, and yet this very
contrast reveals his greatness: "You have made him little less than a god,
and crown him with glory and honour" (Ps 8:5). The glory of God shines on
the face of man. In man the Creator finds his rest, as Saint Ambrose comments
with a sense of awe: "The sixth day is finished and the creation of the
world ends with the formation of that masterpiece which is man, who exercises
dominion over all living creatures and is as it were the crown of the universe
and the supreme beauty of every created being. Truly we should maintain a
reverential silence, since the Lord rested from every work he had undertaken in
the world. He rested then in the depths of man, he rested in man's mind and in
his thought; after all, he had created man endowed with reason, capable of
imitating him, of emulating his virtue, of hungering for heavenly graces. In
these his gifts God reposes, who has said: ?Upon whom shall I rest, if not upon
the one who is humble, contrite in spirit and trembles at my word?' (Is
66:1-2). I thank the Lord our God who has created so wonderful a work in which
to take his rest".26
36. Unfortunately, God's marvellous
plan was marred by the appearance of sin in history. Through sin, man rebels
against his Creator and ends up by worshipping creatures: "They exchanged
the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather
than the Creator" (Rom 1:25). As a result man
not only deforms the image of God in his own person, but is tempted to offences
against it in others as well, replacing relationships of communion by attitudes
of distrust, indifference, hostility and even murderous hatred. When God is not
acknowledged as God, the profound meaning of man is betrayed and communion
between people is compromised.
In the life of man, God's image shines forth anew and
is again revealed in all its fullness at the coming of the Son of God in human
flesh. "Christ is the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15), he
"reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature"
(Heb 1:3). He is the perfect image of the Father.
The plan of life given to the first Adam finds at last
its fulfilment in Christ. Whereas the disobedience of Adam had ruined and
marred God's plan for human life and introduced death into the world, the
redemptive obedience of Christ is the source of grace poured out upon the human
race, opening wide to everyone the gates of the kingdom of life (cf. Rom
5:12-21). As the Apostle Paul states: "The first man Adam became a living
being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Cor 15:45).
All who commit themselves to following Christ are
given the fullness of life: the divine image is restored, renewed and brought
to perfection in them. God's plan for human beings is this, that they should
"be conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom 8:29). Only thus, in
the splendour of this image, can man be freed from the slavery of idolatry,
rebuild lost fellowship and rediscover his true identity.
"Whoever lives and believes in me
shall never die" (Jn 11:26): the gift of
37. The life which the Son of God
came to give to human beings cannot be reduced to mere existence in time. The
life which was always "in him" and which is the "light of
men" (Jn 1:4) consists in being begotten of God and sharing in the
fullness of his love: "To all who received him, who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the
will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (Jn 1:12-13).
Sometimes Jesus refers to this life which he came to
give simply as "life", and he presents being born of God as a
necessary condition if man is to attain the end for which God has created him:
"Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:3).
To give this life is the real object of Jesus' mission: he is the one who
"comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world" (Jn 6:33). Thus can he
truly say: "He who follows me ... will have the light of life" (Jn 8:12).
At other times, Jesus speaks of "eternal
life". Here the adjective does more than merely evoke a perspective which
is beyond time. The life which Jesus promises and gives is "eternal"
because it is a full participation in the life of the "Eternal One".
Whoever believes in Jesus and enters into communion with him has eternal life
(cf. Jn 3:15; 6:40) because he hears
from Jesus the only words which reveal and communicate to his existence the
fullness of life. These are the "words of eternal life" which Peter acknowledges
in his confession of faith: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words
of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the
Holy One of God" (Jn 6:68-69). Jesus himself, addressing the Father in the
great priestly prayer, declares what eternal life consists in: "This is
eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom
you have sent" (Jn 17:3). To know God and his Son is to accept the mystery
of the loving communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit into one's
own life, which even now is open to eternal life because it shares in the life
38. Eternal life is therefore the
life of God himself and at the same time the life of the children of God. As
they ponder this unexpected and inexpressible truth which comes to us from God
in Christ, believers cannot fail to be filled with ever new wonder and
unbounded gratitude. They can say in the words of the Apostle John: "See
what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God;
and so we are. ... Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear
what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we
shall see him as he is" (1 Jn 3:1-2).
Here the Christian truth about life becomes most
sublime. The dignity of this life is linked not only to its beginning, to the
fact that it comes from God, but also to its final end, to its destiny of
fellowship with God in knowledge and love of him. In the light of this truth
Saint Irenaeus qualifies and completes his praise of man: "the glory of
God" is indeed, "man, living man", but "the life of man
consists in the vision of God".27
Immediate consequences arise from this for human life
in its earthly state, in which, for that matter, eternal life already springs
forth and begins to grow. Although man instinctively loves life because it is a
good, this love will find further inspiration and strength, and new breadth and
depth, in the divine dimensions of this good. Similarly, the love which every
human being has for life cannot be reduced simply to a desire to have
sufficient space for self-expression and for entering into relationships with
others; rather, it devel- ops in a joyous awareness that life can become the "place"
where God manifests himself, where we meet him and enter into communion with
him. The life which Jesus gives in no way lessens the value of our existence in
time; it takes it and directs it to its final destiny: "I am the
resurrection and the life ... whoever lives and believes in me shall never
die" (Jn 11:25-26).
"From man in regard to his fellow man
I will demand an accounting" (Gen 9:5): reverence and love for every human
39. Man's life comes from God; it is
his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life. God therefore
is the sole Lord of this life: man cannot do with it as he wills. God himself
makes this clear to Noah after the Flood: "For your own lifeblood, too, I
will demand an accounting ... and from man in regard to his fellow man I will
demand an accounting for human life" (Gen 9:5). The biblical text is
concerned to emphasize how the sacredness of life has its foundation in God and
in his creative activity: "For God made man in his own image" (Gen
Human life and death are thus in the hands of God, in
his power: "In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath
of all mankind", exclaims Job (12:10). "The Lord
brings to death and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up"
(1 Sam 2:6). He alone can say: "It is I who bring both death and
life" (Dt 32:39).
But God does not exercise this power in an arbitrary
and threatening way, but rather as part of his care and loving concern for his
creatures. If it is true that human life is in the hands of God, it is no less
true that these are loving hands, like those of a mother who accepts, nurtures
and takes care of her child: "I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a
child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my
soul" (Ps 131:2; cf. Is 49:15; 66:12-13; Hos 11:4). Thus Israel does not
see in the history of peoples and in the destiny of individuals the outcome of
mere chance or of blind fate, but rather the results of a loving plan by which
God brings together all the possibilities of life and opposes the powers of
death arising from sin: "God did not make death, and he does not delight
in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might
exist" (Wis 1:13-14).
40. The sacredness of life gives
rise to its inviolability, written from the beginning in man's heart, in his
conscience. The question: "What have you done?" (Gen 4:10), which God
addresses to Cain after he has killed his brother Abel, interprets the
experience of every person: in the depths of his conscience, man is always
reminded of the inviolability of life-his own life and that of others-as
something which does not belong to him, because it is the property and gift of
God the Creator and Father.
The commandment regarding the inviolability of human
life reverberates at the heart of the "ten words" in the covenant of
Sinai (cf. Ex 34:28). In the first place that commandment prohibits murder:
"You shall not kill" (Ex 20:13); "do not
slay the innocent and righteous" (Ex 23:7). But, as is brought out in Israel's later
legislation, it also prohibits all personal injury inflicted on another (cf. Ex
21:12-27). Of course we
must recognize that in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life, though
already quite marked, does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on
the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation,
which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death
penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to
perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical
life and the integrity of the person. It culminates in the positive commandment
which obliges us to be responsible for our neighbour as for ourselves:
"You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Lev 19:18).
41. The commandment "You shall
not kill", included and more fully expressed in the positive command of
love for one's neighbour, is reaffirmed in all its force by the Lord Jesus. To
the rich young man who asks him: "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to
have eternal life?", Jesus replies: "If you would enter life, keep
the commandments" (Mt 19:16,17). And he
quotes, as the first of these: "You shall not kill" (Mt 19:18). In the Sermon
on the Mount, Jesus demands from his disciples a righteousness which surpasses
that of the Scribes and Pharisees, also with regard to respect for life:
"You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ?You shall not kill;
and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment'. But I say to you that every one
who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Mt 5:21-22).
By his words and actions Jesus further unveils the
positive requirements of the commandment regarding the inviolability of life.
These requirements were already present in the Old Testament, where legislation
dealt with protecting and defending life when it was weak and threatened: in
the case of foreigners, widows, orphans, the sick and the poor in general, including
children in the womb (cf. Ex 21:22; 22:20-26). With Jesus these positive
requirements assume new force and urgency, and are revealed in all their
breadth and depth: they range from caring for the life of one's brother
(whether a blood brother, someone belonging to the same people, or a foreigner
living in the land of Israel) to showing concern for the stranger, even to the
point of loving one's enemy.
A stranger is no longer a stranger for the person who
mustbecome a neighbour to someone in need, to the point of accepting
responsibility for his life, as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows so
clearly (cf. Lk 10:25-37). Even an enemy ceases to be an enemy for the person
who is obliged to love him (cf. Mt 5:38-48; Lk 6:27-35), to "do
good" to him (cf. Lk 6:27, 33, 35) and to
respond to his immediate needs promptly and with no expectation of repayment
(cf. Lk 6:34-35). The height
of this love is to pray for one's enemy. By so doing we achieve harmony with
the providential love of God: "But I say to you, love your enemies and
pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father
who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and
sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mt 5:44-45; cf. Lk 6:28, 35).
Thus 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. This is the teaching which the Apostle
Paul, echoing the words of Jesus, address- es to the Christians in Rome: "The
commandments, ?You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not
steal, You shall not covet', and any other commandment, are summed up in this
sentence, ?You shall love your neighbour as yourself'. Love does no wrong to a
neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13:9-10).
"Be fruitful and multiply, and fill
the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:28): man's
responsibility for life
42. To defend and promote life, to
show reverence and love for it, is a task which God entrusts to every man,
calling him as his living image to share in his own lordship over the world:
"God blessed them, and God said to them, ?Be fruitful and multiply, and
fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and
over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the
earth' " (Gen 1:28).
The biblical text clearly shows the breadth and depth
of the lordship which God bestows on man. It is a matter first of all of
dominion over the earth and over every living creature, as the Book of Wisdom
makes clear: "O God of my fathers and Lord of mercy ... by your wisdom you
have formed man, to have dominion over the creatures you have made, and rule
the world in holiness and righteousness" (Wis 9:1, 2-3). The Psalmist too
extols the dominion given to man as a sign of glory and honour from his
Creator: "You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you
have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of
the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along
the paths of the sea" (Ps 8:6-8).
As one called to till and look after the garden of the
world (cf. Gen 2:15), man has a specific responsibility towards the environment
in which he lives, towards the creation which God has put at the service of his
personal dignity, of his life, not only for the present but also for future
generations. It is the ecological question-ranging from the preservation of the
natural habitats of the different species of animals and of other forms of life
to "human ecology" properly speaking 28 - which finds in the
Bible clear and strong ethical direction, leading to a solution which respects
the great good of life, of every life. In fact, "the do- minion granted to
man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to
?use and misuse', or to dispose of things as one pleases. The limitation
imposed from the beginning by the Creator himself and expressed symbolically by
the prohibition not to ?eat of the fruit of the tree' (cf. Gen 2:16-17) shows clearly
enough that, when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to
biological laws but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity".29
43. A certain sharing by man in
God's lordship is also evident in the specific responsibility which he is given
for human life as such. It is a responsibility which reaches its highest point
in the giving of life through procreation by man and woman in marriage. As the
Second Vatican Council teaches: "God himself who said, ?It is not good for
man to be alone' (Gen 2:18) and ?who made
man from the beginning male and female' (Mt 19:4), wished to share with man a
certain special participation in his own creative work. Thus he blessed male
and female saying: ?Increase and multiply' (Gen 1:28). 30
By speaking of "a certain special
participation" of man and woman in the "creative work" of God,
the Council wishes to point out that having a child is an event which is deeply
human and full of religious meaning, insofar as it involves both the spouses,
who form "one flesh" (Gen 2:24), and God who makes himself present.
As I wrote in my Letter to Families: "When a new person is born of the
conjugal union of the two, he brings with him into the world a particular image
and likeness of God himself: the genealogy of the person is inscribed in the
very biology of generation. In affirming that the spouses, as parents,
cooperate with God the Creator in conceiving and giving birth to a new human
being, we are not speaking merely with reference to the laws of biology.
Instead, we wish to emphasize that God himself is present in human fatherhood
and motherhood quite differently than he is present in all other instances of
begetting ?on earth'. Indeed, God alone is the source of that ?image and
likeness' which is proper to the human being, as it was received at Creation.
Begetting is the continuation of Creation".31
This is what the Bible teaches in direct and eloquent
language when it reports the joyful cry of the first woman, "the mother of
all the living" (Gen 3:20). Aware that God
has intervened, Eve exclaims: "I have begotten a man with the help of the
Lord" (Gen 4:1). In procreation therefore, through the communication of
life from parents to child, God's own image and likeness is transmitted, thanks
to the creation of the immortal soul. 32 The beginning of the
"book of the genealogy of Adam" expresses it in this way: "When
God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created
them, and he blessed them and called them man when they were created. When Adam
had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own
likeness, after his image, and named him Seth" (Gen 5:1-3). It is
precisely in their role as co-workers with God who transmits his image to the
new creature that we see the greatness of couples who are ready "to
cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Saviour, who through them will
enlarge and enrich his own family day by day".33 This is why the
Bishop Amphilochius extolled "holy matrimony, chosen and elevated above
all other earthly gifts" as "the begetter of humanity, the creator of
images of God".34
Thus, a man and woman joined in matrimony become
partners in a divine undertaking: through the act of procreation, God's gift is
accepted and a new life opens to the future.
But over and above the specific mission of parents,
the task of accepting and serving life involves everyone; and this task must be
fulfilled above all towards life when it is at its weakest. It is Christ
himself who reminds us of this when he asks to be loved and served in his
brothers and sisters who are suffering in any way: the hungry, the thirsty, the
foreigner, the naked, the sick, the impris- oned ... Whatever is done to each
of them is done to Christ himself (cf. Mt 25:31-46).
"For you formed my inmost being"
(Ps 139:13): the dignity of the unborn child
44. Human life finds itself most
vulnerable when it enters the world and when it leaves the realm of time to
embark upon eternity. The word of God frequently repeats the call to show care
and respect, above all where life is undermined by sickness and old age.
Although there are no direct and explicit calls to protect human life at its
very beginning, specifically life not yet born, and life nearing its end, this
can easily be explained by the fact that 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.
In the Old Testament, sterility is dreaded as a curse,
while numerous offspring are viewed as a blessing: "Sons are a heritage
from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward" (Ps 127:3; cf. Ps 128:3-4).
This belief is also based on Israel's awareness of being the people of the
Covenant, called to increase in accordance with the promise made to Abraham:
"Look towards heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them
... so shall your descendants be" (Gen 15:5). But more than anything else,
at work here is the certainty that the life which parents transmit has its origins
in God. We see this attested in the many biblical passages which respectfully
and lovingly speak of conception, of the forming of life in the mother's womb,
of giving birth and of the intimate connection between the initial moment of
life and the action of God the Creator.
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and
before you were born I consecrated you" (Jer 1:5): the life of every
individual, from its very beginning, is part of God's plan. Job, from the depth
of his pain, stops to contemplate the work of God who miraculously formed his
body in his mother's womb. Here he finds reason for trust, and he expresses his
belief that there is a divine plan for his life: "You have fashioned and
made me; will you then turn and destroy me? Remember that you have made me of
clay; and will you turn me to dust again? Did you not pour me out like milk and
curdle me like cheese? You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together
with bones and sinews. You have granted me life and steadfast love; and your
care has preserved my spirit" (Job 10:8-12). Expressions of awe and wonder
at God's intervention in the life of a child in its mother's womb occur again
and again in the Psalms. 35
How can anyone think that even a single moment of this
marvellous process of the unfolding of life could be separated from the wise
and loving work of the Creator, and left prey to human caprice? Certainly the
mother of the seven brothers did not think so; she professes her faith in God,
both the source and guarantee of life from its very conception, and the
foundation of the hope of new life beyond death: "I do not know how you
came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I
who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the
world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things,
will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget
yourselves for the sake of his laws" (2 Mac 7:22-23).
