That we live in what John Paul II calls a “culture of death” becomes evident when we study the increasing acceptance of abortion and euthanasia, evident in both judicial decisions and the deaths of “unwanted” persons. “This situation,” says Pope John Paul II, “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” (p. 50). He sets forth a Christian stance for confronting this culture in a fine encyclical, The Gospel of Life [Evangelium Vitae] (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1995).
He puts it simply: “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” (p. 93).
The Gospel, as the “good news,” celebrates life! It is, in fact, “The Gospel of Life.” Christ Jesus came to rescue us from sin and death, to raise us with Him to life everlasting. Thus, as St Irenaeus of Lyons declared, “Gloria Dei vivens homo“–the glory of God is a living man! One of the Cappadocian Fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa, similarly concluded that we are hereditary lords, “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.” Commissioned to care for creation, “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” (p. 86). To transmit life to royalty, to play a cooperative role in creating human beings, is the greatest of all honors!
“Man is called,” the Pope says, “to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God” (p. 12). Thus Eve bore witness: “I have begotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1). Her words lead John Paul to insist: ‘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” (p. 72).
Consequently, as the Second Vatican Council declared: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person . . . are infamies indeed” (p. 14). From first to last, God alone is LORD–LORD of life. No one has the right to destroy what He has created. Children in the womb, the dying in the hospice, the weak and powerless, must be defended from those who would discard them as dispensable.
As the Wisdom of Solomon says: “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” (1:13-14; 2:23-24). Thus, “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” (p. 39).
Abortion, especially, demands censure. “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 crime'” (p. 94). Resorting to abortion, legalizing abortion, cuts away the deepest roots of human dignity. Those organizations which promote it, those legislators and judges who allow it, stand guilty before the eternal bar of justice for monstrous crimes.
So “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.’ We are facing a ‘structure of sin’ which opposes human life not yet born” (p. 97).
Facing this “structure of sin,” civil dis- obedience may be necessary. While this should be done only as a last resort, John Paul reminds readers of St Thomas Aquinas’ insis- tence that valid civil laws derive their authority from divine and natural laws. A democracy may become unjust and dictatorial, and at times it is necessary for good men to resist tyrannical governments.
Apart from such radical steps, however, The Gospel of Life urges us to begin by cultivating a “contemplative outlook.” Rather than consult public opinion polls or economic prospects, follow-ers of Jesus must quietly sit at His feet and listen to His Word. Given divine instructions, we can act wisely and well, able to place our commit- ment to life within the context of celebrating God’s gift of life. To counter the culture of death, we need to build life-giving facilities–hospitals, clinics, pregnancy crisis centers, etc. Upholding biblical standards concerning sexual behavior–encouraging chastity, promoting healthy relationships, challenging demonic powers which reduce sex to pleasure. Above all, it is in a commitment to family that Christians carry out the Gospel mandate to treasure life. Moms and dads, lovingly rearing their children, best declare the pro-life message! And churches and schools, statutes and political action organizations, which enable families to thrive, are exemplary pro-life associations.
Anyone concerned with building a firm foundation for a pro-life message should read this encyclical. Filled with biblical texts, drawing on the finest theological minds of the Christian Tradition, carefully reasoned, compassionate in its stance, The Gospel of Life explains why committed Christians rightly anathematize death peddlers.
Winston Churchill wisely noted that “The greatest advances in human civilization have come when we recovered what we had lost: when we learned the lessons of history.” Christians who study the past often share Hilaire Belloc’s judgment: “The great cleavage throughout the world lies between what is with, and what is against, the faith.” In short, to wisely deal with social issues such as abortion and euthanasia we need the balancing perspective of the past.
George Grant’s Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, c. 1991) gives us such a valuable perspective. Efforts to protect the unborn and the elderly, the weak and the “unwanted,” have never been permanently successful. Christian convictions, enacted in laws, have at times protected the innocents, but again and again societies have sunk into barbaric contempt for the “sanctity of life.” for, as G.K. Chesterton noted, “There is above all this supreme stamp of the barbarian; the sacrifice of the permanent to the temporary” (p. 9).
