Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics was issued by the U.S. Catholic bishops in November 1998. Standing on its own, Living the Gospel of Life is a ringing call to Catholics to embrace their lofty responsibility for fighting the culture of death and promoting the culture of life. But if we read the bishops' document in the light of the encyclicals Evangelium Vitae, Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio, and of the three great mysteries with which these encyclicals are linked—the Annunciation, Transfiguration and the Triumph of the Cross, we will be able to glimpse something of the deeper levels of meaning in Living the Gospel of Life.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently quoted Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna (who himself was quoting his predecessor Cardinal Franz König): the problem today is "molto teologža, ma poco Dio"— "lots of theology, but very little about God." His point is that it is crucial to look at moral and public policy issues in the context of our faith in the triune God, and our faith that God has called the human race into communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. While we enjoy common cause with non-Catholics and non-Christians in pro-life issues, it is important for us to place these issues within the distinctly Catholic perspective afforded by the "mysteries" of our faith.
Evangelium Vitae and the Annunciation: God and the Culture of Life
Something we often miss when we think about the Annunciation is this: when Mary is told by the Angel Gabriel that she is going to be the Mother of God, she responds in a very human and predictable way. Mary says "I'm not married"—in effect, "I'm not ready for this." And Gabriel, speaking as God's emissary, sweeps this protestation aside saying, in effect, "No, you're not," but God will make you ready for this gift.
Think about it. If God had waited for the world to be ready for the grace of the Incarnation, He would still be waiting. And so would we. Why? Because for the gifts that God wants to give us, we cannot be ready. We cannot sufficiently organize our lives to the point where we can say, "OK. We're ready. You can come now." The preconditions for God's grace are themselves gifts He creates in us. In Mary's case, as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception affirms, He preserved her from sin from the first moment of her life. It is only God's grace that makes it possible for us to be worthy to receive anything from Him. With a faith that is itself a divine gift to her, Mary recognizes this. She finally says: "Let it be done to me according to your word." What else can we say? When no conditions are demanded, no excuses are relevant. We must accept God's gifts in faith.
God loves the life and the good He creates. God calls out of nothingness those to whom He then calls out in love. This is the pattern of God's activity in creation and redemption: He creates the conditions which enable creaturely persons to respond to Him in love. Some modern thinkers have concluded that, if one accepts the Christian faith on this matter, then there is no space for human beings to be themselves; they are smothered, as it were, by God.
Some modern thinkers have regarded this faith as anti-human, and have concluded that human freedom and autonomy demands that God be erased. The autonomous self, they think, can survive only if God is eclipsed. The deep flaw in this way of thinking, as Pope John Paul II points out in Evangelium Vitae, is that it conceives the human situation as if we were in a competition with God in which we can win our place only if God recedes into oblivion. But our Holy Father asserts that just the opposite is the case: God creates the very condition for our existence and all that we do. Human fulfillment lies not in autonomy but in theonomy, in a participation in the life of God.
Did the Pope need almost 200 pages to say that killing is wrong? We know from the commandments that killing is wrong. The substance of Evangelium Vitae might have been summarized in a few pages by just stating the key points of dogma. But in this encyclical, our Holy Father offers a penetrating analysis of the culture of death and its modern philosophical underpinnings. The Pope argues that, contrary to what some modern philosophers have thought, our experience shows that the eclipse of God creates the greatest peril for us. The culture of death emerges out of the attempt to erase God. When human beings stop seeing life as a gift from God, they see it as something over which they have authority and control. And then, they are in the gravest danger.
No surprise, then, that Pope John Paul signed Evangelium Vitae on the feast of the Annunciation. One of the deepest meanings of this mystery is that all creaturely life—life itself and the life of grace—is a gift of God.
To accept life as a gift and to be subject to God is not to obliterate the human, but to realize that which is most fully human. In his discussion of the sin of the angels, Thomas Aquinas asked what could be the nature of their sin. After eliminating some of the obvious alternatives (e.g., without a body, you can't sin by lust or gluttony!), he explained that, according to the tradition, their sin was a spiritual one: the fallen angels, it is said, wanted to be like God. But "What's wrong with that?" asks Aquinas, in effect. What's wrong with wanting to be like God? The problem with the angels who sinned, says Aquinas, was they wanted to be like God as if it were their due. They wanted to take from God something that could only be theirs as a gift and, indeed, something that God wanted to share with them in love. This, finally, is what sin is all about.