45. The New Testament revelation
confirms the indisputable recognition of the value of life from its very
beginning. The exaltation of fruitfulness and the eager expectation of life
resound in the words with which Elizabeth rejoices in her pregnancy: "The
Lord has looked on me ... to take away my reproach among men" (Lk 1:25).
And even more so, the value of the person from the moment of conception is
celebrated in the meeting between the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth, and between
the two children whom they are carrying in the womb. It is precisely the
children who reveal the advent of the Messianic age: in their meeting, the
redemptive power of the presence of the Son of God among men first becomes
operative. As Saint Ambrose writes: "The arrival of Mary and the blessings
of the Lord's presence are also speedily declared ... Elizabeth was the first to
hear the voice; but John was the first to expe- rience grace. She heard
according to the order of nature; he leaped because of the mystery. She
recognized the arrival of Mary; he the arrival of the Lord. The woman
recognized the woman's arrival; the child, that of the child. The women speak
of grace; the babies make it effective from within to the advantage of their
mothers who, by a double miracle, prophesy under the inspiration of their
children. The infant leaped, the mother was filled with the Spirit. The mother
was not filled before the son, but after the son was filled with the Holy
Spirit, he filled his mother too".36
"I kept my faith even when I said, ?I
am greatly afflicted' " (Ps 116:10): life in old age and at times of
46. With regard to the last moments
of life too, it would be anachronistic to expect biblical revelation to make
express reference to present-day issues concerning respect for elderly and sick
persons, or to condemn explicitly attempts to hasten their end by force. The
cultural and religious context of the Bible is in no way touched by such
temptations; indeed, in that context the wisdom and experience of the elderly
are recognized as a unique source of enrichment for the family and for society.
Old age is characterized by dignity and surrounded
with reverence (cf. 2 Mac 6:23). The just man
does not seek to be delivered from old age and its burden; on the contrary his
prayer is this: "You, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth
... so even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I
proclaim your might to all the generations to come" (Ps 71:5, 18). The
ideal of the Messianic age is presented as a time when "no more shall
there be ... an old man who does not fill out his days" (Is 65:20).
In old age, how should one face the inevitable decline
of life? How should one act in the face of death? The believer knows that his
life is in the hands of God: "You, O Lord, hold my lot" (cf. Ps
16:5), and he accepts from God the need to die: "This is the decree from
the Lord for all flesh, and how can you reject the good pleasure of the Most
High?" (Sir 41:3-4). Man is not the master of life, nor is he the master
of death. In life and in death, he has to entrust himself completely to the
"good pleasure of the Most High", to his loving plan.
In moments of sickness too, man is called to have the
same trust in the Lord and to renew his fundamental faith in the One who
"heals all your diseases" (cf. Ps 103:3). When every hope of good
health seems to fade before a person's eyes-so as to make him cry out: "My
days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass" (Ps 102:11)-
even then the believer is sustained by an unshakable faith in God's life-giving
power. Illness does not drive such a person to despair and to seek death, but
makes him cry out in hope: "I kept my faith, even when I said, ?I am
greatly afflicted' " (Ps 116:10); "O Lord my God, I cried to you for
help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the pit" (Ps 30:2-3).
47. The mission of Jesus, with the
many healings he performed, shows God's great concern even for man's bodily
life. Jesus, as "the physician of the body and of the
spirit",37 was sent by the Father to proclaim the good news to the
poor and to heal the brokenhearted (cf. Lk 4:18; Is 61:1). Later,
when he sends his disciples into the world, he gives them a mission, a mission
in which healing the sick goes hand in hand with the proclamation of the
Gospel: "And preach as you go, saying, ?The kingdom of heaven is at hand'.
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons" (Mt
10:7-8; cf. Mk 6:13; 16:18).
Certainly the life of the body in its earthly state is
not an absolute good for the believer, especially as he may be asked to give up
his life for a greater good. As Jesus says: "Whoever would save his life
will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save
it" (Mk 8:35). The New
Testament gives many different examples of this. Jesus does not hesitate to
sacrifice himself and he freely makes of his life an offering to the Father
(cf. Jn 10:17) and to those who
belong to him (cf. Jn 10:15). The death of
John the Baptist, precursor of the Saviour, also testifies that earthly
existence 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 (cf. Mk 6:17-29).
Stephen, losing his earthly life because of his faithful witness to the Lord's
Resurrection, follows in the Master's footsteps and meets those who are stoning
him with words of forgiveness (cf. Acts 7:59-60), thus becoming the first of a
countless host of martyrs whom the Church has venerated since the very
No one, however, can arbitrarily choose whether to
live or die; the absolute master of such a decision is the Creator alone, in
whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
"All who hold her fast will
live" (Bar 4:1): from the law of Sinai to the gift of the Spirit
48. Life is indelibly marked by a
truth of its own. By accepting God's gift, man is obliged to maintain life in
this truth which is essential to it. To detach oneself from this truth is to
condemn oneself to meaninglessness and unhappiness, and possibly to become a
threat to the existence of others, since the barriers guaranteeing respect for
life and the defence of life, in every circumstance, have been broken down.
The truth of life is revealed by God's commandment.
The word of the Lord shows concretely the course which life must follow if it
is to respect its own truth and to preserve its own dignity. The protection of
life is not only ensured by the spe- cific commandment "You shall not
kill" (Ex 20:13; Dt 5:17); the entire Law
of the Lord serves to protect life, because it reveals that truth in which life
finds its full meaning.
It is not surprising, therefore, that God's Covenant
with his people is so closely linked to the perspective of life, also in its
bodily dimension. In that Covenant, God's commandment is offered as the path of
life: "I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If
you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by
loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments
and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the
Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take
possession of" (Dt 30:15-16). What is at stake is not only the land of Canaan and the existence
of the people of Israel, but also the
world of today and of the future, and the existence of all humanity. In fact,
it is altogether impossible for life to remain authentic and complete once it
is detached from the good; and the good, in its turn, is essentially bound to
the commandments of the Lord, that is, to the "law of life" (Sir 17:11). 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.
It is thus the Law as a whole which fully protects
human life. This explains why it is so hard to remain faithful to the
commandment "You shall not kill" when the other "words of
life" (cf. Acts 7:38) with which this
commandment is bound up are not observed. Detached from this wider framework,
the commandment is destined to become nothing more than an obligation imposed
from without, and very soon we begin to look for its limits and try to find
mitigating factors and exceptions. Only when people are open to the fullness of
the truth about God, man and history will the words "You shall not
kill" shine forth once more as a good for man in himself and in his
relations with others. In such a perspective we can grasp the full truth of the
passage of the Book of Deuteronomy which Jesus repeats in reply to the first
temptation: "Man does not live by bread alone, but ... by everything that
proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord" (Dt 8:3; cf. Mt 4:4).
It is by listening to the word of the Lord that we are
able to live in dignity and justice. It is by observing the Law of God that we
are able to bring forth fruits of life and happiness: "All who hold her
fast will live, and those who forsake her will die" (Bar 4:1).
49. The history of Israel shows how
difficult it is to remain faithful to the Law of life which God has inscribed
in human hearts and which he gave on Sinai to the people of the Covenant. When
the people look for ways of living which ignore God's plan, it is the Prophets
in particular who forcefully remind them that the Lord alone is the authentic
source of life. Thus Jeremiah writes: "My people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns
for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (2:13). The
Prophets point an accusing finger at those who show contempt for life and
violate people's rights: "They trample the head of the poor into the dust
of the earth" (Amos 2:7); "they have filled this place with the blood
of innocents" (Jer 19:4). Among them, the Prophet Ezekiel frequently
condemns the city of Jerusalem, calling it
"the bloody city" (22:2; 24:6, 9), the "city that sheds blood in
her own midst" (22:3).
But while the Prophets condemn offences against life,
they are concerned above all to awaken hope for a new principle of life,
capable of bringing about a renewed relationship with God and with others, and
of opening up new and extraordinary possibilities for understanding and
carrying out all the demands inherent in the Gospel of life. This will only be
possible thanks to the gift of God who purifies and renews: "I will
sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your
uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will
give you, and a new spirit I will put within you" (Ezek 36:25-26; cf. Jer
31:34). This "new heart" will make it possible to appreciate and
achieve the deepest and most authentic meaning of life: namely, that of being a
gift which is fully realized in the giving of self. This is the splendid
message about the value of life which comes to us from the figure of the
Servant of the Lord: "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
trav- ail of his soul and be satisfied" (Is 53:10, 11).
It is in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth that the Law
is fulfilled and that a new heart is given through his Spirit. Jesus does not
deny the Law but brings it to fulfilment (cf. Mt 5:17): the Law and the Prophets are summed up
in the golden rule of mutual love (cf. Mt 7:12). In Jesus the
Law becomes once and for all the "gospel", the good news of God's
lordship over the world, which brings all life back to its roots and its
original purpose. This is the New Law, "the law of the Spirit of life in
Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:2), and its fundamental expression, following the
example of the Lord who gave his life for his friends (cf. Jn 15:13), is the
gift of self in love for one's brothers and sisters: "We know that we have
passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren" (1 Jn 3:14).
This is the law of freedom, joy and blessedness.
"They shall look on him whom they
have pierced" (Jn 19:37): the Gospel of
life is brought to fulfilment on the tree of the Cross
50. At the end of this chapter, in
which we have reflected on the Christian message about life, I would like to
pause with each one of you to contemplate the One who was pierced and who draws
all people to himself (cf. Jn 19:37; 12:32). Looking at "the
spectacle" of the Cross (cf. Lk 23:48) we shall
discover in this glorious tree the fulfilment and the complete revelation of
the whole Gospel of life.
In the early afternoon of Good Friday, "there was
darkness over the whole land ... while the sun's light failed; and the curtain
of the temple was torn in two" (Lk 23:44, 45). This is the
symbol of a great cosmic disturbance and a massive conflict between the forces
of good and the forces of evil, between life and death. Today we too find
ourselves in the midst of a dramatic conflict between the "culture of
death" and the "culture of life". But the glory of the Cross is
not overcome by this darkness; rather, it shines forth ever more radiantly and
brightly, and is revealed as the centre, meaning and goal of all history and of
every human life.
Jesus is nailed to the Cross and is lifted up from the
earth. He experiences the moment of his greatest "powerlessness", and
his life seems completely delivered to the derision of his adversaries and into
the hands of his executioners: he is mocked, jeered at, insulted (cf. Mk 15:24-36). And yet,
precisely amid all this, having seen him breathe his last, the Roman centurion
exclaims: "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mk 15:39). It is thus,
at the moment of his greatest weakness, that the the Son of God is revealed for
who he is: on the Cross his glory is made manifest.
By his death, Jesus sheds light on the meaning of the
life and death of every human being. Before he dies, Jesus prays to the Father,
asking forgiveness for his persecutors (cf. Lk 23:34), and to the criminal who asks him to
remember him in his kingdom he replies: "Truly, I say to you, today you
will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:43). After his death
"the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen
asleep were raised" (Mt 27:52). The salvation wrought by Jesus is the
bestowal of life and resurrection. Throughout his earthly life, Jesus had
indeed bestowed salvation by healing and doing good to all (cf. Acts 10:38). But his
miracles, healings and even his raising of the dead were signs of another
salvation, a salvation which consists in the forgiveness of sins, that is, in
setting man free from his greatest sickness and in raising him to the very life
On the Cross, the miracle of the serpent lifted up by
Moses in the desert (Jn 3:14-15; cf. Num
21:8-9) is renewed and brought to full and definitive perfection. Today too, by
looking upon the one who was pierced, every person whose life is threatened
encounters the sure hope of finding freedom and redemption.
51. But there is yet another
particular event which moves me deeply when I consider it. "When Jesus had
received the vinegar, he said, ?It is finished'; and he bowed his head and gave
up his spirit" (Jn 19:30). Afterwards, the
Roman soldier "pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out
blood and water" (Jn 19:34).
Everything has now reached its complete fulfilment.
The "giving up" of the spirit describes Jesus' death, a death like
that of every other human being, but it also seems to allude to the "gift
of the Spirit", by which Jesus ransoms us from death and opens before us a
It is the very life of God which is now shared with
man. It is the life which through the Sacraments of the Church-symbolized by
the blood and water flowing from Christ's side-is continually given to God's
children, making them the people of the New Covenant. From the Cross, the
source of life, the "people of life" is born and increases.
The contemplation of the Cross thus brings us to the
very heart of all that has taken place. Jesus, who upon entering into the world
said: "I have come, O God, to do your will" (cf. Heb 10:9), made
himself obedient to the Father in everything and, "having loved his own
who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (Jn 13:1), giving himself
completely for them.
He who had come "not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45), attains on the Cross the heights of
love: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for
his friends" (Jn 15:13). And he died for
us while we were yet sinners (cf. Rom 5:8).
In this way Jesus proclaims that life finds its
centre, its meaning and its fulfilment when it is given up.
At this point our meditation becomes praise and
thanksgiving, and at the same time urges us to imitate Christ and follow in his
footsteps (cf. 1 Pt 2:21).
We too are called to give our lives for our brothers
and sisters, and thus to realize in the fullness of truth the meaning and
destiny of our existence.
We shall be able to do this because you, O Lord, have
given us the example and have bestowed on us the power of your Spirit. We shall
be able to do this if every day, with you and like you, we are obedient to the
Father and do his will.
Grant, therefore, that we may listen with open and
generous hearts to every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. Thus we
shall learn not only to obey the commandment not to kill human life, but also
to revere life, to love it and to foster it.
CHAPTER III - YOU
SHALL NOT KILL
GOD'S HOLY LAW
"If you would enter life, keep the
commandments" (Mt 19:17): Gospel and
52. "And behold, one came up to
him, saying, ?Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?' "
(Mt 19:6). Jesus replied, "If you would enter life, keep the
commandments" (Mt 19:17). The Teacher is
speaking about eternal life, that is, a sharing in the life of God himself.
This life is attained through the observance of the Lord's commandments,
including the commandment "You shall not kill". This is the first
precept from the Decalogue which Jesus quotes to the young man who asks him
what commandments he should observe: "Jesus said, ?You shall not kill, You
shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal...' " (Mt 19:18).
God's commandment is never detached from his love: it
is always a gift meant for man's growth and joy. As such, it represents an
essential and indispensable aspect of the Gospel, actually becoming
"gospel" itself: joyful good news. The Gospel of life is both a great
gift of God and an exacting task for humanity. It gives rise to amazement and
gratitude in the person graced with freedom, and it asks to be welcomed,
preserved and esteemed, with a deep sense of responsibility. In giving life to
man, God demands that he love, respect and promote life. The gift thus becomes
a commandment, and the commandment is itself a gift.
Man, as the living image of God, is willed by his
Creator to be ruler and lord. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes that "God made
man capable of carrying out his role as king of the earth ... Man was created
in the image of the One who governs the universe. Everything demonstrates that
from the beginning man's nature was marked by royalty... Man is a king. Created
to exercise dominion over the world, he was given a likeness to the king of the
universe; he is the living image who participates by his dignity in the
perfection of the divine archetype".38 Called to be fruitful and
multiply, to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over other lesser
creatures (cf. Gen 1:28), man is ruler and lord not only over things but especially
over himself, 39 and in a certain sense, over the life which he has
received and which he is able to transmit through procreation, carried out with
love and respect for God's plan. Man's lordship however is not absolute, but
ministerial: it is a real reflection of the unique and infinite lordship of
God. Hence man must exercise it with wisdom and love, sharing in the boundless
wisdom and love of God. And this comes about through obedience to God's holy
Law: a free and joyful obedience (cf. Ps 119), born of and fostered by an
awareness that the precepts of the Lord are a gift of grace entrusted to man
always and solely for his good, for the preservation of his personal dignity
and the pursuit of his happiness.
With regard to things, but even more with regard to
life, man is not the absolute master and final judge, but rather-and this is
where his incomparable greatness lies-he is the "minister of God's
Life is entrusted to man as a treasure which must not
be squandered, as a talent which must be used well. Man must render an account
of it to his Master (cf. Mt 25:14-30; Lk 19:12-27).
"From man in regard to his fellow man
I will demand an accounting for human life" (Gen 9:5): human life is
sacred and inviolable
53. "Human life is sacred
because from its beginning it involves ?the creative action of God', and it
remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole
end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one
can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an
innocent human being".41 With these words the Instruction Donum
Vitae sets forth the central content of God's revelation on the sacredness and
inviolability of human life.
