A Prophetic Plea
In the faith of Israel we find many cries and prayers sent up to God, asking him to redress the injustices perpetrated by human beings against each other. And God hears those cries: "You shall not molest or oppress an alien. . . . If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry" (Ex 22:20-22). Through the prophets God himself pleads for justice and threatens to punish crimes against human rights. "Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land. . . . We will buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals; . . .The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done!" (Am 8:4-7).
The encyclical The Gospel of Life is a prophetic document in this same way. In it one can hear the voice of God pleading for the life of humankind. In this sense it is profoundly biblical, not only in its constant invocation of the biblical text—it is the only encyclical whose every section is headed by a citation from Scripture—but because it presents to us a biblical vision of human life.
A Vision of Life
The Bible presents us with an integral vision of human life. From its opening pages, placed there by an inspired editor to form the foundation for all that follows, we see that human beings are a mystery. Yhwh God took dust from the earth and shaped Adam and breathed into his nostrils, and Adam became a soul alive (Gn 2:7). Adam has in common with the animals that he is a "soul alive" (see Genesis), but there is this difference: he is animated by the very breath of God; he breathes like God.
Genesis has two accounts of human origins, and both emphasize that there is something Godlike about human life. The first account tells us that man and woman are made in the image of God (Gn 1:26-27). In the second account, the author puts the accent on the living, existential human being, who has something "more" about him because he possesses the breath of God. Nothing else in creation is able to be a "helper matching him" (Gn 2:18-23): "matching him"—that is, not a replica but a counterpart who shares this divine quality and is thus able to form with him a true communion of persons, a community of love, respect, and reciprocity—and a "helper" (in the Bible the word most often is applied to God) because without this other, Adam cannot achieve the fullness of life for which God destined humanity.
The encyclical shares this biblical sense of wonder at the mystery of human existence. As human beings we share matter and animating principle with the animals and yet possess a "more" that makes us able to share life with God. For millennia theologians have struggled to explain how our being cannot demand grace for its fulfillment, yet cannot be fulfilled without it. While he knows and respects these accounts, the pope offers a biblical view of humankind that sees our present life in time as "the fundamental condition, the initial stage, and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence" (no. 2). Every human being is the embodied demonstration of God's call to an intimacy that both transcends and fulfills forever the unique human capacity for life. The witness of the Scriptures to the good of human life is the soul of John Paul II's prophetic proclamation of the Gospel of Life.
The Old Testament already articulates and gives a basic meaning to the awe we instinctively feel when confronted with the presence of new life or the mystery of death. The encyclical returns time and time again to this theme, citing various biblical texts. In a section which takes its direction from Psalm 139:14, "I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made," John Paul II cites some lines from his predecessor, Paul VI: "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" (no. 84). Two aspects of this "beautiful thing" are given particular attention in the encyclical: the heinous quality of murder, and the mystery of the life-giving death of Jesus. We will devote the rest of our consideration to these two points.
"Cain, What Have You Done?"
All of Chapter 1 of the encyclical, containing twenty-two sections in all (nos. 7-28), is a prolonged meditation on the account of Abel's murder by Cain from Genesis 4:1-16. Adapting ancient narrative material to his own purposes, the biblical author traces the long story of sin as it extends from Adam to Abraham—whose call, after the division at Babel, is clearly intended to be the beginning of God's remedy for the spreading universal effects of sin (Genesis 12). The most immediate consequence of the transgression of Adam and Eve is the sin "lying at the door" of Cain's heart, which gives birth to jealousy, conflict, and fratricide. As we ponder this narrative, the word of God will lead us to share in God's perspective on the terrible thing that happens when a human life is unjustly taken.
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 history. . . . Brother kills brother. Like the first fratricide, every murder is a violation of the "spiritual" kinship uniting mankind in one great family, 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 practised (nos. 7-8).