What the Pope says is this: life is a gift that is not at our disposal. God wants to give it to us as a gift and we must receive it as a gift. If we do not live with the realization that life itself, the life of grace, and, in the end, the life of glory are each and all a gift, we will be tempted by the culture of death or, worse, collude with it. The teaching of Evangelium Vitae is a teaching about the love of God for human life and, therefore, the necessity of our proclaiming that gospel. This is the theological root for the participation in the pro-life movement which Living the Gospel of Life encourages. It touches on the deepest truth about God and human beings. Life is a gift: without God we are nothing, but with God we are everything. This is why the battle is worth fighting and, contrary to what some critics say, why it must be fought not only in churches, but in the public realm.
Veritatis Splendor and the Transfiguration: God and the Culture of Freedom
Issued in 1993 on the feast of the Transfiguration, Veritatis Splendor is about the realization of human existence through the free embrace of the ultimate Good that Christ makes possible for us. The mystery of the Transfiguration provides a key for understanding what freedom really is.
In the Transfiguration, the disciples saw Christ gloriously transformed. St. Leo the Great said that there were two reasons why Christ allowed them, and us as well, to see his glory. First, he wanted "to remove the scandal of the cross from the hearts of his disciples." Having seen Christ transfigured, they knew that the apparent defeat of the cross was in reality a victory. The second reason, St. Leo explained, was that we, the Church, might see what was to become of us. As St. Paul reminds us, "We are being changed from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor 3:18). The idea that we are moving towards glory is hard to accept and requires faith: we will not see the glory revealed until the end.
We discover that our transfiguration is really a transformation in Christ: the glory of Christ will be revealed in us. In a passage that follows shortly after the Transfiguration, Christ affirms: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." And then he offers this strange paradox: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (cf. Matthew 16:24-26). In other words, unless we become like Him, we will not find our true selves.
We need only to consider our own experience to grasp how startling our Lord's assertion really is. Think of yourself as a supervisor, parent, a teacher, a bishop, a spouse or priest. Who would ever say to anyone in his or her charge (no matter how high an opinion we have of ourselves), "You will never find your true self unless you become like me"? On the contrary, we want them to realize their own gifts, not become clones of ourselves. Only the Son of God could say to the human race: you will find your true self only by becoming like Me. He says this to every human who has ever lived, who lives now, and who will live in the future. The harder we try to be ourselves without Him, the less we can really become ourselves.
Some people seem to think that Christian faith involves the suppression of the human. Once you accept the Gospel, they say, your freedom to be yourself is constrained and your ability to explore the many possibilities that life offers is frustrated. But, in fact, as the deepest meaning of the mystery of the Transfiguration reveals to us, to follow and imitate Christ is not to suppress our freedom, and, with it, our distinctive human and personal identities. On the contrary. The whole point of freedom is to make it possible to embrace the good to which Christ directs us. In the end, to become more like Christ is not to become less ourselves, but more uniquely and distinctively ourselves.
To be free is not to be faced with an unlimited number of choices, including sin. Authentic freedom is the God-given capacity to embrace that which will make us truly happy: to choose God. This is one of the key messages of Veritatis Splendor. God does not compel us to choose. Love cannot be compelled; it must be free. God wants us to embrace Him freely, and freedom is the gift God gives for this purpose.
The drama—indeed, the tragedy and the comedy of human existence—is that, unlike everything else in the universe, we are the only creatures who can fail to choose our good. Flowers, chipmunks, cats, dogs all realize their end—or fail it—without choice. Something can interrupt that fulfillment, but not their own wills. Only human beings can fail to be happy because they fail to choose it. In this light, we can understand why, as Veritatis Splendor affirms, truth and freedom are inextricably connected. An undifferentiated freedom, according to which everyone strives to define what the human is for himself or herself, can only lead to unhappiness because it fails to conform to the truth about human nature. We can no more define our nature than can anything else in the created order. Our human nature is a divine gift. We must recognize the truth of what human beings are, in order to recognize that freedom lies in embracing that truth, which alone will lead us to happiness in the triune God.