Sacred Scripture in fact presents the precept
"You shall not kill" as a divine commandment (Ex 20:13; Dt 5:17). As I have
already emphasized, this commandment is found in the Deca- logue, at the heart
of the Covenant which the Lord makes with his chosen people; but it was already
contained in the original covenant between God and humanity after the purifying
punishment of the Flood, caused by the spread of sin and violence (cf. Gen
God proclaims that he is absolute Lord of the life of
man, who is formed in his image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-28). Human life
is thus given a sacred and inviolable character, which reflects the
inviolability of the Creator himself. Precisely for this reason God will
severely judge every violation of the commandment "You shall not
kill", the commandment which is at the basis of all life together in
society. He is the "goel", the defender of the innocent (cf. Gen
4:9-15; Is 41:14; Jer 50:34; Ps 19:14). God thus shows
that he does not delight in the death of the living (cf. Wis 1:13). Only Satan can
delight therein: for through his envy death entered the world (cf. Wis 2:24). He who is
"a murderer from the beginning", is also "a liar and the father
of lies" (Jn 8:44). By deceiving
man he leads him to projects of sin and death, making them appear as goals and
fruits of life.
54. As explicitly formulated, the
precept "You shall not kill" is strongly negative: it indicates the
extreme limit which can never be exceeded. Implicitly, however, it encourages a
positive attitude of absolute respect for life; it leads to the promotion of
life and to progress along the way of a love which gives, receives and serves.
The people of the Covenant, although slowly and with some contradictions,
progressively matured in this way of thinking, and thus prepared for the great
proclamation of Jesus that the commandment to love one's neighbour is like the
commandment to love God; "on these two commandments depend all the law and
the prophets" (cf. Mt 22:36-40). Saint
Paul emphasizes that "the commandment ...
you shall not kill ... and any other commandment, are summed up in this phrase:
?You shall love your neighbour as yourself' " (Rom 13:9; cf. Gal 5:14). Taken up and
brought to fulfilment in the New Law, the commandment "You shall not
kill" stands as an indispensable condition for being able "to enter
life" (cf. Mt 19:16-19). In this same perspective, the words of the
Apostle John have a categorical ring: "Anyone who hates his brother is a
murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him"
(1 Jn 3:15).
From the beginning, the living Tradition of the
Church-as shown by the Didache, the most ancient non-biblical Christian
writing-categorically repeated the commandment "You shall not kill":
"There are two ways, a way of life and a way of death; there is a great
difference between them... In accordance with the precept of the teaching: you
shall not kill ... you shall not put a child to death by abortion nor kill it
once it is born ... The way of death is this: ... they show no compassion for
the poor, they do not suffer with the suffering, they do not acknowledge their
Creator, they kill their children and by abortion cause God's creatures to
perish; they drive away the needy, oppress the suffering, they are advocates of
the rich and unjust judges of the poor; they are filled with every sin. May you
be able to stay ever apart, o children, from all these sins!". 42
As time passed, the Church's Tradition has always
consistently taught the absolute and unchanging value of the commandment
"You shall not kill". It is a known fact that in the first centuries,
murder was put among the three most serious sins-along with apostasy and
adultery-and required a particularly heavy and lengthy public penance before
the repentant murderer could be granted forgiveness and readmission to the
55. This should not cause surprise:
to kill a human being, in whom the image of God is present, is a particularly
serious sin. Only God is the master of life! Yet from the beginning, faced with
the many and often tragic cases which occur in the life of individuals and
society, Christian reflection has sought a fuller and deeper understanding of
what God's commandment prohibits and prescribes. 43 There are in fact
situations in which values proposed by God's Law seem to involve a genuine
paradox. This happens for example in the case of legitimate defence, in which
the right to protect one's own life and the duty not to harm someone else's
life are difficult to reconcile in practice. Certainly, the intrinsic value of
life and the duty to love oneself no less than others are the basis of a true
right to self-defence. The demanding commandment of love of neighbour, set
forth in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus, itself presupposes love of
oneself as the basis of comparison: "You shall love your neighbour as
yourself " (Mk 12:31). Consequently, no one can renounce the right to
self-defence out of lack of love for life or for self. This can only be done in
virtue of a heroic love which deepens and transfigures the love of self into a
radical self-offering, according to the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes (cf. Mt
5:38-40). The sublime example of this self-offering is the Lord Jesus himself.
Moreover, "legitimate defence can be not only a
right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life, the common
good of the family or of the State".44 Unfortunately it happens
that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes
involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to
the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally
responsible because of a lack of the use of reason. 45
56. This is the context in which to
place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing
tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied
in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must
be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with
human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The
primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress
the disorder caused by the offence".46 Public authority must
redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender
an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain
the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the
purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the
same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her
behaviour and be rehabilitated. 47
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved,
the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided
upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases
of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise
to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the
organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism
of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient
to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the
safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because
they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are
more in conformity to the dignity of the human person".48
57. If such great care must be taken
to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment
"You shall not kill" has absolute value when it refers to the
innocent person. And all the more so in the case of weak and defenceless human
beings, who find their ultimate defence against the arrogance and caprice of
others only in the absolute binding force of God's commandment.
In effect, the absolute inviolability of innocent
human life is a moral truth clearly taught by Sacred Scripture, constantly
upheld in the Church's Tradition and consistently proposed by her Magisterium.
This consistent teaching is the evident result of that "supernatural sense
of the faith" which, inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit, safeguards
the People of God from error when "it shows universal agreement in matters
of faith and morals".49
Faced with the progressive weakening in individual
consciences and in society of the sense of the absolute and grave moral
illicitness of the direct taking of all innocent human life, especially at its
beginning and at its end, the Church's Magisterium has spoken out with
increasing frequency in defence of the sacredness and inviolability of human
life. The Papal Magisterium, particularly insistent in this regard, has always
been seconded by that of the Bishops, with numerous and comprehensive doctrinal
and pastoral documents issued either by Episcopal Conferences or by individual
Bishops. The Second Vatican Council also addressed the matter forcefully, in a
brief but incisive passage. 50
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred
upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the
Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent
human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten
law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom
2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of
the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. 51
The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human
being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an
end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of
disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and
guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and
charity. "Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an
innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an
old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is
dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either
for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor
can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any
authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action".52
As far as the right to life is concerned, every
innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the
basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only
be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman
as a person and not as an object to be used. Before the moral norm which
prohibits the direct taking of the life of an innocent human being "there
are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one
is the master of the world or the ?poorest of the poor' on the face of the
earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely
"Your eyes beheld my unformed
substance" (Ps 139:16): the unspeakable crime of abortion
58. Among all the crimes which can
be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it
particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines
abortion, together with infanticide, as an "unspeakable
But today, in many people's consciences, the
perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of
abortion in the popular mind, in behaviour and even in law itself, is a telling
sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming
more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the
fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need
now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call
things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to
the temptation of self-deception. In this regard the reproach of the Prophet is
extremely straightforward: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness" (Is 5:20). Especially in
the case of abortion there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such
as "interruption of pregnancy", which tends to hide abortion's true nature
and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion. Perhaps this linguistic
phenomenon is itself a symptom of an uneasiness of conscience. But no word has
the power to change the reality of things: 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 procured abortion is apparent in
all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in
particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated
is a human being at the very beginning of life. 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. And yet sometimes it is precisely the mother herself who makes the
decision and asks for the child to be eliminated, and who then goes about
having it done.
It is true that the decision to have an abortion is
often tragic and painful for the mother, insofar as the decision to rid herself
of the fruit of conception is not made for purely selfish reasons or out of
convenience, but out of a desire to protect certain important values such as
her own health or a decent standard of living for the other members of the
family. Sometimes it is feared that the child to be born would live in such
conditions that it would be better if the birth did not take place.
Nevertheless, these reasons and others like them, however serious and tragic,
can never justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.
59. As well as the mother, there are
often other people too who decide upon the death of the child in the womb. In
the first place, the father of the child may be to blame, not only when he di-
rectly pressures the woman to have an abortion, but also when he indirectly
encourages such a decision on her part by leaving her alone to face the
problems of pregnancy: 55 in this way the family is thus mortally
wounded and profaned in its nature as a community of love and in its vocation
to be the "sanctuary of life". Nor can one overlook the pressures
which sometimes come from the wider family circle and from friends. Sometimes
the woman is subjected to such strong pressure that she feels psychologically
forced to have an abortion: certainly in this case moral responsibility lies
particularly with those who have directly or indirectly obliged her to have an
abortion. Doctors and nurses are also responsible, when they place at the
service of death skills which were acquired for promoting life.
But responsibility likewise falls on the legislators
who have promoted and approved abortion laws, and, to the extent that they have
a say in the matter, on the administrators of the health-care centres where
abortions are performed. A general and no less serious responsibility lies with
those who have encouraged the spread of an attitude of sexual permissiveness
and a lack of esteem for motherhood, and with those who should have ensured-but
did not-effective family and social policies in support of families, especially
larger families and those with particular financial and educational needs.
Finally, one cannot overlook the network of complicity which reaches out to include
international institutions, foundations and associations which systematically
campaign for the legalization and spread of abortion in the world. In this
sense abortion goes beyond the responsibility of individuals and beyond the
harm done to them, and takes on a distinctly social dimension. It is a most
serious wound inflicted on society and its culture by the very people who ought
to be society's promoters and defenders. As I wrote in my Letter to Families,
"we are facing an immense threat to life: not only to the life of
individuals but also to that of civilization itself".56 We are
facing what can be called a "structure of sin" which opposes human
life not yet born.
60. Some people try to justify
abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain
number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact,
"from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is
neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human
being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human
already. This has always been clear, and ... modern genetic science offers
clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is
established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this
individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined.
Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its
capacities requires time-a rather lengthy time-to find its place and to be in a
position to act".57 Even if the presence of a spiritual soul
cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific
research on the human embryo provide "a valuable indication for discerning
by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance
of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?".
Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that,
from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability 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,
over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to
which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, 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; and therefore from that same moment his
rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the
inviolable right of every innocent human being to life".59
61. The texts of Sacred Scripture
never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and
specifically condemn it. But they show such great respect for the human being
in the mother's womb that they require as a logical consequence that God's
commandment "You shall not kill" be extended to the unborn child as
Human life is sacred and inviolable at every moment of
existence, including the initial phase which precedes birth. All human beings,
from their mothers' womb, belong to God who searches them and knows them, who
forms them and knits them together with his own hands, who gazes on them when
they are tiny shapeless embryos and already sees in them the adults of tomorrow
whose days are numbered and whose vocation is even now written in the
"book of life" (cf. Ps 139: 1, 13-16). There too, when they are still
in their mothers' womb-as many passages of the Bible bear
witness60-they are the personal objects of God's loving and fatherly
Christian Tradition-as the Declaration issued by the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out so well61-is
clear and unanimous, from the beginning up to our own day, in describing
abortion as a particularly grave moral disorder. From its first contacts with
the Greco-Roman world, where abortion and infanticide were widely practised,
the first Christian community, by its teaching and practice, radically opposed
the customs rampant in that society, as is clearly shown by the Didache
mentioned earlier. 62 Among the Greek ecclesiastical writers,
Athenagoras records that Christians consider as murderesses women who have
recourse to abortifacient medicines, because children, even if they are still
in their mother's womb, "are already under the protection of Divine
Providence".63 Among the Latin authors, Tertullian affirms:
"It is anticipated murder to prevent someone from being born; it makes
little difference whether one kills a soul already born or puts it to death at
birth. He who will one day be a man is a man already".64
Throughout Christianity's two thousand year history,
this same doctrine has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and
by her Pastors and Doctors. Even scientific and philosophical discussions about
the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise
to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion.
62. The more recent Papal
Magisterium has vigorously reaffirmed this common doctrine. Pius XI in
particular, in his Encyclical Casti Connubii, rejected the specious justifications
of abortion. 65 Pius XII excluded all direct abortion, i.e., every act
tending directly to destroy human life in the womb "whether such
destruction is intended as an end or only as a means to an end".66
John XXIII reaffirmed that human life is sacred because "from its very
beginning it directly involves God's creative activity".67 The
Second Vatican Council, as mentioned earlier, sternly condemned abortion:
"From the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest
care, while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes".68
The Church's canonical discipline, from the earliest
centuries, has inflicted penal sanctions on those guilty of abortion. This
practice, with more or less severe penalties, has been confirmed in various
periods of history. The 1917 Code of Canon Law punished abortion with
excommunication. 69 The revised canonical legislation continues this
tradition when it decrees that "a person who actually procures an abortion
incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication".70 The
excommu- nication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the
penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the
crime would not have been committed. 71 By this reiterated sanction,
the Church makes clear that abortion is a most serious and dangerous crime,
thereby encouraging those who commit it to seek without delay the path of
conversion. In the Church the purpose of the penalty of excommunication is to
make an individual fully aware of the gravity of a certain sin and then to
foster genuine conversion and repentance.
Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary
tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged
and unchangeable. 72 Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred
upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various
occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation,
albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement
concerning this doctrine-I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion
willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder,
since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is
based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by
the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
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.
63. This evaluation of the morality
of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human
embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves,
inevitably involve the killing of those embryos. This is the case with
experimentation on embryos, which is becoming increasingly widespread in the
field of biomedical research and is legally permitted in some countries.
Although "one must uphold as licit procedures carried out on the human
embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve
disproportionate risks for it, but rather are directed to its healing, the
improvement of its condition of health, or its individual
survival",74 it must nonetheless be stated that the use of human
embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against
their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a
child once born, just as to every person. 75
This moral condemnation also regards procedures that
exploit living human embryos and fetuses-sometimes specifically
"produced" for this purpose by in vitro fertilization-either to be
used as "biological material" or as providers of organs or tissue for
transplants in the treatment of certain diseases. The killing of innocent human
creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely
Special attention must be given to evaluating the
morality of prenatal diagnostic techniques which enable the early detection of
possible anomalies in the unborn child. In view of the complexity of these
techniques, an accurate and systematic moral judgment is necessary. When they
do not involve disproportionate risks for the child and the mother, and are
meant to make possible early therapy or even to favour a serene and informed
acceptance of the child not yet born, these techniques are morally licit. But
since the possibilities of prenatal therapy are today still limited, it not
infrequently happens that these techniques are used with a eugenic intention
which accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth of children
affected by various types of anomalies. Such an attitude is shameful and
utterly reprehensible, since it presumes to measure the value of a human life
only within the parameters of "normality" and physical well-being,
thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia as well.
And yet the courage and the serenity with which so
many of our brothers and sisters suffering from serious disabilities lead their
lives when they are shown acceptance and love bears eloquent witness to what
gives authentic value to life, and makes it, even in difficult conditions,
something precious for them and for others. The Church is close to those
married couples who, with great anguish and suffering, willingly accept gravely
handicapped children. She is also grateful to all those families which, through
adoption, welcome children abandoned by their parents because of disabilities
"It is I who bring both death and
life" (Dt 32:39): the tragedy of euthanasia
64. At the other end of life's
spectrum, men and women find themselves facing the mystery of death. Today, as
a result of advances in medicine and in a cultural context frequently closed to
the transcendent, the experience of dying is marked by new features. When the
prevailing tendency is to value life only to the extent that it brings pleasure
and well-being, suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from
which one must be freed at all costs. Death is considered "senseless"
if it suddenly interrupts a life still open to a future of new and interesting
experiences. But it becomes a "rightful liberation" once life is held
to be no longer meaningful because it is filled with pain and inexorably doomed
to even greater suffering.
Furthermore, when he denies or neglects his
fundamental relationship to God, man thinks he is his own rule and measure,
with the right to demand that society should guarantee him the ways and means
of deciding what to do with his life in full and complete autonomy. It is
especially people in the developed countries who act in this way: they feel
encouraged to do so also by the constant progress of medicine and its ever more
advanced techniques. By using highly sophisticated systems and equipment,
science and medical practice today are able not only to attend to cases
formerly considered untreatable and to reduce or eliminate pain, but also to
sustain and prolong life even in situations of extreme frailty, to resuscitate
artifi- cially patients whose basic biological functions have undergone sudden
collapse, and to use special procedures to make organs available for
In this context the temptation grows to have recourse
to euthanasia, that is, to take control of death and bring it about before its
time, "gently" ending one's own life or the life of others. In
reality, what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely is
seen to be senseless and inhumane. Here we are faced with one of the more
alarming symptoms of the "culture of death", which is advancing above
all in prosperous societies, marked by an attitude of excessive preoccupation
with efficiency and which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled
people as intolerable and too burdensome. These people are very often isolated
by their families and by society, which are organized almost exclusively on the
basis of criteria of productive efficiency, according to which a hopelessly
impaired life no longer has any value.
