Evangelium Vitæ (Latin: “The Gospel of Life”) is the name of the encyclical written by Pope John Paul II which expresses the position of the Catholic Church regarding the value and inviolability of human life. It was promulgated on March 25, 1995.
“Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God.”
Beginning with an overview of threats to human life both past and present, the encyclical gives a brief history of the many Biblical prohibitions against killing. The encyclical then addresses specific actions in light of these passages, including abortion (quoting Tertullian, who called abortion “anticipated murder to prevent someone from being born”), and euthanasia (which John Paul II calls “a disturbing perversion of mercy”). The encyclical also condemns the use of the death penalty in the world today, since the only potentially acceptable use of the death penalty (according to John Paul II and the magisterium) is when it would not otherwise be possible to defend society, a situation that–according to the encyclical–is rare if not non-existent today (§ 56).
The encyclical then addresses social and ecological factors, stressing the importance of a society which is built around the family rather than a wish to improve efficiency, and emphasizing the duty to care for the poor and the sick.
The encyclical also deals with the proper uses of sex and the implementation of knowledge on adolescent teens of these behaviors.
While the vast majority of this encyclical’s material is considered authoritative, but not infallible, it contains three solemn passages italicized below, regarding specific moral issues, which are considered infallible teachings of Catholic theology by a vast majority of theologians.
The first passage, in Evangelium Vitae § 57, concerns murder:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
The second, in Evangelium Vitae § 62, concerns abortion:
Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI]] was able to declare that this tradition [regarding abortion] is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops — who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine — I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. (Evangelium Vitae, § 62)
The third, in Evangelium Vitae § 65, concerns euthanasia:
…. in harmony with the Magisterium of my Predecessors and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. (Evangelium Vitae, § 65)
A majority of Catholic theologians agree that these teachings on the immorality of murder, directly-willed abortion, and euthanasia are infallible. According to these Catholic theologians, these three teachings are not examples of papal infallibility, but are examples of the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. In other words, Pope John Paul II was not exercising papal infallibility in this encyclical, but he was stating that these doctrines have already been taught infallibly by the bishops of the Catholic Church throughout history.
Theologians and church leaders who have expressed this point of view include:
- According to Catholic theology, a teaching of the “ordinary and universal magisterium” is infallible if it is taught by all bishops dispersed throughout the world, as long as they all teach it in a definitive and authoritative manner (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium § 25). Before writing Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II surveyed every Catholic bishop in the world asking whether they agreed that murder, directly-willed abortion, and euthanasia were immoral, and they all agreed that they were. To make this connection clear, the pope concluded each of these passages in Evangelium Vitae with a reference to the “ordinary and universal magisterium” and a footnote that cited [Lumen Gentium]] § 25.
- The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that these teachings in Evangelium Vitae are infallible in its “Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei“, published 6/29/1998 and signed by Cardinal Ratzinger and Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone.
- The current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, William Levada, wrote in 1995 that Evangelium Vitae’s teaching regarding abortion was an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium.
- Among the Catholic theologians who have written about infallibility, nearly all agree that these three statements constitute infallible teaching. These theologians include “liberals” (Richard Gaillardetz, Hermann Pottmeyer), “moderates” (Francis A. Sullivan), and “conservatives” (Mark Lowery, Lawrence J. Welch).