The human being standing in front of us is a person. He or she is a living embodiment of the mystery of materiality, frailty, history, and eternity that reaches its fulfillment in a personal relation to others and to God. God cherishes this relation and has his own plan for the full flowering of this person in time and in eternity. No one but God can decide the moment of another's death. When we step into that divine role we enact once again that grasping for the knowledge of good and evil—the power to act and then decide for ourselves whether the act was good or evil—which brought death into the world in the first place. That grasping distances us first from God, then from our fellow human beings. God asked Adam, "Where are you?" (Gn 3:9). He asked Cain, "Where is your brother?" (Gn 4:9).
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 or apologizing, arrogantly eludes the question: "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Gn 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 whic 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 (no. 8).
It is a characteristic of the culture of death that it views death as a solution to problems: problems of population, of ethnic strife, of "unwanted pregnancies," even problems of anger between high school students. It is for this reason that Cain can only think of his own death as the logical consequence of the fact that his brother's blood is crying out to God from the earth. But God never sees death as a solution.
And yet God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, "put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who came upon him should kill him" (Gn 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 (no. 9).
From this fundamental text in the Old Testament, placed there by an inspired editor who realized that what is taught there sheds the light of faith on all that is to follow, we are brought into an understanding of the awesome mystery and divine rights of every human life. By beginning with the sacred text and entering into its rhythm of thought, the encyclical shows itself to be a genuine prolongation and servant of the biblical word.
For the Life of the World
Human life is so precious that through the act of love of Jesus Christ on the cross, it became, in some mysterious way, a gift of the Father by which humanity was reconciled and brought to share in the divine life. It is in the mystery of the cross that we see clearly the truth of the text in the Book of Wisdom cited in section 7 of the encyclical. "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; 2:23-24).
In Christ, death is conquered, and we see that the last word in regard to human existence is life. This is the heart of the New Law, which Jesus enacted in his own body. It is through his glorified and radiant body that we have new life now: "The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" (Jn 6:51). Death is conquered, and human existence is transformed into a pledge of a life to be lived, body and soul, forever with God. The secret of this transformation is love. Jesus died offering himself in such an act of divine and human love that he passed from time into the very realm of God himself—and he has brought us with him.
Therefore, brothers, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and since we have 'a great priest over the house of God,' let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust . . . (Heb 10:19-20).
The sincerity of our heart is manifest when we trust in the eternal power of the humanity of Jesus to bring us into the fullness of life. This dynamic faith is already a new appreciation of the dignity of human life. The encyclical draws the lesson from this revelation in a way that is completely in keeping with the New Testament. It points out how the death of Jesus Christ has transformed the fragility of human life forever by "revealing the resurrection." Second, it points out to us the need to bear witness by our lives and actions to the full implications of the Gospel of Life. In regard to the first point John Paul II says:
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 fulfillment. 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 new life.
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 (no. 51).
Our calling to love and serve one another flows naturally, inevitably from these truths. By his incarnation, Jesus ennobled human life. His life and death taught us the inexpressible love and mercy of God for his human family. We serve life out of gratitude to Jesus for his sacrifice. We serve life out of an appreciation that, by the resurrection, human life is shown to be eternal. We serve life out of a conviction that anything worth such a sacrifice must be valuable indeed. The blood of Christ, write John Paul II, "reveals the grandeur of the Father's love, shows how precious man is to God's eyes and how priceless the value of [human] life" (no. 25). We serve life in the certain knowledge that he is present in every human being. Finally, we serve life out of a desire to emulate Jesus.
It is from this perspective that we are urged to bring to others this message of hope and to help them find release from the culture of death which so weighs on us. We need courage for such witness, and we can find it in the words and example of John Paul II and in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
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.
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 (nos. 80-81).
The call to sincere self-giving is a call to heroic charity: we must serve others as we would lovingly serve Jesus were he to come to us in need.
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 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" (Mt 25:40) (no. 87).
In these lines of contemplative vision and practical commitment we have the prophetic voice of an "ambassador for Christ, God, as it were appealing through him" (see 2 Cor 5:20). His message is true to the biblical vision of human life, which is set forth in this encyclical in a way that is both clear and compelling.
Rev. Martin Francis is a priest of the Diocese of Pembroke, Ontario. He is a professor of the New Testament at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor of biblical studies at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, also in Washington, D.C.