65. For a correct moral judgment on
euthanasia, in the first place a clear definition is required. Euthanasia in
the strict sense is understood to be an action or omission which of itself and
by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering.
"Euthanasia's terms of reference, therefore, are to be found in the
intention of the will and in the methods used".76
Euthanasia must be distinguished from the decision to
forego so-called "aggressive medical treatment", in other words,
medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the
patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected
results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his
family. In such situations, when death is clearly imminent and inevitable, one
can in conscience "refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a
precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due
to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted".77 Certainly
there is a moral obligation to care for oneself and to allow oneself to be
cared for, but this duty must take account of concrete circumstances. It needs
to be determined whether the means of treatment available are objectively
proportionate to the prospects for improvement. To forego extraordinary or
disproportionate means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it
rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death.
In modern medicine, increased attention is being given
to what are called "methods of palliative care", which seek to make
suffering more bearable in the final stages of illness and to ensure that the
patient is supported and accompanied in his or her ordeal. Among the questions
which arise in this context is that of the licitness of using various types of
painkillers and sedatives for relieving the patient's pain when this involves
the risk of shortening life. While praise may be due to the person who
voluntarily accepts suffering by forgoing treatment with pain-killers in order
to remain fully lucid and, if a believer, to share consciously in the Lord's
Passion, such "heroic" behaviour cannot be considered the duty of
everyone. Pius XII affirmed that it is licit to relieve pain by narcotics, even
when the result is decreased consciousness and a shortening of life, "if
no other means exist, and if, in the given circumstances, this does not prevent
the carrying out of other religious and moral duties".79 In such a
case, death is not willed or sought, even though for reasonable motives one
runs the risk of it: there is simply a desire to ease pain effectively by using
the analgesics which medicine provides. All the same, "it is not right to
deprive the dying person of consciousness without a serious reason":
80 as they approach death people ought to be able to satisfy their
moral and family duties, and above all they ought to be able to prepare in a
fully conscious way for their definitive meeting with God.
Taking into account these distinctions, in harmony
with the Magisterium of my Predecessors 81 and in communion with the
Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation
of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing
of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the
written word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the
ordinary and universal Magisterium. 82
Depending on the circumstances, this practice involves
the malice proper to suicide or murder.
66. Suicide is always as morally
objectionable as murder. The Church's tradition has always rejected it as a
gravely evil choice. 83 Even though a certain psychological, cultural
and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so
radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or
removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a
gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the
renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one's neighbour,
towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole.
84 In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God's
absolute sovereignty over life and death, as proclaimed in the prayer of the
ancient sage of Israel: "You have power over life and death; you lead men
down to the gates of Hades and back again" (Wis 16:13; cf. Tob 13:2).
To concur with the intention of another person to
commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called "assisted
suicide" means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator
of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested. In a remarkably
relevant passage Saint Augustine writes that "it is never licit to kill
another: even if he should wish it, indeed if he request it because, hanging
between life and death, he begs for help in freeing the soul struggling against
the bonds of the body and longing to be released; nor is it licit even when a
sick person is no longer able to live".85 Even when not motivated
by a selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering,
euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing
"perversion" of mercy. True "compassion" leads to sharing
another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.
Moreover, the act of euthanasia appears all the more perverse if it is carried
out by those, like relatives, who are supposed to treat a family member with
patience and love, or by those, such as doctors, who by virtue of their
specific profession are supposed to care for the sick person even in the most
painful terminal stages.
The choice of euthanasia becomes more serious when it
takes the form of a murder committed by others on a person who has in no way
requested it and who has never consented to it. The height of arbitrariness and
injustice is reached when certain people, such as physicians or legislators,
arrogate to themselves the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to
die. Once again we find ourselves before the temptation of Eden: to become like
God who "knows good and evil" (cf. Gen 3:5). God alone has the power
over life and death: "It is I who bring both death and life" (Dt
32:39; cf. 2 Kg 5:7; 1 Sam 2:6). But he only exercises this power in accordance
with a plan of wisdom and love. When man usurps this power, being enslaved by a
foolish and selfish way of thinking, he inevitably uses it for injustice and
death. Thus the life of the person who is weak is put into the hands of the one
who is strong; in society the sense of justice is lost, and mutual trust, the
basis of every authentic interpersonal relationship, is undermined at its root.
67. Quite different from this is the
way of love and true mercy, which our common humanity calls for, and upon which
faith in Christ the Redeemer, who died and rose again, sheds ever new light.
The request which arises from the human heart in the supreme confrontation with
suffering and death, especially when faced with the temptation to give up in
utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and
support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all
human hopes fail. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us: "It is in the
face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute" and
yet "man rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and
repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person. Man
rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot
be reduced to mere matter".86
This natural aversion to death and this incipient hope
of immortality are illumined and brought to fulfilment by Christian faith,
which both promises and offers a share in the victory of the Risen Christ: it
is the victory of the One who, by his redemptive death, has set man free from
death, "the wages of sin" (Rom 6:23), and has given him the Spirit,
the pledge of resurrection and of life (cf. Rom 8:11). The certainty of future
immortality and hope in the promised resurrection cast new light on the mystery
of suffering and death, and fill the believer with an extraordinary capacity to
trust fully in the plan of God.
The Apostle Paul expressed this newness in terms of
belonging completely to the Lord who embraces every human condition: "None
of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to
the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or
whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:7-8). Dying to the Lord means
experiencing one's death as the supreme act of obedience to the Father (cf.
Phil 2:8), being ready to meet death at the "hour" willed and chosen
by him (cf.Jn 13:1), which can only mean when one's earthly pilgrimage is
completed. Living to the Lord also means recognizing that suffering, while
still an evil and a trial in itself, can always become a source of good. It becomes
such if it is experienced for love and with love through sharing, by God's
gracious gift and one's own personal and free choice, in the suffering of
Christ Crucified. In this way, the person who lives his suffering in the Lord
grows more fully conformed to him (cf. Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 2:21) and more closely
associated with his redemptive work on behalf of the Church and humanity. 87 This was the experience of Saint Paul,
which every person who suffers is called to relive: "I rejoice in my
sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in
Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church" (Col
"We must obey God rather than
men" (Acts 5:29): civil law and
the moral law
68. One of the specific
characteristics of present-day attacks on human life-as has already been said
several times-consists in the trend to demand a legal justification for them,
as if they were rights which the State, at least under certain conditions, must
acknowledge as belonging to citizens. Consequently, there is a tendency to
claim that it should be possible to exercise these rights with the safe and
free assistance of doctors and medical personnel.
It is often claimed that the life of an unborn child
or a seriously disabled person is only a relative good: according to a
proportionalist approach, or one of sheer calculation, this good should be
compared with and balanced against other goods. It is even maintained that only
someone present and personally involved in a concrete situation can correctly
judge the goods at stake: consequently, only that person would be able to
decide on the morality of his choice. The State therefore, in the interest of
civil coexistence and social harmony, should respect this choice, even to the
point of permitting abortion and euthanasia.
At other times, it is claimed that civil law cannot
demand that all citizens should live according to moral standards higher than
what all citizens themselves acknowledge and share. Hence the law should always
express the opinion and will of the majority of citizens and recognize that
they have, at least in certain extreme cases, the right even to abortion and
euthanasia. Moreover the prohibition and the punishment of abortion and euthanasia
in these cases would inevitably lead-so it is said-to an increase of illegal
practices: and these would not be subject to necessary control by society and
would be carried out in a medically unsafe way. The question is also raised
whether supporting a law which in practice cannot be enforced would not
ultimately undermine the authority of all laws.
Finally, the more radical views go so far as to
maintain that in a modern and pluralistic society people should be allowed
complete freedom to dispose of their own lives as well as of the lives of the
unborn: it is asserted that it is not the task of the law to choose between
different moral opinions, and still less can the law claim to impose one
particular opinion to the detriment of others.
69. In any case, in the democratic
culture of our time it is commonly held that the legal system of any society
should limit itself to taking account of and accepting the convictions of the
majority. It should therefore be based solely upon what the majority itself
considers moral and actually practises. Furthermore, if it is believed that an
objective truth shared by all is de facto unattainable, then respect for the
freedom of the citizens-who in a democratic system are considered the true rulers-would
require that on the legislative level the autonomy of individual consciences be
acknowledged. Consequently, when establishing those norms which are absolutely
necessary for social coexistence, the only determining factor should be the
will of the majority, whatever this may be. Hence every politician, in his or
her activity, should clearly separate the realm of private conscience from that
of public conduct.
As a result we have what appear to be two
diametrically opposed tendencies. On the one hand, individuals claim for
themselves in the moral sphere the most complete freedom of choice and demand
that the State should not adopt or impose any ethical position but limit itself
to guaranteeing maximum space for the freedom of each individual, with the sole
limitation of not infringing on the freedom and rights of any other citizen. On
the other hand, it is held that, in the exercise of public and professional
duties, respect for other people's freedom of choice requires that each one
should set aside his or her own convictions in order to satisfy every demand of
the citizens which is recognized and guaranteed by law; in carrying out one's
duties the only moral criterion should be what is laid down by the law itself.
Individual responsibility is thus turned over to the civil law, with a
renouncing of personal conscience, at least in the public sphere.
70. At the basis of all these
tendencies lies the ethical relativism which characterizes much of present-day
culture. There are those who consider such relativism an essential condition of
democ- racy, inasmuch as it alone is held to guarantee tolerance, mutual
respect between people and acceptance of the decisions of the majority, whereas
moral norms considered to be objective and binding are held to lead to
authoritarianism and intolerance.
But it is precisely the issue of respect for life
which shows what misunderstandings and contradictions, accompanied by terrible
practical consequences, are concealed in this position.
It is true that history has known cases where crimes
have been committed in the name of "truth". But equally grave crimes
and radical denials of freedom have also been committed and are still being
committed in the name of "ethical relativism". When a parliamentary
or social majority decrees that it is legal, at least under certain conditions,
to kill unborn human life, is it not really making a "tyrannical"
decision with regard to the weakest and most defenceless of human beings?
Everyone's conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which
our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be
crimes if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were
legitimated by popular consensus?
Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it
a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy
is a "system" and as such is a means and not an end. Its
"moral" value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the
moral law to which it, like every other form of human behaviour, must be
subject: in other words, its morality depends on the morality of the ends which
it pursues and of the means which it employs. If today we see an almost
universal consensus with regard to the value of democracy, this is to be
considered a positive "sign of the times", as the Church's
Magisterium has frequently noted.
88 But the value of democracy stands or falls with the
values which it embodies and promotes. Of course, values such as the dignity of
every human person, respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights, and
the adoption of the "common good" as the end and criterion regulating
political life are certainly fundamental and not to be ignored.
The basis of these values cannot be provisional and
changeable "majority" opinions, but only the acknowledgment of an
objective moral law which, as the "natural law" written in the human
heart, is the obligatory point of reference for civil law itself. If, as a
result of a tragic obscuring of the collective conscience, an attitude of
scepticism were to succeed in bringing into question even the fundamental
principles of the moral law, the democratic system itself would be shaken in
its foundations, and would be reduced to a mere mechanism for regulating
different and opposing interests on a purely empirical basis. 89
Some might think that even this function, in the
absence of anything better, should be valued for the sake of peace in society.
While one acknowledges some element of truth in this point of view, it is easy
to see that without an objective moral grounding not even democracy is capable
of ensuring a stable peace, especially since peace which is not built upon the
values of the dignity of every individual and of solidarity between all people
frequently proves to be illusory. Even in participatory systems of government,
the regulation of interests often occurs to the advantage of the most powerful,
since they are the ones most capable of manoeuvering not only the levers of
power but also of shaping the formation of consensus. In such a situation,
democracy easily becomes an empty word.
71. It is therefore urgently
necessary, for the future of society and the development of a sound democracy,
to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from
the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the
person: values which no individual, no majority and no State can ever create,
modify or destroy, but must only acknowledge, respect and promote.
Consequently there is a need to recover the basic
elements of a vision of the relationship between civil law and moral law, which
are put forward by the Church, but which are also part of the patrimony of the
great juridical traditions of humanity.
Certainly the purpose of civil law is different and
more limited in scope than that of the moral law. But "in no sphere of
life can the civil law take the place of conscience or dictate norms concerning
things which are outside its competence",90 which is that of
ensuring the common good of people through the recognition and defence of their
fundamental rights, and the promotion of peace and of public morality.
91 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 2:2). Precisely for this
reason, civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for
certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which
every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among
these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being. While
public authority can sometimes choose not to put a stop to something which-were
it prohibited- would cause more serious harm, 92 it can never presume
to legitimize as a right of individuals-even if they are the majority of the
members of society-an offence against other persons caused by the disregard of
so fundamental a right as the right to life. The legal toleration of abortion
or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience
of others, precisely because society has the right and the duty to protect
itself against the abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under
the pretext of freedom.
In the Encyclical Pacem in Terris, John XXIII pointed
out that "it is generally accepted today that the common good is best
safeguarded when personal rights and duties are guaranteed. The chief concern
of civil authorities must therefore be to ensure that these rights are
recognized, respected, co-ordinated, defended and promoted, and that each
individual is enabled to perform his duties more easily. For ?to safeguard the
inviolable rights of the human person, and to facilitate the performance of his
duties, is the principal duty of every public authority'. Thus any government
which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would
not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding
72. The doctrine on the necessary
conformity of civil law with the moral law is in continuity with the whole
tradition of the Church. This is clear once more from John XXIII's Encyclical:
"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".95 This is the clear teaching of Saint Thomas
Aquinas, who writes that "human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity
with right reason and thus derives from the eternal law. But when a law is
contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but in this case it ceases to
be a law and becomes instead an act of violence".96 And again:
"Every law made by man can be called a law insofar as it derives from the
natural law. But if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not
really a law but rather a corruption of the law".97
Now the first and most immediate application of this
teaching concerns a human law which disregards the fundamental right and source
of all other rights which is the right to life, a right belonging to every
individual. Consequently, laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent
human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the
inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the
equality of everyone before the law. It might be objected that such is not the
case in euthanasia, when it is requested with full awareness by the person
involved. But any State which made such a request legitimate and authorized it
to be carried out would be legalizing a case of suicide-murder, contrary to the
fundamental principles of absolute respect for life and of the protection of
every innocent life. In this way the State contributes to lessening respect for
life and opens the door to ways of acting which are destructive of trust in
relations between people. Laws which authorize and promote abortion and
euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the
individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in
authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, 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.
Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that
very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.
73. 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. From the very beginnings of the Church,
the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately
constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the
same time it firmly warned that "we must obey God rather than men"
(Acts 5:29). In the Old
Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant
example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After
Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused.
"They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them,
but let the male children live" (Ex 1:17). But the
ultimate reason for their action should be noted: "the midwives feared
God" (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God-to whom alone is due
that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty-that the strength
and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and
the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the
certainty that this is what makes for "the endurance and faith of the
saints" (Rev 13:10).
In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a
law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it,
or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote
A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases
where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more
restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place
of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are
not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there
continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported
by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those
which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive
legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case
like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely
abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition
to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at
limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences
at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact
represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate
and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.
74. The passing of unjust laws often
raises difficult problems of conscience for morally upright people with regard
to the issue of cooperation, since they have a right to demand not to be forced
to take part in morally evil actions. Sometimes the choices which have to be
made are difficult; they may require the sacrifice of prestigious professional
positions or the relinquishing of reasonable hopes of career advancement. In
other cases, it can happen that carrying out certain actions, which are
provided for by legislation that overall is unjust, but which in themselves are
indifferent, or even positive, can serve to protect human lives under threat.
