Build the Culture of Life


Of all the writings of Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae may prove to have the greatest practical and political significance. This magna carta for the pro-life movement revitalized the defense of human life as a fundamental Christian value and introduced the phrase "culture of life," which found its way to the lips of George W. Bush as he campaigned for president.

"The gospel of life (evangelium vitae) is at the heart of Jesus’ message," writes John Paul in the first line of his encyclical letter. Christ desires nothing less than the fullness of life for all human beings, now and in eternity. Human life is "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" (EV 2). Those who do not share the gift of faith can appreciate the intrinsic value of human life, but this truth is especially underscored for believers by the saving acts of God in history. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul issues "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!" (EV 5).

Your Brother’s Blood Cries to Me

John Paul traces the culture of death back to a page in Genesis. Not long after the creation of man, the primordial murder occurred—Cain killed his brother Abel. This story, the Pope says, "is a page rewritten daily, with inexorable and degrading frequency, in the book of human history." Every murder since has likewise been "a violation of the ‘spiritual’ kinship uniting mankind in one great family, in which all share the same fundamental good: equal personal dignity" (EV 7–8). All human beings descend from Adam and Eve, so all people—regardless of race, creed, or nationality—are ultimately brothers and sisters. Man’s inhumanity to man constitutes a revolt against God, who is disrespected whenever the image of God—another human person—is disrespected.

When confronted by God, Cain lies to try to cover up his crime. Similarly, the Pope says, "all kinds of ideologies try to justify and disguise the most atrocious crimes against human beings." They ask the same question that Cain did: "Am I my brother’s keeper?" Just as Cain refuses to accept responsibility for his brother, so today people have a tendency to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters. Disrespect for the human person continues to be built on lies, euphemism, anger, envy, and, especially, lack of love.

Any threats to the human person constitute the "culture of death." John Paul focused on human life in its most vulnerable stages—at its very earliest and in its final stages—but Cain’s murder of his brother continues to be replicated in many forms, including wars, class conflict, civil unrest, ecological recklessness, and sexual irresponsibility.

It is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: A life that 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 lifestyle of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. (EV 12)

This culture of death arises in part from a faulty understanding of human freedom. The media often glamorize violence, contraception, abortion, and euthanasia as manifestations of freedom, hope, and responsibility. But theories of radical individualism fail to recognize that freedom "possesses an inherently relational dimension." A freedom that is set against relationships with other people leads to the desire for destruction of other people, or to the despair of Jean-Paul Sartre, who said, "Hell is other people," or to the denial of Cain, who asked, "Am I my brother’s keeper?"

Atheism and agnosticism also contribute to the culture of death, John Paul notes:

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. (EV 21)

Without God, the human person is merely another animal without a transcendent dimension or destiny. Without God, human life is not a great gift with inherent meaning and purpose but a thing to be used. Atheism undermines knowledge of the true nature of the human person:

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. (EV 22)

Having lost the knowledge that humans are the image of God, the culture of death reduces the value of the human person to functionality, efficiency, and usefulness, to transient human desires and the vagaries of economic productivity. In this culture, pleasure and lack of pain are the most valuable commodities, and the powerful can exploit and even kill—legally—those who are weak, poor, elderly, sick, or immature.

The Crown of Creation

Fortunately, a greater power enables people to resist and overcome this systematic devaluing of the human person. John Paul points in particular to the blood of Christ, the sacramental communion between God and human beings that reminds us of the value of our lives. Countless people inspired by love of God defend the value of the human person every day in ordinary and extraordinary ways, in unseen acts in private life and manifest deeds of public service. We are in the midst of a struggle for justice, peace, and mutual respect for all human beings.

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" (Deut. 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." (EV 28)

Through many sufferings, the Hebrew people learned about the fragility of human life, the value of communal identity, the importance of a single baby saved from infanticide and adopted by an Egyptian princess. The experience of the covenant people is renewed in the life, teaching, and works of Jesus, who reaches out to the unloved, the sinner, the unwanted, the disabled, and the disdained. From Genesis through Revelation, Scripture tells of the long love affair of God with his people, who willed that we have life now and forever in eternity.

You Shall Not Kill

God’s commandment not only indicates what ought never to be done—the intentional killing of an innocent human person—but it also points to the importance of respect for and defense of life. It is permissible in some cases to use force, even lethal force, to defend innocent human lives. The commandment "You shall not murder" does not exclude justified self-defense or communal self-defense in a just war. In this context, John Paul addressed the death penalty. He reaffirmed that the primary purpose of punishment is retributive justice, the redressing of the injustice caused by the offender. Other purposes include protecting society, deterring others from crime, and rehabilitating the criminal. Thus, the Pope discouraged the use of capital punishment, though he did not condemn it as intrinsically evil.

