The Gospel of Life and the Church in the modern world

Tue, Oct 22nd 2019 02:00 pm

Whenever we reflect on the Church's pro-life mission, we invariably remember the great document of St. John Paul II, "Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life)." And rightfully so. That encyclical will, I believe, be an important part of the Church's social teaching for many years to come.

Everyone is clear about the pope's defense of life "from conception to natural death" and the clarion call that he made in that document to oppose the threats to life at both ends of the spectrum - abortion at the beginning of life, and euthanasia at its end.

Less well-known is the context that he builds for that teaching that places what follows squarely in the teaching of the document of Vatican II called "Gaudium et Spes" - the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Within the third section of "The Gospel of Life," the pope calls us to action to affirm the value of each human person made in the image of God: "every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church's very heart ... and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the gospel of life in all the world and to every creature."

There should be no surprise in the fact that St. John Paul II freely and comfortably quotes Vatican II - after all, he was a bishop at the entire council, even though he was a very young bishop when the council began. In addition, his biggest contribution to the council was that he was one of the bishops who worked on "Gaudium et Spes" - the document that he always felt so easy to quote from.

He then goes on to specifically reference one of the most enduring passages from "Gaudium et Spes," and he introduces it with great delight. I have quoted it in its entirety here because I believe it to be so significant.
"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 willful 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 practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator."

Contained within the list of all of the "crimes" against humanity are three categories that define the "infamies" of our day: when put in a more positive way, the Church stands to defend and proclaim life itself, the integrity of the human person, and human dignity.

During this month when we promote the pro-life teachings of the Church, we place them side by side of our defense of the integrity and dignity of human persons in one complete Gospel of Life.

Deacon Don is the diocesan director of Catholic Relief Services and can be reached at 

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