There may be reason to fear, however, that willingness to carry out such
actions will not only cause scandal and weaken the necessary opposition to
attacks on life, but will gradually lead to further capitulation to a mentality
In order to shed light on this difficult question, it
is necessary to recall the general principles concerning cooperation in evil
actions. Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave
obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if
permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God's law. Indeed, from the
moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. Such
cooperation occurs when an action, either by its very nature or by the form it
takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an
act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the
person committing it. This cooperation can never be justified either by
invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that
civil law permits it or requires it. Each individual in fact has moral
responsibility for the acts which he personally performs; no one can be
exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be
judged by God himself (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12).
To refuse to take part in committing an injustice is
not only a moral duty; it is also a basic human right. Were this not so, the
human person would be forced to perform an action intrinsically incompatible
with human dignity, and in this way human freedom itself, the authentic meaning
and purpose of which are found in its orientation to the true and the good,
would be radically compromised. What is at stake therefore is an essential
right which, precisely as such, should be acknowledged and protected by civil
law. In this sense, the opportunity to refuse to take part in the phases of
consultation, preparation and execution of these acts against life should be
guaranteed to physicians, health-care personnel, and directors of hospitals,
clinics and convalescent facilities. Those who have recourse to conscientious
objection must be protected not only from legal penalties but also from any
negative effects on the legal, disciplinary, financial and professional plane.
"You shall love your neighbour as
yourself" (Lk 10:27):"promote"
75. God's commandments teach us the
way of life. The negative moral precepts, which declare that the choice of
certain actions is morally unacceptable, have an absolute value for human
freedom: they are valid always and everywhere, without exception. They make it
clear that the choice of certain ways of acting is radically incompatible with
the love of God and with the dignity of the person created in his image. Such
choices cannot be redeemed by the goodness of any intention or of any
consequence; they are irrevocably opposed to the bond between persons; they
contradict the fundamental decision to direct one's life to God. 99
In this sense, the negative moral precepts have an
extremely important positive function. The "no" which they
unconditionally require makes clear the absolute limit beneath which free
individuals cannot lower themselves. At the same time they indicate the minimum
which they must respect and from which they must start out in order to say
"yes" over and over again, a "yes" which will gradually
embrace the entire horizon of the good (cf. Mt 5:48). The commandments, in
particular the negative moral precepts, are the beginning and the first
necessary stage of the journey towards freedom. As Saint
Augustine writes, "the beginning of freedom is
to be free from crimes... like murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud,
sacrilege and so forth. Only when one stops committing these crimes (and no
Christian should commit them), one begins to lift up one's head towards
freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect
76. The commandment "You shall
not kill" thus establishes the point of departure for the start of true
freedom. It leads us to promote life actively, and to develop particular ways
of thinking and acting which serve life. In this way we exercise our
responsibility towards the persons entrusted to us and we show, in deeds and in
truth, our gratitude to God for the great gift of life (cf. Ps 139:13-14).
The Creator has entrusted man's life to his
responsible concern, not to make arbitrary use of it, but to preserve it with
wisdom and to care for it with loving fidelity. The God of the Covenant has
entrusted the life of every individual to his or her fellow human beings,
brothers and sisters, according to the law of reciprocity in giving and
receiving, of self-giving and of the acceptance of others. In the fullness of time,
by taking flesh and giving his life for us, the Son of God showed what heights
and depths this law of reciprocity can reach. With the gift of his Spirit,
Christ gives new content and meaning to the law of reciprocity, to our being
entrusted to one another. The Spirit who builds up communion in love creates
between us a new fraternity and solidarity, a true reflection of the mystery of
mutual self-giving and receiving proper to the Most Holy Trinity. The Spirit
becomes the new law which gives strength to believers and awakens in them a
responsibility for sharing the gift of self and for accepting others, as a
sharing in the boundless love of Jesus Christ himself.
77. This new law also gives spirit
and shape to the commandment "You shall not kill". For the Christian
it involves an absolute imperative to respect, love and promote the life of
every brother and sister, in accordance with the requirements of God's
bountiful love in Jesus Christ. "He laid down his life for us; and we
ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 Jn 3:16).
The commandment "You shall not kill", even
in its more positive aspects of respecting, loving and promoting human life, is
binding on every individual human being. It resounds in the moral conscience of
everyone as an irrepressible echo of the original covenant of God the Creator
with mankind. It can be recognized by everyone through the light of reason and
it can be observed thanks to the mysterious working of the Spirit who, blowing
where he wills (cf. Jn 3:8), comes to and involves every person living in this
It is therefore a service of love which we are all
committed to ensure to our neighbour, that his or her life may be always
defended and promoted, especially when it is weak or threatened. It is not only
a personal but a social concern which we must all foster: a concern to make
unconditional respect for human life the foundation of a renewed society.
We are asked to love and honour the life of every man
and woman and to work with perseverance and courage so that our time, marked by
all too many signs of death, may at last witness the establishment of a new
culture of life, the fruit of the culture of truth and of love.
CHAPTER IV - YOU
DID IT TO ME
FOR A NEW CULTURE
OF HUMAN LIFE
"You are God's own people, that you
may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his
marvellous light" (1 Pet 2:9): a people of life and for life
78. The Church has received the
Gospel as a proclamation and a source of joy and salvation. She has received it
as a gift from Jesus, sent by the Father "to preach good news to the
poor" (Lk 4:18). She has
received it through the Apostles, sent by Christ to the whole world (cf. Mk 16:15; Mt 28:19-20).
Born from this evangelizing activity, the Church hears every day the echo of Saint
Paul's words of warning: "Woe to me if I
do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16). As Paul VI
wrote, "evangelization is the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her
deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize".101
Evangelization is an all-embracing, progressive
activity through which the Church participates in the prophetic, priestly and
royal mission of the Lord Jesus. It is therefore inextricably linked to
preaching, celebration and the service of charity. Evangelization is a
profoundly ecclesial act, which calls all the various workers of the Gospel to
action, according to their individual charisms and ministry.
This is also the case with regard to the proclamation
of the Gospel of life, an integral part of that Gospel which is Jesus Christ
himself. We are at the service of this Gospel, sustained by the awareness that
we have received it as a gift and are sent to preach it to all humanity,
"to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). With humility and gratitude we
know that we are the people of life and for life, and this is how we present
ourselves to everyone.
79. We are the people of life
because God, in his unconditional love, has given us the Gospel of life and by
this same Gospel we have been transformed and saved. We have been ransomed by
the "Author of life" (Acts 3:15) at the price of
his precious blood (cf. 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; 1 Pet 1:19). Through the
waters of Baptism we have been made a part of him (cf. Rom 6:4-5; Col 2:12), as branches
which draw nourishment and fruitfulness from the one tree (cf. Jn 15:5).
Interiorly renewed by the grace of the Spirit, "who is the Lord and giver
of life", we have become a people for life and we are called to act
We have been sent. For us, being at the service of
life is not a boast but rather a duty, born of our awareness of being
"God's own people, that we may declare the wonderful deeds of him who
called us out of darkness into his marvellous light" (cf. 1 Pet 2:9). On
our journey we are guided and sustained by the law of love: a love which has as
its source and model the Son of God made man, who "by dying gave life to
We have been sent as a people. Everyone has an
obligation to be at the service of life. This is a properly
"ecclesial" responsibility, which requires concerted and generous
action by all the members and by all sectors of the Christian community. This
community commitment does not however eliminate or lessen the responsibility of
each individual, called by the Lord to "become the neighbour" of
everyone: "Go and do likewise" (Lk 10:37).
Together we all sense our duty to preach the Gospel of
life, to celebrate it in the Liturgy and in our whole existence, and to serve
it with the various programmes and structures which support and promote life.
"That which we have seen and heard we
proclaim also to you" (1 Jn 1:3): proclaiming the Gospel of life
80. "That which was from the
beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have
looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life ... we
proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us" (1 Jn 1:1,
3). Jesus is the only Gospel: we have nothing further to say or any other
witness to bear.
To proclaim Jesus is itself to proclaim life. For
Jesus is "the word of life" (1 Jn 1:1). In him "life was made
manifest" (1 Jn 1:2); he himself is "the eternal life which was with
the Father and was made manifest to us" (1 Jn 1:2). By the gift of the
Spirit, this same life has been bestowed on us. It is in being destined to life
in its fullness, to "eternal life", that every person's earthly life
acquires its full meaning.
Enlightened by this Gospel of life, we feel a need to
proclaim it and to bear witness to it in all its marvellous newness. Since it
is one with Jesus himself, who makes all things new 103 and conquers
the "oldness" which comes from sin and leads to death, 104
this Gospel exceeds every human expectation and reveals the sublime heights to
which the dignity of the human person is raised through grace. This is how
Saint Gregory of Nyssa understands it: "Man, as a being, is of no account;
he is dust, grass, vanity. But once he is adopted by the God of the universe as
a son, he becomes part of the family of that Being, whose excellence and
greatness no one can see, hear or understand. What words, thoughts or flight of
the spirit can praise the superabundance of this grace? Man surpasses his
nature: mortal, he becomes immortal; perishable, he becomes imperishable;
fleeting, he becomes eternal; human, he becomes divine".105
Gratitude and joy at the incomparable dignity of man
impel us to share this message with everyone: "that which we have seen and
heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us" (1
Jn 1:3). We need to bring the Gospel of life to the heart of every man and woman
and to make it penetrate every part of society.
81. This involves above all
proclaiming the core of this Gospel. It is the proclamation of a living God who
is close to us, who calls us to profound communion with himself and awakens in
us the certain hope of eternal life. It is the affirmation of the inseparable
connection between the person, his life and his bodiliness. It is the
presentation of human life as a life of relationship, a gift of God, the fruit
and sign of his love. It is the proclamation that Jesus has a unique
relationship with every person, which enables us to see in every human face the
face of Christ. It is the call for a "sincere gift of self" as the
fullest way to realize our personal freedom.
It also involves making clear all the consequences of
this Gospel. These can be summed up as follows: human life, as a gift of God,
is sacred and inviolable. For this reason procured abortion and euthanasia are
absolutely unacceptable. Not only must human life not be taken, but it must be
protected with loving concern. The meaning of life is found in giving and
receiving love, and in this light human sexuality and procreation reach their
true and full significance. Love also gives meaning to suffering and death;
despite the mystery which surrounds them, they can become saving events.
Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the
service of man and his integral development. Society as a whole must respect,
defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in
every condition of that person's life.
82. To be truly a people at the
service of life we must propose these truths constantly and courageously from
the very first proclamation of the Gospel, and thereafter in catechesis, in the
various forms of preaching, in personal dialogue and in all educational
activity. Teachers, catechists and theologians have the task of emphasizing the
anthropological reasons upon which respect for every human life is based. In
this way, by making the newness of the Gospel of life shine forth, we can also
help everyone discover in the light of reason and of personal experience how
the Christian message fully reveals what man is and the meaning of his being
and existence. We shall find important points of contact and dialogue also with
non- believers, in our common commitment to the establishment of a new culture
Faced with so many opposing points of view, and a
widespread rejection of sound doctrine concerning human life, we can feel that
Paul's entreaty to Timothy is also addressed to us: "Preach the word, be
urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing
in patience and in teaching" (2 Tim 4:2). This exhortation should resound
with special force in the hearts of those members of the Church who di- rectly
share, in different ways, in her mission as "teacher" of the truth.
May it resound above all for us who are Bishops: we are the first ones called
to be untiring preachers of the Gospel of life. We are also entrusted with the
task of ensuring that the doctrine which is once again being set forth in this
Encyclical is faithfully handed on in its integ- rity. We must use appropriate
means to defend the faithful from all teaching which is contrary to it. We need
to make sure that in theological faculties, seminaries and Catholic
institutions sound doctrine is taught, explained and more fully investigated.
106 May Paul's exhortation strike a chord in all theologians, pastors,
teachers and in all those responsible for catechesis and the formation of
consciences. Aware of their specific role, may they never be so grievously
irresponsible as to betray the truth and their own mission by proposing
personal ideas contrary to the Gospel of life as faithfully presented and
interpreted by the Magisterium.
In the proclamation of this Gospel, we must not fear
hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity which
might conform us to the world's way of thinking (cf. Rom 12:2). We must be in
the world but not of the world (cf. Jn 15:19; 17:16), drawing our
strength from Christ, who by his Death and Res- urrection has overcome the
world (cf. Jn 16:33).
"I give you thanks that I am
fearfully, wonderfully made" (Ps 139:14): celebrating the Gospel of life
83. Because we have been sent into
the world as a "people for life", our proclamation must also become a
genuine celebration of the Gospel of life. This celebration, with the evocative
power of its gestures, symbols and rites, should become a precious and
significant setting in which the beauty and grandeur of this Gospel is handed
For this to happen, we need first of all to foster, in
ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook. 107 Such an outlook
arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a
"wonder" (cf. Ps 139:14). It is the outlook of those who see life in
its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation
to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to
take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all
things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living
image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5). This outlook does not give in to discouragement
when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death's door.
Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and
precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every
person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity.
It is time for all of us to adopt this outlook, and
with deep religious awe to rediscover the ability to revere and honour every
person, as Paul VI invited us to do in one of his first Christmas messages.
108 Inspired by this contemplative outlook, the new people of the
redeemed cannot but respond with songs of joy, praise and thanksgiving for the
priceless gift of life, for the mystery of every individual's call to share
through Christ in the life of grace and in an existence of unending communion
with God our Creator and Father.
84. To celebrate the Gospel of life
means to celebrate the God of life, the God who gives life: "We must
celebrate Eternal Life, from which every other life proceeds. From this, in
proportion to its capacities, every being which in any way participates in
life, receives life. This Divine Life, which is above every other life, gives
and preserves life. Every life and every living movement proceed from this Life
which transcends all life and every principle of life. It is to this that souls
owe their incorruptibility; and because of this all animals and plants live,
which receive only the faintest glimmer of life. To men, beings made of spirit
and matter, Life grants life. Even if we should abandon Life, because of its
overflowing love for man, it converts us and calls us back to itself. Not only
this: it promises to bring us, soul and body, to perfect life, to immortality.
It is too little to say that this Life is alive: it is the Principle of life,
the Cause and sole Wellspring of life. Every living thing must contemplate it
and give it praise: it is Life which overflows with life".109
Like the Psalmist, we too, in our daily prayer as
individuals and as a community, praise and bless God our Father, who knitted us
together in our mother's womb, and saw and loved us while we were still without
form (cf. Ps 139:13, 15-16). We exclaim with overwhelming joy: "I give you
thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made; wonderful are your works. You
know me through and through" (Ps 139:14). Indeed, "despite its
hardships, its hidden mysteries, its suffering and its inevitable frailty, this
mortal life is a most beautiful thing, a marvel ever new and moving, an event
worthy of being exalted in joy and glory".110 Moreover, man and
his life appear to us not only as one of the greatest marvels of creation: for
God has granted to man a dignity which is near to divine (Ps 8:5-6). In every
child which is born and in every person who lives or dies we see the image of
God's glory. We celebrate this glory in every human being, a sign of the living
God, an icon of Jesus Christ.
We are called to express wonder and gratitude for the
gift of life and to welcome, savour and share the Gospel of life not only in
our personal and community prayer, but above all in the celebrations of the
liturgical year. Particularly important in this regard are the Sacraments, the
efficacious signs of the presence and saving action of the Lord Jesus in
Christian life. The Sacraments make us sharers in divine life, and provide the
spiritual strength necessary to experience life, suffering and death in their
fullest meaning. Thanks to a genuine rediscovery and a better appreciation of
the significance of these rites, our liturgical celebrations, especially
celebrations of the Sacraments, will be ever more capable of expressing the
full truth about birth, life, suffering and death, and will help us to live
these moments as a participation in the Paschal Mystery of the Crucified and
85. In celebrating the Gospel of
life we also need toappreciate and make good use of the wealth of gestures and
symbols present in the traditions and customs of different cultures and
peoples. There are special times and ways in which the peoples of different
nations and cultures express joy for a newborn life, respect for and protection
of individual human lives, care for the suffering or needy, closeness to the
elderly and the dying, participation in the sorrow of those who mourn, and hope
and desire for immortality.
In view of this and following the suggestion made by
the Cardinals in the Consistory of 1991, I propose that a Day for Life be
celebrated each year in every country, as already established by some Episcopal
Conferences. The celebration of this Day should be planned and carried out with
the active participation of all sectors of the local Church. Its primary
purpose should be to foster in individual consciences, in families, in the
Church and in civil society a recognition of the meaning and value of human
life at every stage and in every condition. Particular attention should be
drawn to the seriousness of abortion and euthanasia, without neglecting other
aspects of life which from time to time deserve to be given careful
consideration, as occasion and circumstances demand.