Fundamentally, barbarism recurrently surfaces because of sin! As a consequence, “With entirely non-Freudian implications, the thanatos syndrome is simply the natural sinful inclination to death and defilement” (p. 11). So it should not surprise biblical people when anti-life forces reappear. Thus the ancient world easily tolerated child abuse of various sorts. Unwanted children were simply abandoned outside city walls in Rome. Greek abortionists concocted potions which induced abortions for women who didn’t want children. Canaanites sacrificed children, tossing them on burning pyres to propitiate the god Molech. Almost alone, the Jews remained firm in their opposition to such brutality.
As the Christian Church flourished, however, its Gospel of Life included opposition to the deliberate killing of innocents. Though the New Testament itself says nothing specifically about abortion, believers inspired by its message of life certainly did! Toward the end of the first century, the Didache declared: “There are two ways: the way of life and the way of death, and the difference between these two ways is great. Therefore, do not murder a child by abortion or kill an newborn infant” (p. 24).
There was clearly a consensus in the Early Church. Thus Athanagoras, in a letter to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, said: “We say that women who induce abortions are murderers and will have to give account of it to God.” Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Those who use abortifacient medicines to hide their fornication cause not only the outright murder of the fetus but of the whole human race as well” (p. 25). Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Basil, all take the same position.
Medieval Christians sustained the conviction. Grant provides biographical vignettes of less than well-known believers who courageously kept alive the Church’s pro-life stance. There were men such as Maedoc of Ferns and John of Amathus, women such as Bathild of Chelles and Margaret of Scotland, who not only fought against abortionists and slave traders but worked to build hospitals and schools.
As the Medieval world, the Age of Faith, dissolved, however, anti-life forces re-appeared. During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when paganism re-surfaced in many areas, killing the unwanted became increasingly acceptable. The “old horrors of abortion, infanticide, abandonment, and exposure” proliferated. One Enlightenment exemp- lar, a primary architects of what we call modern- ity,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, acknowledged abandon- ing all five of his illegitimate children!
Once again devout Christians responded to the challenge. St Vincent De Paul struggled in Paris to stop midwives from inducing abortions and called the Church to more strongly condemn the practice. John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola, for all their differences, shared a strongly pro-life ethic. Christians such as Camillus de Lellis and Nicholas Ferrar sought to provide shelters and assistance for needy souls, including pregnant women. Christian compassion and commitment to life accompanied the great missionary movement which literally took the Gospel to the world following Columbus’ epochal voyage. And in the United States, a commitment to life and liberty included a staunch opposition to abortion in the Colonial period. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The chief purpose of government is to protect life. Abandon that and you have abandoned all” (p. 102).
When, in the 19th century, it became increasingly easy to procure abortions–when news- papers routinely carried ads for abortionists–once again Christians took up the cause. Some of the most militantly anti-abortion crusaders were feminists such as Susan B. Anthony. Catholics such as Elizabeth Ann Seton and Protestants such as Samuel Taylor, a Methodist, joined the movement to protect the sanctity of life.
Yet the victories won by the end of the 19th century, in both the court of public opinion and legislation, were short-lived. The 20th century has witnessed an ever more aggressive abortion-rights movement. Often espousing a variant of Malthusianism, allegedly concerned with overpopulation and genetic decay, eugenicists of various stripes have prevailed.
The chronology of pro-abortion enactments is revealing. The USSR legalized it in 1925. Hitler endorsed it and made it central to his eugenic agenda in the 1930’s. Sweden, in 1938, endorsed the practice, and between 1949 and 1956 abortion became legal in eleven other European nations. The National Organization of Women, established in 1966, called for more liberal abortion laws, and the next year the American Medical Association urged the decriminalization of the practice. In 1968 the United Kingdom legalized abortion, and, in 1973, the United States Supreme Court, by judicial fiat, made abortion-on-demand the American way.
Sliding with society, many churches and Christians have abandoned the commitment to the sanctity of life. In 1930, after intensive lobbying by Margaret Sanger’s staff, staff, the Federal Council of Churches embraced “choice.” This step was followed by various churches–Quakers, Northern Presbyterians, Methodists–who compromised the traditional consensus of the Christian Church. The Catholic Church remained firmly opposed. And many of the most articulate pro-life voices have reflected its stance.