If such great concern should be shown to a murderer, an even greater care is owed to innocent human beings:

I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. . . . 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. (EV 57)

Intentionally killing an innocent human being is a mortal sin when done with sufficient knowledge and consent, and it deprives a person of friendship with God. Without repentance, it leads to everlasting separation from God in hell.

A Word of Comfort to Women

Abortion constitutes the most common violation of this moral principle. A wide variety of factors lead to this choice, including the degradation of motherhood, a lack of support for families, the glamorization of irresponsible sexual activity, and the effort of many institutions, foundations, and pressure groups to push for legalization and acceptance of abortion throughout the world. The Church has stood in defense of human life throughout its history, defending the unborn and women alike. John Paul directly addressed women who have chosen abortion:

The Church is aware of the many factors that 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. . . . As a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. (EV 99)

The Beginning and the End

Lethal experimentation on human embryos (embryonic stem cell research) falls under the prohibition articulated by the pontiff. Likewise, euthanasia poses a threat to the very end of human life. Although we have no obligation to make use of all possible means to extend life, especially when the dying process has begun, an obligation exists not to kill intentionally. The human person at the end of life, as at the beginning, deserves respect, care, and love. When humans do not receive this, they may be tempted to commit suicide, another offense against life.

When the legal system authorizes the killing of some human beings, it obscures and undermines the genuine equality of all human beings. Laws that tolerate and even promote acts against the dignity of the human person—including abortion and euthanasia—undermine human solidarity, dim the consciences of many people, and destabilize the foundation of democracy—the value of the individual human being:

It is therefore never licit to obey [such a law], or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it. . . . [But] 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. (EV 73)

To defend life requires courage: "In the proclamation of this gospel, we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity that might conform us to the world’s way of thinking" (EV 82).

You Did It to Me

John Paul teaches that every Christian has an obligation to be at the service of life by word, prayer, example, service, care, concern, and political action. The Pope affirms "the inseparable connection between the person, his life, and his bodiliness" (EV 81).

Mistaken understandings of the human person reduce us to our inner thoughts, or our psychological continuity, or our souls. Our bodies become what we "use" or "occupy," rather than an.aspect of ourselves. By contrast, John Paul affirms that the human person is a unity of body and soul, an embodied spirit. "Who we are" cannot be separated from "what we are"—bodily creatures, not pure spirits or angels or souls. Life is always a good for a human being, an "intrinsic value" (EV 55).

But noting situations of human suffering, some philosophers have spoken of "wrongful life," meaning that some lives are not worth living or that some people are better off dead. This is a grave conceptual confusion. The good of life can lead to painful circumstances, but this does not make life wrongful or evil—any more than the suffering that can come from having vision (like looking at the sun) or intelligence (like knowing you are disliked) makes eyesight evil or understanding evil. Good is good and evil is evil, even when good comes from evil or evil comes from good. Life is always good, even if life brings with it evils like suffering or ill health.

Christ will judge us in terms of the respect or disrespect we show to those in need:

As disciples of Jesus, we are called to become neighbors to everyone and to show special favor 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 or near death—we have the opportunity to serve Jesus. He himself said: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40). (EV 87)

Preach the Gospel of Life

The Second Vatican Council taught that "by his Incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every person" (Gaudium et Spes 22). Consequently, wrote the Pope, "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" (EV 104). Care for others, care for Christ, should be manifest in every field of human endeavor—education, health care, politics, social life, volunteer work, public liturgy, and private prayer. John Paul wrote that "the role of the family in building a culture of life is decisive and irreplaceable. It is above all in raising children that the family fulfils its mission to proclaim the gospel of life" (EV 92).

For believers of all ages and states of life, missionary fields exist not only in far-off lands but at the grocery store, in recreational activities, in the neighborhood, and in the care of vulnerable persons. In proclaiming by word and deed the gospel of life, everyone has a role to play in enlightening consciences, solving social problems, and living together in justice, peace, and support of life. Evangelium Vitae calls all of us to work for human dignity for all human beings as part of our human responsibility.


Raised in Seattle, Christopher Kaczor graduated from the Honors Program of Boston College (1992) and holds an M.M.S. (1994) and a Ph.D. (1996) from the University of Notre Dame. He did post-doctoral work in Germany at the Universität zu Köln as an Alexander von Humbolt...

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 7.