86. As part of the spiritual worship
acceptable to God (cf. Rom 12:1), the Gospel of life is to be celebrated above
all in daily living, which should be filled with self-giving love for others.
In this way, our lives will become a genuine and respon- sible acceptance of
the gift of life and a heartfelt song of praise and gratitude to God who has
given us this gift. This is already happening in the many different acts of
selfless generosity, often humble and hidden, carried out by men and women,
children and adults, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick.
It is in this context, so humanly rich and filled with
love, that heroic actions too are born. These are the most solemn celebration
of the Gospel of life, for they proclaim it by the total gift of self. They are
the radiant manifestation of the highest degree of love, which is to give one's
life for the person loved (cf. Jn 15:13). They are a
sharing in the mystery of the Cross, in which Jesus reveals the value of every
person, and how life attains its fullness in the sincere gift of self. Over and
above such outstanding moments, there is an everyday heroism, made up of
gestures of sharing, big or small, which build up an authentic culture of life.
A particularly praiseworthy example of such gestures is the donation of organs,
performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance
of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope.
Part of this daily heroism is also the silent but
effective and eloquent witness of all those "brave mothers who devote
themselves to their own fam- ily without reserve, who suffer in giving birth to
their children and who are ready to make any effort, to face any sacrifice, in
order to pass on to them the best of themselves".111 In living out
their mission "these heroic women do not always find support in the world
around them. On the contrary, the cultural models frequently promoted and
broadcast by the media do not encourage motherhood. In the name of progress and
modernity the values of fidelity, chastity, sacrifice, to which a host of
Christian wives and mothers have borne and continue to bear outstanding
witness, are presented as obsolete ... We thank you, heroic mothers, for your
invincible love! We thank you for your intrepid trust in God and in his love.
We thank you for the sacrifice of your life ... In the Paschal Mystery, Christ
restores to you the gift you gave him. Indeed, he has the power to give you
back the life you gave him as an offering".112
"What does it profit, my brethren, if
a man says he has faith but has not works?" (Jas 2:14): serving the
Gospel of life
87. By virtue of our sharing in
Christ's royal mission, our support and promotion of human life must be
accomplished through the service of charity, which finds expression in personal
witness, various forms of volunteer work, social activity and political
commitment. This is a particularly pressing need at the present time, when the
"culture of death" so forcefully opposes the "culture of life"
and often seems to have the upper hand. But even before that it is a need which
springs from "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6). As the Letter of
James admonishes us: "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he
has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is
ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ?Go in peace,
be warmed and filled', without giving them the things needed for the body, what
does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (2:14-17).
In our service of charity, we must be inspired and
distinguished by a specific attitude: we must care for the other as a person
for whom God has made us responsible. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to
become neighbours to everyone (cf. Lk 10:29-37), and to show
special favour to those who are poorest, most alone and most in need. In
helping the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the
imprisoned-as well as the child in the womb and the old person who is suffering
ornear death-we have the opportunity to serve Jesus. He himself said: "As
you did it to one of the least of these my breth- ren, you did it to me"
(Mt 25:40). Hence we cannot but feel called to account and judged by the ever
relevant words of Saint John Chrysostom: "Do you wish to honour the body
of Christ? Do not neglect it when you find it naked. Do not do it homage here
in the church with silk fabrics only to neglect it outside where it suffers
cold and nakedness".113
Where life is involved, the service of charity must be
profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human
life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an
indivisible good. We need then to "show care" for all life and for
the life of everyone. Indeed, at an even deeper level, we need to go to the
very roots of life and love.
It is this deep love for every man and woman which has
given rise down the centuries to an outstanding history of charity, a history
which has brought into being in the Church and society many forms of service to
life which evoke admiration from all unbiased observers. Every Christian
community, with a renewed sense of responsibility, must continue to write this
history through various kinds of pastoral and social activity. To this end,
appropriate and effective programmes of support for new life must be
implemented, with special closeness to mothers who, even without the help of
the father, are not afraid to bring their child into the world and to raise it.
Similar care must be shown for the life of the marginalized or suffering,
especially in its final phases.
88. All of this involves a patient
and fearless work of education aimed at encouraging one and all to bear each
other's burdens (cf. Gal 6:2). It requires a continuous promotion of vocations
to service, particularly among the young. It involves the implementation of
long-term practical projects and initiatives inspired by the Gospel.
Many are the means towards this end which need to be
developed with skill and serious commitment. At the first stage of life,
centres for natural methods of regulating fertility should be promoted as a
valuable help to responsible parenthood, in which all individuals, and in the
first place the child, are recognized and respected in their own right, and
where every decision is guided by the ideal of the sincere gift of self.
Marriage and family counselling agencies by their specific work of guidance and
prevention, carried out in accordance with an anthropology consistent with the
Christian vision of the person, of the couple and of sexuality, also offer
valuable help in rediscovering the meaning of love and life, and in supporting
and accompanying every family in its mission as the "sanctuary of
life". Newborn life is also served by centres of assistance and homes or
centres where new life receives a welcome. Thanks to the work of such centres,
many unmarried mothers and couples in difficulty discover new hope and find
assistance and support in overcoming hardship and the fear of accepting a newly
conceived life or life which has just come into the world.
When life is challenged by conditions of hardship,
maladjustment, sickness or rejection, other programmes-such as communities for
treating drug addiction, residential communities for minors or the mentally
ill, care and relief centres for AIDS patients, associations for solidarity
especially towards the disabled-are eloquent expressions of what charity is
able to devise in order to give everyone new reasons for hope and practical
possibilities for life.
And when earthly existence draws to a close, it is
again charity which finds the most appropriate means for enabling the elderly,
especially those who can no longer look after themselves, and the terminally
ill to enjoy genuinely humane assistance and to receive an adequate response to
their needs, in particular their anxiety and their loneliness. In these cases
the role of families is indispensable; yet families can receive much help from
social welfare agencies and, if necessary, from recourse to palliative care,
taking advantage of suitable medical and social services available in public
institutions or in the home.
In particular, the role of hospitals, clinics and convalescent
homes needs to be reconsidered. These should not merely be institutions where
care is provided for the sick or the dying. Above all they should be places
where suffering, pain and death are acknowledged and understood in their human
and specifically Christian meaning. This must be especially evident and
effective in institutes staffed by Religious or in any way connected with the
89. Agencies and centres of service
to life, and all other initiatives of support and solidarity which
circumstances may from time to time suggest, need to be directed by people who
are generous in their involvement and fully aware of the importance of the
Gospel of life for the good of individuals and society.
A unique responsibility belongs to health-care
personnel: doctors, pharmacists, nurses, chaplains, men and women religious,
administrators and volunteers. Their profession calls for them to be guardians
and servants of human life. In today's cultural and social context, in which
science and the practice of medicine risk losing sight of their inherent
ethical dimension, health-care professionals can be strongly tempted at times
to become manipulators of life, or even agents of death. In the face of this
temptation their responsibility today is greatly increased. Its deepest
inspiration and strongest support lie in the intrinsic and undeniable ethical
dimension of the health-care profession, something already recognized by the
ancient and still relevant Hippocratic Oath, which requires every doctor to
commit himself to absolute respect for human life and its sacredness.
Absolute respect for every innocent human life also
requires the exercise of conscientious objection in relation to procured
abortion and euthanasia. "Causing death" can never be considered a
form of medical treatment, even when the intention is solely to comply with the
patient's request. Rather, it runs completely counter to the health- care
profession, which is meant to be an impassioned and unflinching affirmation of
life. Bio- medical research too, a field which promises great benefits for
humanity, must always reject experimentation, research or applications which
disregard the inviolable dignity of the human being, and thus cease to be at
the service of people and become instead means which, under the guise of
helping people, actually harm them.
90. Volunteer workers have a
specific role to play: they make a valuable contribution to the service of life
when they combine professional ability and generous, selfless love. The Gospel
of life inspires them to lift their feelings of good will towards others to the
heights of Christ's charity; to renew every day, amid hard work and weariness,
their awareness of the dignity of every person; to search out people's needs
and, when necessary, to set out on new paths where needs are greater but care
and support weaker.
If charity is to be realistic and effective, it
demands that the Gospel of life be implemented also by means of certain forms
of social activity and commitment in the political field, as a way of defending
and promoting the value of life in our ever more complex and pluralistic
societies. Individuals, families, groups and associations, albeit for different
reasons and in different ways, all have a responsibility for shaping society
and developing cultural, economic, political and legislative projects which,
with respect for all and in keeping with democratic principles, will contribute
to the building of a society in which the dignity of each person is recognized
and protected and the lives of all are defended and enhanced.
This task is the particular responsibility of civil
leaders. Called to serve the people and the common good, they have a duty to
make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative
measures. In a democratic system, where laws and decisions are made on the
basis of the consensus of many, the sense of personal responsibility in the
consciences of individuals invested with authority may be weakened. But no one
can ever renounce this responsibility, especially when he or she has a
legislative or decision-making mandate, which calls that person to answer to
God, to his or her own conscience and to the whole of society for choices which
may be contrary to the common good. Although laws are not the only means of
protecting human life, nevertheless they do play a very important and sometimes
decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behaviour. I repeat once
more that a law which violates an innocent person's natural right to life is
unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law. For this reason I urgently appeal
once more to all political leaders not to pass laws which, by disregarding the
dignity of the person, undermine the very fabric of society.
The Church well knows that it is difficult to mount an
effective legal defence of life in pluralistic democracies, because of the
presence of strong cultural currents with differing outlooks. At the same time,
certain that moral truth cannot fail to make its presence deeply felt in every
conscience, the Church encourages political leaders, starting with those who
are Christians, not to give in, but to make those choices which, taking into
account what is realistically attainable, will lead to the re- establishment of
a just order in the defence and promotion of the value of life. Here it must be
noted that it is not enough to remove unjust laws. The underlying causes of
attacks on life have to be eliminated, especially by ensuring proper support
for families and motherhood. A family policy must be the basis and driving
force of all social policies. For this reason there need to be set in place
social and political initiatives capable of guaranteeing conditions of true
freedom of choice in matters of parenthood. It is also necessary to rethink
labour, urban, residential and social service policies so as to harmonize
working schedules with time available for the family, so that it becomes
effectively possible to take care of children and the elderly.
91. Today an important part of
policies which favour life is the issue of population growth. Certainly public
authorities have a responsibility to "intervene to orient the demography
of the population".114 But such interventions must always take
into account and respect the primary and inalienable responsibility of married
couples and families, and cannot employ methods which fail to respect the
person and fundamental human rights, beginning with the right to life of every
innocent human being. It is therefore morally unacceptable to encourage, let
alone impose, the use of methods such as contraception, sterilization and
abortion in order to regulate births. The ways of solving the population
problem are quite different. Governments and the various international agencies
must above all strive to create economic, social, public health and cultural
conditions which will enable married couples to make their choices about
procreation in full freedom and with genuine responsibility. They must then
make efforts to ensure "greater opportunities and a fairer distribution of
wealth so that everyone can share equitably in the goods of creation. Solutions
must be sought on the global level by establishing a true economy of communion
and sharing of goods, in both the national and international
order".115 This is the only way to respect the dignity of persons
and families, as well as the authentic cultural patrimony of peoples.
Service of the Gospel of life is thus an immense and
complex task. This service increasingly appears as a valuable and fruitful area
for positive cooperation with our brothers and sisters of other Churches and
ecclesial communities, in accordance with the practical ecumenism which the
Second Vatican Council authoritatively encouraged. 116 It also appears
as a providential area for dialogue and joint efforts with the followers of
other religions and with all people of good will. No single person or group has
a monopoly on the defence and promotion of life. These are everyone's task and responsibility.
On the eve of the Third Millennium, the challenge facing us is an arduous one:
only the concerted efforts of all those who believe in the value of life can
prevent a setback of unforeseeable consequences for civilization.
"Your children will be like olive
shoots around your table" (Ps 128:3): the family as the "sanctuary of
92. Within the "people of life
and the people for life", the family has a decisive responsibility. This
responsibility flows from its very nature as a community of life and love,
founded upon marriage, and from its mission to "guard, reveal and
communicate love".117 Here it is a matter of God's own love, of
which parents are co-workers and as it were interpreters when they transmit
life and raise it according to his fatherly plan. 118 This is the love
that becomes selflessness, receptiveness and gift. Within the family each
member is accepted, respected and honoured precisely because he or she is a
person; and if any family member is in greater need, the care which he or she
receives is all the more intense and attentive.
The family has a special role to play throughout the
life of its members, from birth to death. It is truly "the sanctuary of
life: the place in which life-the gift of God-can be properly welcomed and
protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in
accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth".119
Consequently the role of the family in building a culture of life is decisive
As the domestic church, the family is summoned to
proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life. This is a responsibility
which first concerns married couples, called to be givers of life, on the basis
of an ever greater awareness of the meaning of procreation as a unique event
which clearly reveals that human life is a gift received in order then to be
given as a gift. In giving origin to a new life, parents recognize that the
child, "as the fruit of their mutual gift of love, is, in turn, a gift for
both of them, a gift which flows from them".120
It is above all in raising children that the family
fulfils its mission to proclaim the Gospel of life. By word and example, in the
daily round of relations and choices, and through concrete actions and signs,
parents lead their children to authentic freedom, actualized in the sincere
gift of self, and they cultivate in them respect for others, a sense of
justice, cordial openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity and all the
other values which help people to live life as a gift. In raising children
Christian parents must be concerned about their children's faith and help them
to fulfil the vocation God has given them. The parents' mission as educators
also includes teaching and giving their children an example of the true meaning
of suffering and death. They will be able to do this if they are sensitive to
all kinds of suffering around them and, even more, if they succeed in fostering
attitudes of closeness, assistance and sharing towards sick or elderly members
of the family.
93. The family celebrates the Gospel
of life through daily prayer, both individual prayer and family prayer. The
family prays in order to glorify and give thanks to God for the gift of life,
and implores his light and strength in order to face times of difficulty and
suffering without losing hope. But the celebration which gives meaning to every
other form of prayer and worship is found in the family's actual daily life
together, if it is a life of love and self-giving.
This celebration thus becomes a service to the Gospel
of life, expressed through solidarity as experienced within and around the
family in the form of concerned, attentive and loving care shown in the humble,
ordinary events of each day. A particularly significant expression of
solidarity between families is a willingness to adopt or take in children
abandoned by their parents or in situations of serious hardship. True parental
love is ready to go beyond the bonds of flesh and blood in order to accept
children from other families, offering them whatever is necessary for their
well-being and full development. Among the various forms of adoption,
consideration should be given to adoption-at-a-distance, preferable in cases
where the only reason for giving up the child is the extreme poverty of the
child's family. Through this type of adoption, parents are given the help
needed to support and raise their children, without their being uprooted from
their natural environment.
As "a firm and persevering determination to
commit oneself to the common good",121 solidarity also needs to be
practised through participation in social and political life. Serving the
Gospel of life thus means that the family, particularly through its membership
of family associations, works to ensure that the laws and institutions of the
State in no way violate the right to life, from conception to natural death,
but rather protect and promote it.
94. Special attention must be given
to the elderly. While in some cultures older people remain a part of the family
with an important and active role, in others the elderly are regarded as a
useless burden and are left to themselves. Here the temptation to resort to
euthanasia can more easily arise.
Neglect of the elderly or their outright rejection are
intolerable. Their presence in the family, or at least their closeness to the
family in cases where limited living space or other reasons make this
impossible, is of fundamental importance in creating a climate of mutual
interaction and enriching communication between the different age-groups. It is
therefore important to preserve, or to re-establish where it has been lost, a
sort of "covenant" between generations. In this way parents, in their
later years, can receive from their children the acceptance and solidarity
which they themselves gave to their children when they brought them into the
world. This is required by obedience to the divine commandment to honour one's
father and mother (cf. Ex 20:12; Lev 19:3). But
there is more. The elderly are not only to be considered the object of our
concern, closeness and service. They themselves have a valuable contribution to
make to the Gospel of life. Thanks to the rich treasury of experiences they
have acquired through the years, the elderly can and must be sources of wisdom
and witnesses of hope and love.