Since 1973, however, there has been a growing commitment, shared by both conservative Evangeli- cals and Roman Catholics, determined to reverse the anti-life tide which has so eroded the sanctity of life in the Western World. James Dobson, Beverly LaHaye, D. James Kennedy, Phyllis Shlafly, et al. bravely challenge the abortion-rights rhetoric and policy. Branded the “religious right” in an effort to tarnish and discredit them, brutally arrested and mistreated in prisons when peacefully protest- ing abortion clinics, the pro-life advocates, like the last century’s anti-slavery crusaders, remain committed to their convictions. As Dan Quayle declared, “The pro-life movement is the humanitarian movement of our time” (p. 169).
The Third Time Around prescribes both courage and patience. The forces determined to discard the weak and unwanted have great power which demands great courage to resist. However, the historical record reveals how Christians, committed to ortho- dox theology, strengthened by fellow believers, have prevailed in the struggle for life. It rarely happens in an instant and often takes generations. It generally demands serving the needy rather than ruling society. And Grant would have us enlist, finding appropriate ways to choose life.
When the Nazis imposed their rule on Holland, they demanded the medical doctors follow German examples and kill certain undesireables. Rather than cooperate, the Dutch doctors turned in their medical licenses! One hundred of them were then sent to concentration camps. Still the doctors resisted! Finally, they prevailed, and despite brutal occupation not one case of sterilization or euthanasia was documented in Holland. What Dutch doctors refused to do under Nazi orders, however, they now do of their own volition! Medicide is now openly practiced in Holland, and numbers of infirm persons are being killed without their consent.
Such developments in the medical profession prompted an American medical doctor, Reed Bell, to write (with Frank York) Prescription Death: Compassionate Killers in the Medical Profession (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House Publishers, 1993). Undergirding the killing in Holland is a clear philosophy: “the value of a life depends on how valuable life is for other people. In their way of thinking, no one has an inherent right to life” (p. 168). And this philosophy, Bell argues, has “infiltrated” the American medical establish- ment. Jack Kevorkian–“Dr. Death”–most graphi- cally illustrates it, but he is not an anomaly! He defiantly represents the inversion of traditional medical ethics.
When Bell attended Duke University Medical School, prospective doctors were taught to consider themselves servants of others, sustainers of life. Graduates seriously recited the Hippocratic Oath, with its pledge to never give poison to a person wanting to commit suicide or a pessary to a woman seeking an abortion. Today’s medical schools inculcate a somewhat different philosophy, and the Hippocratic Oath has been largely abandoned!
So doing, today’s medical doctors often espouse an ethic remarkably akin to that found in an influential essay published in 1920, Releasing Persons from Lives Devoid of Value. The authors, Alfred Hoche (a medical doctor) and Karl Binding (a jurist), argued that worthless persons should be eliminated. In the 1930’s German psychiatrists seized upon this view to justify killing the mentally ill, crippled children, senile elders. In time they even urged doing away with WWI veterans who had lost legs and could not defend the Reich! By 1939 orders had been issued to eliminate chronically ill patients–more than five years in a hospital qualified one for lethal termination.
We are forever horrified by Nazi brutality. But Bell thinks we should be similarly horrified by what has recently transpired in America. Following the “situation ethics” of Joseph Fletcher, a gen- eration of physicians has been taught moral rela- tivism. One may be a “human being” but not a person, because personhood is defined by such things as self-consciousness and social inter- actions. Consequently, as non-persons some human beings have no right to life. Personhood has become, in many circles, a social construct, not a metaphysical reality.
This is fearfully evident in the language of a recent Supreme Court decision which sends shivers through the pro-life community. In Planned Parent-hood v. Casey, justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter, sustaining their commitment to abortion-on-demand, declaimed: “These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. . . .” (p. 87). Such statements, of course illustrate the agility with which some jurists insert unwritten “rights” into the Constitution! But when the nation’s highest court defines “liberty” as the “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” the door is opened to all kinds of personal “rights,” and cases utilizing such reasoning now stream through the judicial system. “Abortion rights” now serve as a paradigm for other “rights” such as those claimed by champions of Physician Assisted Suicide and even more radical forms of euthanasia.
Bell yokes a number of other concerns to his treatise–the need for strong families, opposition to radical feminism, outrage at the ways AIDS activists have imposed their agenda on the nation at the cost of thousands of innocent lives, and the general drift of modern culture. While worth considering, such issues are peripheral to his main message, the crisis of medical ethics, especially when dealing with those whose lives seem not worth the living. Bell is a prominent Florida pediatri- cian who has worked within the American Academy of Pediatrics, especially committed to the well-being of the most vulnerable of all.