The Gospel of Life: Medicine for our times

It has been 25 years since St. John Paul II released his landmark encyclical Evangelium Vitae The Gospel of Life – which made a significant contribution to the Church’s understanding of how each person’s human dignity is to be valued. Over the years since its publication, the world has witnessed a steady erosion of the laws and common societal beliefs that have safeguarded this God-given dignity, from changes to what the state recognizes as marriage, to how we treat the elderly, to the continued destruction of the unborn child. Pope Francis has joined his voice to this teaching by emphasizing the inherent value of the unborn and the elderly as he speaks strongly against our throwaway culture throughout the world.

I have always appreciated the clear and prophetic nature of Evangelium Vitae. Indeed, the current threat of the COVID-19 virus will be a defining moment in how our society treats each person’s dignity. Will we “respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life” (EV, 5) in the way that we respond, or will we only look out for ourselves? Will we respect the life of the elderly as much as the young?

St. John Paul II has words of wisdom for us on this choice: only in the first direction “will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!” (EV, 5). Only when countries follow the Gospel of Life, will true and lasting peace come.

In this edition of the Denver Catholic, you will notice two articles by priests from our archdiocese who are moral theologians, Fathers Luis Granados and Angel Perez. Each article addresses a challenge to human dignity that we face today.

In his article, Father Perez underscores that the dignity and value of each person is rooted in being made in God’s image and likeness. Today we see the devaluing of the person in the widespread adoption of the belief that truth is relative and determined by each person. Evangelium Vitae warns that this way of approaching life leads to people inevitably reaching the point of rejecting one another as obstacles in the way or tools to be used for one’s self-satisfaction. (Cf. EV, 20).

Father Granados tackles another idea coming into vogue in his article on abortion and euthanasia as the leading threats against human life. Some have advanced the argument that climate change or immigration are assaults against human life that are just as morally serious as abortion and euthanasia. But these issues are qualitatively and morally different. Among the differences he highlights are the fact that an unborn child is innocent, that these acts involve the direct and intentional taking of life, and that killing the unborn, elderly and disabled corrupts the heart of the person who wills or participates in causing their death, in a way that destroying the environment does not.

The seriousness of these weighty topics emphasizes the significant challenges that we face. As St. John Paul II says, “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). We have seen the progressive darkening grow especially in the last 10 years with physician-assisted suicide, the re-definition of marriage, and a few bishops, even more sadly, since they should know better, arguing against abortion being a preeminent issue in voting.

We are called as believers in the Resurrection and as people redeemed by Jesus to enter this darkness with the light of the Gospel. In the reading from John’s Gospel this past weekend, Jesus opened the eyes of the blind man, and many are spiritually blind today. Jesus desires to open their eyes if they put their faith in him. Jesus teaches us, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, the closing words of St. John Paul II ring out all the more loudly, “To all the members of the Church, the people of life and for life, I make this most urgent appeal, that together we may offer this world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.” It is good in this time of the coronavirus to remind ourselves of this hope, and continue to build an “authentic civilization of truth and love.”

May our Lady of the New Evangelization intercede for us during these trying times and help us be attentive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to see how we can uphold the dignity of each person from the moment of conception until natural death.

COMING UP: What are the preeminent life issues?

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By Father Luis Granados, dcjm

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, an old question reappears in our conversations: Can we still talk about preeminent life issues? Are abortion and euthanasia significantly different from other sins? As we will see, St. John Paul II considered them particularly serious and deplorable. By striking the fundamental relationships of the family – the sanctuary of life – these acts break the basic trust of our society and become the highest expression of the strong oppressing the weak.

In Evangelium Vitae St. John Paul II invites us to love, respect and promote life. The encyclical focuses on two offenses against life: abortion and euthanasia. Two solemn declarations condemn them as intrinsically evil, as the deliberate and direct killing of an innocent human being (EV, 62 and 65). But some argue today that it would be better to focus on other ethical issues like immigration, social injustice or environmental sins, which they claim are just as wrong.

By drawing particular attention to the seriousness of abortion and euthanasia, St. John Paul II doesn’t intend to neglect other aspects of life which deserve careful consideration. However, among the many sins against life, some are graver than others. What makes these two offenses graver than sins against the environment or immigrants, for example?

First of all, in the case of abortion and euthanasia, we are dealing with the direct and intentional killing of the innocent. As such, we are dealing with the irreversible end of the life of the victim and, for that reason, also with the destruction of the heart of the murderer. Other sins against life may involve the injustice of not receiving proper means or protection for living (food, housing, legal documents…), but here we are dealing with life itself.

The second reason is the consideration of the victim: an innocent and fragile human being. In abortion, we have the baby in the womb, the most vulnerable and innocent among the vulnerable, while in euthanasia, we have the elderly and the disabled. In other sins against life, we may have guilty or innocent people, but never someone as vulnerable and as in need as the embryo and the elderly.

Thirdly, the greater gravity of abortion and euthanasia is manifested when we consider the murderer. The physician, the father and the mother, those appointed by God as its keepers, are those who destroy the baby, and are subsequently  morally destroyed. Children are called to honor their elderly parents, but in euthanasia, it is sometimes the children who decide to kill them. In both cases, the relationship between generations, the basic bond that builds our society, is destroyed.

Abortion and euthanasia are graver sins because they corrupt the human heart in a deeper way. They extinguish the most basic relationships within the family and therefore in our society. That’s why St. Teresa of Calcutta said that “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” and we could add, euthanasia. Both are a war waged against children and the elderly. What they damage is not only the good of individuals but also the common good.

Finally, abortion and euthanasia are the type of sins that can never be justified. They are intrinsically evil. “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church” (EV, 62). In other sins against life, like immigration, we enter into the realm of prudential decisions: How many immigrants should our country welcome? Under which conditions? But in the case of abortion or euthanasia there is no such deliberation. We are dealing with an action that is always evil: always and in every circumstance (Veritatis Splendor, 52).

What about sins against the environment? In these cases, we are usually talking about indirect actions. Whereby we choose good actions (like flying frequently in order to visit a sick relative or to provide for my family) that may indirectly cause damage to our planet in the long term. We are, of course, responsible of the effects of the actions, sometimes also indirect, but our responsibility is limited to the consequences we can reasonably foresee (and in the measure of our action, not in the measure of the whole effect). The gravity of these sins is significantly smaller than in the case of abortion and euthanasia.

The coronavirus epidemic is helping us be more aware of the preciousness and weakness of human life, especially of the elderly. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “the true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer” (Spe Salvi, 38). The coronavirus teaches us about the fragility of our life and our relationships. In moments of sickness we renew our fundamental faith in the One who heals all our diseases. There is, however, something even worse than the coronavirus. That is the afflictions that come not from outside, from the calamities of the world, but from our own evil, free actions. On this 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II passes the baton of the building of a culture of life to us.