Although it is true that "the future of humanity
passes by way of the family",122 it must be admitted that modern
social, economic and cultural conditions make the family's task of serving life
more difficult and demanding. In order to fulfil its vocation as the
"sanctuary of life", as the cell of a society which loves and welcomes
life, the family urgently needs to be helped and supported. Communities and
States must guarantee all the support, including economic support, which
families need in order to meet their problems in a truly human way. For her
part, the Church must untiringly promote a plan of pastoral care for families,
capable of making every family rediscover and live with joy and courage its
mission to further the Gospel of life.
"Walk as children of light" (Eph
5:8): bringing about a transformation of culture
95. "Walk as children of light
... and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the
unfruitful works of darkness" (Eph 5:8, 10-11). In our present social
context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the "culture of life"
and the "culture of death", there is need to develop a deep critical
sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.
What is urgently called for is a general mobilization
of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in
support of life. All together, we must build a new culture of life: new,
because it will be able to confront and solve today's unprecedented problems
affecting human life; new, because it will be adopted with deeper and more dynamic
conviction by all Christians; new, because it will be capable of bringing about
a serious and courageous cultural dialogue among all parties. While the urgent
need for such a cultural transformation is linked to the present historical
situation, it is also rooted in the Church's mission of evangelization. The
purpose of the Gospel, in fact, is "to transform humanity from within and
to make it new".123 Like the yeast which leavens the whole measure
of dough (cf. Mt 13:33), the Gospel is meant to permeate all cultures and give
them life from within, 124 so that they may express the full truth
about the human person and about human life.
We need to begin with the renewal of a culture of life
within Christian communities themselves. Too often it happens that believers,
even those who take an active part in the life of the Church, end up by
separating their Christian faith from its ethical requirements concerning life,
and thus fall into moral subjectivism and certain objectionable ways of acting.
With great openness and courage, we need to question how widespread is the
culture of life today among individual Christians, families, groups and
communities in our Dioceses. With equal clarity and determination we must
identify the steps we are called to take in order to serve life in all its
truth. At the same time, we need to promote a serious and in-depth exchange
about basic issues of human life with everyone, including non-believers, in
intellectual circles, in the various professional spheres and at the level of
people's everyday life.
96. The first and fundamental step
towards this cultural transformation consists in forming consciences with
regard to the incomparable and inviolable worth of every human life. It is of
the greatest importance to re-establish the essential connection between life
and freedom. These are inseparable goods: where one is violated, the other also
ends up being violated. There is no true freedom where life is not welcomed and
loved; and there is no fullness of life except in freedom. Both realities have
something inherent and specific which links them inextricably: the vocation to
love. Love, as a sincere gift of self, 125 is what gives the life and
freedom of the person their truest meaning.
No less critical in the formation of conscience is the
recovery of the necessary link between freedom and truth. As I have frequently
stated, when freedom is detached from objective truth it becomes impossible to
establish personal rights on a firm rational basis; and the ground is laid for
society to be at the mercy of the unrestrained will of individuals or the
oppressive totalitarianism of public authority. 126
It is therefore essential that man should acknowledge
his inherent condition as a creature to whom God has granted being and life as
a gift and a duty. Only by admitting his innate dependence can man live and use
his freedom to the full, and at the same time respect the life and freedom of
every other person. Here especially one sees that "at the heart of every
culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of
God".127 Where God is denied and people live as though he did not
exist, or his commandments are not taken into account, the dignity of the human
person and the inviolability of human life also end up being rejected or
97. Closely connected with the
formation of conscience is the work of education, which helps individuals to be
ever more human, leads them ever more fully to the truth, instils in them
growing respect for life, and trains them in right interpersonal relationships.
In particular, there is a need for education about the
value of life from its very origins. It is an illusion to think that we can
build a true culture of human life if we do not help the young to accept and
experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true
meaning and in their close interconnection. Sexuality, which enriches the whole
person, "manifests its inmost meaning in leading the person to the gift of
self in love".128 The trivialization of sexuality is among the
principal factors which have led to contempt for new life. Only a true love is
able to protect life. There can be no avoiding the duty to offer, especially to
adolescents and young adults, an authentic education in sexuality and in love,
an education which involves training in chastity as a virtue which fosters
personal maturity and makes one capable of respecting the "spousal"
meaning of the body.
The work of educating in the service of life involves
the training of married couples in responsible procreation. In its true
meaning, responsible procreation requires couples to be obedient to the Lord's
call and to act as faithful interpreters of his plan. This happens when the
family is generously open to new lives, and when couples maintain an attitude
of openness and service to life, even if, for serious reasons and in respect
for the moral law, they choose to avoid a new birth for the time being or indefinitely.
The moral law obliges them in every case to control the impulse of instinct and
passion, and to respect the biological laws inscribed in their person. It is
precisely this respect which makes legitimate, at the service of responsible
procreation, the use of natural methods of regulating fertility. From the
scientific point of view, these methods are becoming more and more accurate and
make it possible in practice to make choices in harmony with moral values. An
honest appraisal of their effectiveness should dispel certain prejudices which
are still widely held, and should convince married couples, as well as
health-care and social workers, of the importance of proper training in this
area. The Church is grateful to those who, with personal sacrifice and often
unacknowledged dedication, devote themselves to the study and spread of these
methods, as well to the promotion of education in the moral values which they
The work of education cannot avoid a consideration of
suffering and death. These are a part of human existence, and it is futile, not
to say misleading, to try to hide them or ignore them. On the contrary, people
must be helped to understand their profound mystery in all its harsh reality.
Even pain and suffering have meaning and value when they are experienced in
close connection with love received and given. In this regard, I have called
for the yearly celebration of the World Day of the Sick, emphasizing "the
salvific nature of the offering up of suffering which, experienced in communion
with Christ, belongs to the very essence of the Redemption".129
Death itself is anything but an event without hope. It is the door which opens
wide on eternity and, for those who live in Christ, an experience of
participation in the mystery of his Death and Resurrection.
98. In a word, we can say that the
cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to
adopt a new life-style, consisting in making practical choices-at the personal,
family, social and international level-on the basis of a correct scale of
values: the primacy of being over having, 130 of the person over
things. 131 This renewed life-style involves a passing from
indifference to concern for others, from rejection to acceptance of them. Other
people are not rivals from whom we must defend ourselves, but brothers and
sisters to be supported. They are to be loved for their own sakes, and they
enrich us by their very presence.
In this mobilization for a new culture of life no one
must feel excluded: everyone has an important role to play. Together with the
family, teachers and educators have a particularly valuable contribution to
make. Much will depend on them if young people, trained in true freedom, are to
be able to preserve for themselves and make known to others new, authentic
ideals of life, and if they are to grow in respect for and service to every
other person, in the family and in society.
Intellectuals can also do much to build a new culture
of human life. A special task falls to Catholic intellectuals, who are called
to be present and active in the leading centres where culture is formed, in
schools and universities, in places of scientific and technological research,
of artistic creativity and of the study of man. Allowing their talents and
activity to be nourished by the living force of the Gospel, they ought to place
themselves at the service of a new culture of life by offering serious and well
documented contributions, capable of commanding general respect and interest by
reason of their merit. It was precisely for this purpose that I established the
Pontifical Acad- emy for Life, assigning it the task of "studying and
providing information and training about the principal problems of law and biomedicine
pertaining to the promotion of life, especially in the direct relationship they
have with Christian morality and the directives of the Church's
Magisterium".132 A specific contribution will also have to come
from Universities, particularly from Catholic Universities, and from Centres,
Institutes and Committees of Bioethics.
An important and serious responsibility belongs to
those involved in the mass media, who are called to ensure that the messages
which they so effectively transmit will support the culture of life. They need
to present noble models of life and make room for instances of people's
positive and sometimes heroic love for others. With great respect they should
also present the positive values of sexuality and human love, and not insist on
what defiles and cheapens human dignity. In their interpretation of things,
they should refrain from emphasizing anything that suggests or fosters feelings
or attitudes of indifference, contempt or rejection in relation to life. With
scrupulous concern for factual truth, they are called to combine freedom of
information with respect for every person and a profound sense of humanity.
99. In transforming culture so that
it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique
and decisive. It depends on them to promote a "new feminism" which
rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination", in
order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the
life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.
Making my own the words of the concluding message of
the Second Vatican Council, I address to women this urgent appeal:
"Reconcile people with life".133 You are called to bear
witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that
acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of
husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other
interpersonal relationship. The experience of motherhood makes you acutely
aware of the other person and, at the same time, confers on you a particular
task: "Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life,
as it develops in the woman's womb ... This unique contact with the new human
being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings not
only towards her own child, but every human being, which profoundly marks the
woman's personality".134 A mother welcomes and carries in herself
another human being, enabling it to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting
it in its otherness. Women first learn and then teach others that human
relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a
person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from
being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength,
intelligence, beauty or health. This is the fundamental contribution which the
Church and humanity expect from women. And it is the indispensable prerequisite
for an authentic cultural change.
I would now like to say a special word to women who
have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have
influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a
painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have
healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give
in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what
happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves
over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to
give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To
the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With
the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of
your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of
everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting
the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need
of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of
looking at human life.
100. In this great endeavour to
create a new culture of life we are inspired and sustained by the confidence
that comes from knowing that the Gospel of life, like the Kingdom of God
itself, is growing and producing abundant fruit (cf. Mk 4:26-29). There is
certainly an enormous disparity between the powerful resources available to the
forces promoting the "culture of death" and the means at the disposal
of those working for a "culture of life and love". But we know that
we can rely on the help of God, for whom nothing is impossible (cf. Mt 19:26).
Filled with this certainty, and moved by profound
concern for the destiny of every man and woman, I repeat what I said to those
families who carry out their challenging mission amid so many difficulties:
135 a great prayer for life is urgently needed, a prayer which will
rise up throughout the world. Through special initiatives and in daily prayer,
may an impassioned plea rise to God, the Creator and lover of life, from every
Christian community, from every group and association, from every family and
from the heart of every believer. Jesus himself has shown us by his own example
that prayer and fasting are the first and most effective weapons against the
forces of evil (cf. Mt 4:1-11). As he taught his disciples, some demons cannot
be driven out except in this way (cf. Mk 9:29). Let us
therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that
power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit: the walls
which conceal from the sight of so many of our brothers and sisters the evil of
practices and laws which are hostile to life. May this same power turn their
hearts to resolutions and goals inspired by the civilization of life and love.
"We are writing this that our joy may
be complete" (1 Jn 1:4): the Gospel of life is for the whole of human
101. "We are writing you this
that our joy may be complete" (1 Jn 1:4). The revelation of the Gospel of
life is given to us as a good to be shared with all people: so that all men and
women may have fellowship with us and with the Trinity (cf. 1 Jn 1:3). Our own
joy would not be complete if we failed to share this Gospel with others but
kept it only for ourselves.
The Gospel of life is not for believers alone: it is
for everyone. The issue of life and its defence and promotion is not a concern
of Christians alone. Although faith provides special light and strength, this
question arises in every human conscience which seeks the truth and which cares
about the future of humanity. Life certainly has a sacred and religious value,
but in no way is that value a concern only of believers. The value at stake is
one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily
Consequently, all that we do as the "people of
life and for life" should be interpreted correctly and welcomed with
favour. When the Church declares that unconditional respect for the right to
life of every innocent person-from conception to natural death-is one of the
pillars on which every civil society stands, she "wants simply to promote
a human State. A State which recognizes the defence of the fundamental rights
of the human person, especially of the weakest, as its primary duty".136
The Gospel of life is for the whole of human society.
To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the
promotion of the common good. It is impossible to further the common good
without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other
inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop. A
society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such
as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand,
radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in
which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or
marginalized. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most
precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace.
There can be no true democracy without a rec- ognition
of every person's dignity and without respect for his or her rights.
Nor can there be true peace unless life is defended
and promoted. As Paul VI pointed out: "Every crime against life is an
attack on peace, especially if it strikes at the moral conduct of people... But
where human rights are truly professed and publicly recognized and defended,
peace becomes the joyful and operative climate of life in
The "people of life" rejoices in being able
to share its commitment with so many others. Thus may the "people for
life" constantly grow in number and may a new culture of love and
solidarity develop for the true good of the whole of human society.
102. At the end of this Encyclical,
we naturally look again to the Lord Jesus, "the Child born for us"
(cf. Is 9:6), that in him we may contemplate "the Life" which
"was made manifest" (1 Jn 1:2). In the mystery of Christ's Birth the
encounter of God with man takes place and the earthly journey of the Son of God
begins, a journey which will culminate in the gift of his life on the Cross. By
his death Christ will conquer death and become for all humanity the source of
The one who accepted "Life" in the name of
all and for the sake of all was Mary, the Virgin Mother; she is thus most
closely and personally associated with the Gospel of life. Mary's consent at
the Annunciation and her motherhood stand at the very beginning of the mystery
of life which Christ came to bestow on humanity (cf. Jn 10:10). Through her
acceptance and loving care for the life of the Incarnate Word, human life has
been rescued from condemnation to final and eternal death.
For this reason,
Mary, "like the Church of which she is the type, is a mother of all who
are reborn to life. She is in fact the mother of the Life by which everyone
lives, and when she brought it forth from herself she in some way brought to
rebirth all those who were to live by that Life".138
As the Church contemplates Mary's motherhood, she
discovers the meaning of her own motherhood and the way in which she is called
to express it. At the same time, the Church's experience of motherhood leads to
a most profound understanding of Mary's experience as the incomparable model of
how life should be welcomed and cared for.
"A great portent appeared in heaven,
a woman clothed with the sun" (Rev 12:1): the motherhood of Mary and of
103. The mutual relationship between
the mystery of the Church and Mary appears clearly in the "great
portent" described in the Book of Rev- elation: "A great portent
appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars" (12:1). In this sign the Church
recognizes an image of her own mystery: present in history, she knows that she
transcends history, inasmuch as she constitutes on earth the "seed and
beginning" of the Kingdom of God. 139 The
Church sees this mystery fulfilled in complete and exemplary fashion in Mary.
She is the woman of glory in whom God's plan could be carried out with supreme
The "woman clothed with the sun"-the Book of
Revelation tells us-"was with child" (12:2). The Church is fully
aware that she bears within herself the Saviour of the world, Christ the Lord.
She is aware that she is called to offer Christ to the world, giving men and women
new birth into God's own life. But the Church cannot forget that her mission
was made possible by the motherhood of Mary, who conceived and bore the One who
is "God from God", "true God from true God". Mary is truly
the Mother of God, the Theotokos, in whose motherhood the vocation to
motherhood bestowed by God on every woman is raised to its highest level. Thus
Mary becomes the model of the Church, called to be the "new Eve", the
mother of believers, the mother of the "living" (cf. Gen 3:20).
The Church's spiritual motherhood is only achieved-the
Church knows this too-through the pangs and "the labour" of
childbirth (cf. Rev 12:2), that is to say, in constant tension with the forces
of evil which still roam the world and affect human hearts, offering resistance
to Christ: "In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Jn 1:4-5).
Like the Church, Mary too had to live her motherhood
amid suffering: "This child is set ... for a sign that is spoken
against-and a sword will pierce through your own soul also-that thoughts out of
many hearts may be revealed" (Lk 2:34-35). The words
which Simeon addresses to Mary at the very beginning of the Saviour's earthly
life sum up and prefigure the rejection of Jesus, and with him of Mary, a
rejection which will reach its culmination on Calvary. "Standing by the
cross of Jesus" (Jn 19:25), Mary shares in
the gift which the Son makes of himself: she offers Jesus, gives him over, and
begets him to the end for our sake. The "yes" spoken on the day of
the Annunciation reaches full maturity on the day of the Cross, when the time
comes for Mary to receive and beget as her children all those who become
disciples, pouring out upon them the saving love of her Son: "When Jesus
saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his
mother, ?Woman, behold, your son!' " (Jn 19:26).
"And the dragon stood before the
woman ... that he might devour her child when she brought it forth" (Rev
12:4): life menaced by the forces of evil
104. In the Book of Revelation, the
"great portent" of the "woman" (12:1) is accompanied by
"another portent which appeared in heaven": "a great red
dragon" (Rev 12:3), which represents Satan, the personal power of evil, as
well as all the powers of evil at work in history and opposing the Church's
Here too Mary sheds light on the Community of
Believers. The hostility of the powers of evil is, in fact, an insidious
opposition which, before affecting the disciples of Jesus, is directed against
his mother. To save the life of her Son from those who fear him as a dangerous
threat, Mary has to flee with Joseph and the Child into Egypt (cf. Mt 2:13-15).