Understood in the light of the penetrating moral analysis in Veritatis Splendor, Living the Gospel of Life affirms that authentic freedom is the freedom to choose the good. This message has a direct relevance for our participation in pro-life activities. What is true of the transfiguration of the individual person is also true of society as a whole. Christianity is not a sect—a little group of religious people who have peculiar notions about things which cannot be supported rationally. The Church is the human race in its eschatological completion. It is not just individuals who are being transformed into Christ's image through the exercise of their authentic freedom. The whole of society itself is being transformed into the extended family of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Fides et Ratio and the Triumph of the Cross: God and the Culture of Faith
The message of the gospel of life, therefore, is a universal one: there can be no other future for the world than the one that God has ordained for it in love. Working together in harmony, faith and reason can come to an understanding of this wonderful plan of divine providence. Yet, apart from faith, human reason by itself never reaches completion: it never discovers all there is to find. In Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul reaffirms the Catholic teaching that, contrary to what some have thought, faith is not a constraint on reason, but its liberation. By signing this encyclical on the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, the Pope signals that only in the cross, where the depth of divine wisdom is revealed to us, can we discern the shining fulfillment of everything human, including human reason.
It is somewhat ironic that, at the end of the 19th century, the pope had to defend faith against reason, while today, at the end of the 20th century, he has to defend reason against unreason. In Fides et Ratio we have a defense of the power of reason to find the truth. The undifferentiated relativism and pluralism he so clearly analyzed in the other encyclicals, is again exposed from another perspective—the perspective of the erosion of confidence among philosophers, scientists and others whose attitudes affect the wider society. The penetration of this relativism into society concerns the Holy Father in Fides et Ratio. The remarkable witness of this encyclical is that faith must be engaged to support the power of human reason to reach the truth about many important matters.
Christ calls us to think; He comes to challenge not only the human heart, but the human mind. In the service of Christ, human reason rises to the highest level of its capacities. Pope John Paul II encourages us to use reason to understand our faith. The greatest problem in religion is not skepticism, but credulity. In the name of religion, people appear willing to believe almost anything. This is a serious problem today. John Paul II explains that we cannot think of faith as coming to set reason aside or to destroy it; on the contrary, faith presupposes reason, because it is the perfect fulfillment of the human intellect. Revelation does not set aside the human, but brings it to its perfection. Otherwise God would be at cross-purposes with Himself. God would have made something that He would have to set aside in order to save it. God does not have to set aside creation in order to save it. He heals and redeems it by the blood of Christ.
Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics affirms the teaching of Fides et Ratio by arguing that the culture of death feeds on the erosion of the consensus of what moral truth is. If there is no confidence in the capacity of reason to know the truth about human nature and the human good, then the moral consensus—which Pope John Paul believes to be fundamental to the survival of democratic societies—will be drastically eroded. He engages in argument, not mere injunction. The pope knows from having lived in totalitarian societies that raw power will be needed to enforce social conformity if we abandon the pursuit of a consensus about moral truth.
Living the Gospel of Life can best be understood in the light of this theme. To become a People of Life, we must strive, across the boundaries of all faiths, to recover a consensus about human nature and the human good, and thus about the common good. Only in this way will the culture of life displace the culture of death.
In Living the Gospel of Life, the bishops call on Catholics to live their faith "vigorously and publicly as a matter of national leadership and witness" (No. 20). How? In different ways, depending on one's state in life, one's abilities and role in society. Each of these factors enter into how the Gospel of Life is to be lived. A common challenge for all of us is to understand what is at stake and embrace the level of responsibility of which we are capable.
The heart of the Gospel of Life is that we are called to practice our faith not as a private piety, but to share its central message in public square. "Life in Christ is a life of active witness. It demands moral leadership" (No. 26).
Where to begin? The bishops point out in Living the Gospel of Life that "the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person," such as the purposeful destruction of innocent human life. Abortion, for example, is never a morally tolerable option. Euthanasia and assisted suicide, similarly, are never morally acceptable. The bishops also urge Catholics to become advocates for those who suffer from poverty, racism, hunger, lack of housing and health care. They use the metaphor of building a house to explain the need to build consistent policies that protect, nurture and sustain human life. "If we understand the human person as the 'temple of the Holy Spirit'—the living house of God," explain the bishops, then issues of human dignity "fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house," while "all direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation"(No. 23).
We have a responsibility to persuade others that human life is a gift from God over which we have no authority, from the moment life is given at conception until life's natural end, and that in fact, the end of life is a passage to another life. If the wider society continues to reject the true meaning of freedom—the freedom to choose life—we will move closer to a world in which power, not truth, will prevail. In such a world, human life will always be at risk. Only in a world that acknowledges that life is a divine gift will human beings and human societies have the chance to flourish.
Rev. J. Augustine DiNoia, OP, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices, is also professor of theology on the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies and adjunct professor of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies, Washington, D.C. campus. He serves on the International Theological Commission. He is editor in chief of The Thomist and in 1998 he was awarded the Master of Sacred Theology by the Dominican Order.