Mary thus helps the Church to realize that life is
always at the centre of a great struggle between good and evil, between light
and darkness. The dragon wishes to devour "the child brought forth"
(cf. Rev 12:4), a figure of Christ, whom Mary brought forth "in the
fullness of time" (Gal 4:4) and whom the Church must unceasingly offer to
people in every age. But in a way that child is also a figure of every person,
every child, especially every helpless baby whose life is threatened,
because-as the Council reminds us-"by his Incarnation the Son of God has
united himself in some fashion with every person".140 It is
precisely in the "flesh" of every person that Christ continues to
reveal himself and to enter into fellowship with us, so that rejection of human
life, in whatever form that rejection takes, is really a rejection of Christ.
This is the fascinating but also demanding truth which Christ reveals to us and
which his Church continues untiringly to proclaim: "Whoever receives one
such child in my name receives me" (Mt 18:5); "Truly, I say to you,
as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me"
"Death shall be no more" (Rev
21:4): the splendour of the Resurrection
105. The angel's Annunciation to
Mary is framed by these reassuring words: "Do not be afraid, Mary"
and "with God nothing will be impossible" (Lk 1:30, 37). The whole
of the Virgin Mother's life is in fact pervaded by the certainty that God is
near to her and that he accompanies her with his providential care. The same is
true of the Church, which finds "a place prepared by God" (Rev 12:6)
in the desert, the place of trial but also of the manifestation of God's love
for his people (cf. Hos 2:16). Mary is a living word of comfort for the Church
in her struggle against death. Showing us the Son, the Church assures us that
in him the forces of death have already been defeated: "Death with life
contended: combat strangely ended! Life's own Champion, slain, yet lives to
The Lamb who was slain is alive, bearing the marks of
his Passion in the splendour of the Res- urrection. He alone is master of all
the events of history: he opens its "seals" (cf. Rev 5:1-10) and
proclaims, in time and beyond, the power of life over death. In the "new Jerusalem", that new
world towards which human history is travelling, "death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former
things have passed away" (Rev 21:4).
And as we, the pilgrim people, the people of life and
for life, make our way in confidence towards "a new heaven and a new
earth" (Rev 21:1), we look to her who is for us "a sign of sure hope
bright dawn of the new world,
Mother of the living,
to you do we entrust the cause of life
Look down, O Mother,
upon the vast numbers
of babies not allowed to be born,
of the poor whose lives are made difficult,
of men and women
who are victims of brutal violence,
of the elderly and the sick killed
by indifference or out of misguided mercy.
Grant that all who believe in your Son
may proclaim the Gospel of life
with honesty and love
to the people of our time.
Obtain for them the grace
to accept that Gospel
as a gift ever new,
the joy of celebrating it with gratitude
throughout their lives
and the courage to bear witness to it
resolutely, in order to build,
together with all people of good will,
the civilization of truth and love,
to the praise and glory of God,
the Creator and lover of life.
Given in Rome, at Saint
Peter's, on 25 March, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, in the
year 1995, the seventeenth of my Pontificate.
expression "Gospel of life" is not found as such in Sacred Scripture.
But it does correspond to an essential dimension of the biblical message.
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 22.
3 Cf. John Paul
II, Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis (4 March 1979), 10; AAS 71 (1979), 275.
4 Cf. ibid.,
14: loc.cit., 285.
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 27.
6 Cf. Letter to
all my Brothers in the Episcopate regarding the "Gospel of Life" (19
May 1991): Insegnamenti
XIV, 1 (1991), 1293-1296.
7 Ibid., loc.cit.,
8 Letter to
Families Gratissimam sane (2 February 1994), 4: AAS 86 (1994), 871.
9 John Paul II,
Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 39: AAS 83 (1991), 842.
10 No. 2259.
11 Saint Ambrose,
De Noe, 26:94-96: CSEL 32, 480-481.
12 Cf. Catechism
of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1867 and 2268.
13 De Cain et Abel,
II, 10, 38: CSEL, 32, 408.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human
Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Donum Vitae: AAS
80 (1988), 70-102.
15 Address during
the Prayer Vigil for the Eighth World Youth Day, Denver, 14 August
3: AAS 86 (1994), 419.
16 John Paul II,
Address to the Participants at the Study Conference on "The Right to Life
and Europe", 18
Insegnamenti, X, 3 (1987), 1446-1447.
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 36.
18 Cf. ibid.,
19 Cf. Saint
Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, 13, 23: CCL 143A, 683.
20 John Paul II,
Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis (4 March 1979), 10; AAS 71 (1979), 274.
21 Second Vatican
Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium
et Spes, 50.
Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, 4.
Dei vivens homo": Adversus Haereses, IV, 20, 7: SCh 100/2,
24 Second Vatican
Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium
et Spes, 12.
25 Confessions, I, 1: CCL 27, 1.
26 Exameron, VI, 75-76: CSEL 32, 260-261.
autem hominis visio Dei": Adversus Haereses, IV, 20, 7: SCh
28 Cf. John Paul
II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 38: AAS 83 (1991),
29 John Paul II,
Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (30
34: AAS 80 (1988), 560.
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 50.
31 Letter to
Families Gratissimam sane (2 February 1994), 9: AAS 86 (1994), 878; cf.
Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Humani Generis (12 August
42 (1950), 574.
enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides nos retinere iubet": Pius XII,
Encyclical Letter Humani Generis (12 August 1950): AAS 42 (1950), 575.
33 Second Vatican
Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium
et Spes, 50; cf. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris
Consortio (22 November 1981), 28: AAS 74 (1982), 114.
II, 1; CCSG 3, 39.
35 See, for
example, Psalms 22:10-11; 71:6; 139:13-14.
36 Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam, II, 22-23: CCL,
37 Saint Ignatius
of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 7,
2: Patres Apostolici, ed. F.X. Funk, II, 82.
38 De Hominis
Opificio, 4: PG 44, 136.
39 Cf. Saint John
Damascene, De Fide Orthodoxa, 2, 12: PG 94, 920.922, quoted in
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, Prologue.
40 Paul VI,
Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae (25 July 1968), 13: AAS 60 (1968), 489.
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its
Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Donum Vitae (22
Introduction, No. 5: AAS 80 (1988), 76-77; cf. Catechism of the
Catholic Church, No. 2258.
I, 1; II, 1-2; V, 1 and 3: Patres Apostolici, ed. F.X. Funk, I, 2-3,
6-9, 14-17; cf. Letter of Pseudo-Barnabas, XIX, 5: loc. cit.,
43 Cf. Catechism
of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2263-2269; cf. also Catechism of the
Council of Trent III, §§ 327-332.
of the Catholic Church, No. 2265.
45 Cf. Saint
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 64, a. 7; Saint Alphonsus
De' Liguori, Theologia Moralis, l. III, tr. 4, c. 1, dub.3.
of the Catholic Church, No. 2266.
47 Cf. ibid.
48 No. 2267.
49 Second Vatican
Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium,
50 Second Vatican
Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium
et Spes, 27.
51 Second Vatican
Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium,
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Euthanasia Iura et Bona (5
II: AAS 72 (1980), 546.
Letter Veritatis Splendor (6 August 1993), 96: AAS 85 (1993), 1209.
54 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51,
"Abortus necnon infanticidium nefanda sunt crimina".
55 Cf. John Paul
II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (15 August
1988), 14: AAS
80 (1988), 1686.
56 No. 21: AAS
86 (1994), 920.
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (18
Nos. 12-13: AAS 66 (1974), 738.
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its
Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Donum Vitae (22
I, No. 1: AAS 80 (1988), 78-79.
59 Ibid., loc.
60 Hence the
Prophet Jeremiah: "The word of the Lord came to me saying: 'Before I
formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations'" (1:4-5). The Psalmist, for his
part, addresses the Lord in these words: "Upon you I have leaned from my
birth; you are he who took me from my mother's womb" (Ps 71:6; cf. Is
46:3; Job 10:8-12; Ps 22:10-11). So too the Evangelist Luke -
in the magnificent episode of the meeting of the two mothers, Elizabeth and
Mary, and their two sons, John the Baptist and Jesus, still hidden in their
mothers' wombs (cf. 1:39-45) - emphasizes how even before their birth the two
little ones are able to communicate: the child recognizes the coming of the
Child and leaps for joy.
61 Cf. Declaration
on Procured Abortion (18 November 1974), No. 7: AAS 66 (1974),
shall not kill a child by abortion nor shall you kill it once it is born":
V, 2: Patres Apostolici, ed. F.X. Funk, I, 17.
63 Apologia on
behalf of the Christians, 35: PG 6, 969.
IX, 8: CSEL 69, 24.
65 Cf. Encyclical
Letter Casti Connubii (31 December 1930), II: AAS 22 (1930),
66 Address to the
Biomedical Association "San Luca" (12
Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, VI (1944-1945), 191; cf. Address to the
Italian Catholic Union
of Midwives (29 October 1951), No. 2: AAS 43 (1951), 838.
Letter Mater et Magistra (15 May 1961), 3: AAS 53 (1961), 447.
68 Pastoral Constitution
on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51.
69 Canon 2350, § 1.
70 Code of
Canon Law, canon 1398; cf. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches,
canon 1450, § 2.
71 Cf. ibid.,
canon 1329; also Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 1417.
72 Cf. Address to
the National Congress of Italian Jurists (9 December 1972): AAS 64 (1972), 777;
Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae (25 July 1968), 14: AAS 60 (1968), 490.
73 Second Vatican
Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium,
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its
Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Donum Vitae (22
I, 3: AAS 80 (1988), 80.
75 Charter of
the Rights of the Family (22 October 1983), article 4b: Vatican Polyglot
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Euthanasia Iura et Bona (5
II: AAS 72 (1980), 546.
IV: loc. cit., 551.
78 Cf. ibid.
79 Pius XII,
Address to an International Group of Physicians (24 February
AAS 49 (1957), 147; cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
Declaration on Euthanasia Iura et Bona, III: AAS 72 (1980),
80 Pius XII,
Address to an International Group of Physicians (24 February
AAS 49 (1957), 145.
81 Pius XII,
Address to an International Group of Physicians (24 February 1957): loc. cit.,
129-147; Congregation of the Holy Office, Decretum de directa insontium
occisione (2 December 1940): AAS 32 (1940), 553-554; Paul VI,
Message to French Television: "Every life is sacred" (27 January
1971): Insegnamenti IX (1971), 57-58; Address to the International
College of Surgeons (1 June 1972): AAS 64 (1972), 432-436; Second
Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern
World Gaudium et Spes, 27.
82 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic
Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 25.
83 Cf. Saint Augustine, De Civitate Dei I, 20: CCL
47, 22; Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 6, a.
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Euthanasia Iura et Bona (5
I: AAS 72 (1980), 545; Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos.
204, 5: CSEL 57, 320.
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 18.
87 Cf. John Paul
II, Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris (11 February
14-24: AAS 76 (1984), 214-234.
88 Cf. John Paul
II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 46: AAS 83 (1991), 850;
Pius XII, Christmas Radio Message (24 December 1944): AAS 37 (1945), 10-20.
89 Cf. John Paul
II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (6 August
and 99: AAS 85 (1993), 1209-1211.
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its
Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Donum Vitae (22
III: AAS 80 (1988), 98.
91 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Declaration on
Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae, 7.
92 Cf. Saint
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 96, a. 2.
93 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Declaration on
Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae, 7.
Letter Pacem in Terris (11 April 1963), II: AAS 55 (1963),
273-274. The internal quote is from Pius XII, Radio Message of Pentecost 1941 (1
AAS 33 (1941), 200. On this topic, the Encyclical cites: Pius XII,
Encyclical Letter Mit brennender Sorge (14 March
29 (1937): AAS 29 (1937), 159; Encyclical Letter Divini Redemptoris
(19 March 1937), III: AAS 29 (1937), 79;
Pius XII, Christmas Radio Message (24 December 1942): AAS 35 (1943),
Letter Pacem in Terris (11 April 1963), II: loc. cit., 271.
96 Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 93, a. 3, ad 2um.
I-II, q. 95, a. 2. Aquinas quotes Saint Augustine: "Non videtur
esse lex, quae iusta non fuerit", De Libero Arbitrio, I, 5, 11: PL
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (18
No. 22: AAS 66 (1974), 744.
99 Cf. Catechism
of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1753-1755; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis
Splendor (6 August 1993), 81-82: AAS 85 (1993),
Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, 41, 10: CCL 36, 363; cf. John Paul
II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (6 August
1993), 13: AAS
85 (1993), 1144.
Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (8 December 1975), 14: AAS 68 (1976), 13.
102 Cf. Roman
Missal, prayer of the celebrant before communion.
103 Cf. Saint
Irenaeus: "Omnem novitatem attulit, semetipsum afferens, qui fuerat
annuntiatus", Adversus Haereses: IV, 34, 1: SCh 100/2,
104 Cf. Saint
Thomas Aquinas, "Peccator inveterascit, recedens a novitate Christi",
In Psalmos Davidis Lectura: 6,5.
Beatitudinibus, Oratio VII: PG 44, 1280.
106 Cf. John Paul
II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (6 August
AAS 85 (1993), 1224.
107 Cf. John Paul
II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 37: AAS 83 (1991), 840.
108 Cf. Message
for Christmas 1967: AAS 60 (1968), 40.
Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, 6, 1-3: PG 3,
110 Paul VI, Pensiero alla Morte, Istituto Paolo VI,
Brescia 1988, 24.
111 John Paul II, Homily for the Beatification of Isidore Bakanja,
Elisabetta Canori Mora and Gianna Beretta Molla (24 April 1994): L'Osservatore
Romano, 25-26 April 1994, 5.
Matthaeum, Hom. L, 3: PG 58, 508.
114 Catechism of
the Catholic Church, No. 2372.
115 John Paul II,
Address to the Fourth General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Santo
Domingo (12 October 1992), No. 15: AAS 85 (1993), 819.
116 Cf. Decree on
Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, 12; Pastoral Constitution on the
Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 90.
117 John Paul II,
Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22
17: AAS 74 (1982), 100.
118 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 50.
119 John Paul II,
Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 39: AAS 83 (1991),
120 John Paul II,
Address to Participants in the Seventh Symposium of European Bishops, on the
theme of "Contemporary Attitudes towards Life and Death: a Challenge for
Evangelization" (17 October 1989), No. 5: Insegnamenti XII, 2
(1989), 945. Children are presented in the Biblical tradition precisely as
God's gift (cf. Ps 127:3) and as a sign of his blessing on those who
walk in his ways (cf. Ps 128:3-4).
121 John Paul II,
Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (30
38: AAS 80 (1988), 565-566.
122 John Paul II,
Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22
86: AAS 74 (1982), 188.
123 Paul VI,
Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (8 December 1975), 18: AAS
68 (1976), 17.
124 Cf. ibid.,
20: loc. cit., 18.
125 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 24.
126 Cf. John Paul
II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 17: AAS 83 (1991), 814;
Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (6 August
95-101: AAS 85 (1993), 1208-1213.
127 John Paul II,
Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 24: AAS 83 (1991), 822.
128 John Paul II,
Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22
37: AAS 74 (1982), 128.
establishing the World Day of the Sick (13 May 1992), No. 2: Insegnamenti XV, 1
130 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 35; Paul
VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio (26 March
1967), 15: AAS
59 (1967), 265.
131 Cf. John Paul
II, Letter to Families Gratissimam sane (2 February
1994), 13: AAS
86 (1994), 892.
132 John Paul II,
Motu Proprio Vitae Mysterium (11 February 1994), 4: AAS 86 (1994), 386-387.
Message of the Council (8 December 1965): To Women.
134 John Paul II,
Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (15 August
1988), 18: AAS
80 (1988), 1696.
135 Cf. John Paul
II, Letter to Families Gratissimam sane (2 February
1994), 5: AAS
86 (1994), 872.
136 John Paul II,
Address to Participants in the Study Conference on "The Right to Life in Europe" (18
Insegnamenti X, 3 (1987), 1446.
for the 1977 World Day of Peace: AAS 68 (1976), 711-712.
Guerric of Igny, In Assumptione B. Mariae, Sermo I, 2: PL 185,
Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 22.
Missal, Sequence for Easter Sunday.
Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen