The Gospel of Life
Overview of Evangelium Vitae
Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), a key encyclical of Pope John Paul II, dated March 25, 1995, is, in his words, a “pressing appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!”
This affirmation of the Gospel of Life, which is part of and inseparable from the entire Gospel of Christ, is fundamental to the Church’s mission to the world, and part of the necessary witness of every Christian — especially in our present culture, where the very meaning and value of human life is under grave threat: “Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!” (§5)
The encyclical consists of four chapters, and begins by outlining the present situation, where assaults against human life lead the pope to characterize society today as a “culture of death”.
In Chapter I, “The Voice of Your Brother’s Blood Cries to Me from the Ground” (§§7-28), Pope John Paul reviews the roots of human violence, and the very serious threats to human life we see today. He draws heavily on Scripture (especially the account of Cain and Abel) in his explanation of the way in which, from the beginning, personal sin undermines the very basis for affirming love and life. “At the root of every act of violence against one’s neighbor there is a concession to the ‘thinking’ of the Evil One, the one who ‘was a murderer from the beginning’” (§8). A distorted and “perverse idea of freedom” justifies crimes against life at its most vulnerable — abortion and euthanasia — as “rights”, and underlies the present conflict between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”.
Christ’s words, “I Came That They May Have Life”, are the title of Chapter II (§§29-51). Here the pope reviews the history of man created in the image of God, and explains the implications of our being so created. Human life has its meaning within the context of the good Creation, and is fulfilled only in union with God.
Making use of copious citations of Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments (as he does throughout the encyclical), the Holy Father shows that man’s responsibility for the Gospel of Life includes not only care for the innocent, weak and vulnerable, but also love for enemies. Man’s moral responsibility for creation includes his environment, the natural world; and it involves, also, participation in creation of new life “in the image of God”.
Man is not the master of life, nor is he the master of death, the pope stresses. Instead, man entrusts himself entirely to God, who has given him life. Life, therefore, is always good. Thus suicide and euthanasia are always fundamentally immoral. It is impossible, the pope states, for life to be authentic and complete if it is detached from good, from the truth that is the Law of God. This truth is fulfilled in Jesus.
The Holy Father presents an extensive reflection on the meaning of the Cross: “It is finished”. The Church’s sacraments are symbolized by the blood and water that flows from Jesus’ side. Contemplation of the cross thus “brings us to the very heart of all that has taken place”.
The chapter ends with a prayer, that we learn to follow God’s Word: “Thus we shall learn not only to obey the commandment not to kill human life, but also to revere life, to love it and to foster it”.
“You Shall Not Kill — God’s Holy Law” is the title of Chapter III (§§52-77). This commandment of God is “never detached from His love” in creating man in His own image — human life is “sacred and inviolable”, Pope John Paul II proclaims. He emphasizes the personal accountability of each person for protecting and defending all human life. In this chapter he addresses the “unspeakable crime” of abortion. “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” (§63).
This moral condemnation also applies to “procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses” for experimentation. He also speaks of the “tragedy of euthanasia”, which is the “deliberate killing of a human person; and makes crucial distinctions concerning “proportionate” and “extraordinary” care.
“Ethical relativism”, the pope writes, is the basis for rejecting universal moral norms. If the fundamental principles of the universal moral law are obscured by a government, “the democratic system itself would be shaken in its foundations”, the pope states (§70).
Truth is not determined by majority vote: “Abortion and euthanasia are crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize…. In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it’” (§73).
Chapter IV, “You Did It to Me — for a New Culture of Human Life” (§§78-101), stresses that the “Gospel of Life” impels us to proclaim and teach it, “making clear all the consequences of this Gospel”. The pope summarizes:
• “Procured abortion and euthanasia are absolutely unacceptable.
• “Not only must human life not be taken, but it must be protected with loving concern.
• “The meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love…
• “Love also gives meaning to suffering and death…
• “Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development.
• “Society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life” (§81).
Pope John Paul proposes that a “Day for Life be celebrated each year in every country”, and encourages forming programs and agencies for the protection and defense of life. He stresses the responsibility of health care workers: “Absolute respect for every innocent human life also requires the exercise of conscientious objection in relation to procured abortion and euthanasia … it is completely counter to the health-care profession”. And he says that the “Gospel of Life [must] be implemented also by [political activity] as a way of defending and promoting the value of life in our ever more complex and pluralistic societies” (§89).
The role of families in proclaiming the Gospel of Life and building a “culture of life”, the pope says, “is decisive and irreplaceable”, and involves education, formation of consciences, as well as prayer and worship (§93). “There can be no true democracy without a recognition of every person’s dignity and without respect for his or her rights. Nor can there be true peace unless life is defended and promoted”, Pope John Paul writes (§101).
Evangelium Vitae, dated the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, concludes with a meditation on Mary, for “we look to her who is for us a ‘sign of sure hope and solace’” (§105), and he closes the encyclical with this prayer:
O Mary, bright dawn of the new world, Mother of the living,
to you do we entrust the cause of life:
Look down, O Mother, upon the vast numbers of babies not allowed to be born, of the poor whose lives are made difficult,
of men and women who are victims of brutal violence,
of the elderly and the sick, killed by indifference or out of
Grant that all who believe in your Son may proclaim the Gospel of life with honesty and love to the people of our time.
Obtain for them the grace to accept that Gospel as a gift ever new, the joy of celebrating it with gratitude throughout their lives, and the courage to bear witness to it resolutely, in order to build, together with all people of good will, the civilization of truth and love, to the praise and glory of God, the Creator and lover of life.
Evangelium Vitae – Study Outline
This study outline follows the original table of contents of the encyclical, and includes the relevant section numbers.
A. The Gospel of Life Is at the Heart of the Christian Message.
1. (§1) It is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as good news.
2. Christ calls us to open our free will to the power of the Holy Spirit.
B. Incomparable Worth of the Human Person.
1. (§2) Life is a process, not an individual circumstance.
2. Anyone open to truth and goodness can know the natural law written in the heart.
C. New Threats to Human Life.
1. (§3) Sinister to justify crimes against life in the name of personal freedom.
2. (§4) Widespread social conditioning has weakened the conscience in distinguishing between good and evil.
D. In Communion with the World’s Bishops.
1. (§5) This encyclical is a united appeal of the world’s episcopate.
2. (§6) All families are called to be sanctuaries of life.
I. THE VOICE OF YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD
A. The Roots of Violence.
1. (§7) God did not make death; it came with Satan’s envy.
2. Man is not predestined to evil, but remains free in the face of sin.
3. (§8) Man is his brother’s keeper.
4. (§9) In spite of sinful behavior, not even a murderer loses his dignity.
B. The Eclipse of the Value of Life.
1. (§10) Violence against life takes many forms.
2. (§11) A crisis of culture generates societal skepticism, which hides the value of life.
3. (§13) A contraceptive mentality negates the full truth of the conjugal act and the full acceptance of the sexual partner.
4. (§15) The ill and dying are threatened by a culture that sees suffering as the epitome of evil.
C. The Perversion of Freedom.
1. (§18) Sinister choices are being justified in the name of personal freedom.
2. Democratic coexistence is threatened when the right to life is denied.
3. (§19) The roots of disorder lie in the concept of subjectivity.
4. Exaggerated individualism leaves no room for solidarity or democracy.
5. (§20) Freedom destroys itself when it is separated from the truth.
D. The Eclipse of the Sense of God and Man.
1. (§21) Without the Creator, the creature disappears.
2. (§22) Life becomes a thing to be manipulated.
3. (§23) Being becomes less important than having.
4. Sexuality is no longer a gift of self or an acceptance of the other.
5. Procreation becomes the enemy to be avoided.
E. Signs of Hope and Commitment.
1. (§25) The blood of Christ reveals man’s greatness and his vocation.
2. (§26) Even in the midst of sin, we witness countless gestures of self-giving and sacrifice.
3. (§28) The power of grace is enormous, and helps us to proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of Life.
II. THE CHRISTIAN MESSAGE: THAT THEY MAY HAVE LIFE
A. Our Gaze Fixed on the Word of Life.
1. (§29) The Gospel of Life is concrete and personal.
2. Its truth can be known through our reason.
3. (§30) When we open ourselves to God’s possibility, we are freed from sin and death.
B. Life is Always a Good.
1. (§31) Our freedom from slavery brings the gift of identity.
2. Man has a dignity that none can destroy.
3. Suffering is a challenge made beautiful in time.
C. Jesus Brings Life’s Meaning to Fulfillment.
1. (§32) Life is a gift guarded by the Father.
2. (§33) Life is a journey amid contradictions.
D. God’s Glory Shines in the Face of Man.
1. (§34) Man is called to grasp life’s profound goodness.
2. (§35) Through life, God shares Himself with His creatures.
3. Man is gifted with reason, with the ability to discern between good and evil, and with free will.
4. (§36) Sin exchanges the truth of God for a lie.
E. Reverence and Love.
1. (§39) The history of man results from God’s plan to bring together life’s possibilities.
2. (§41) The height of love is to pray for one’s enemies.
3. We must revere and love every person, good or evil.
F. Man’s Responsibility to Life.
1. (§42) The defense and promotion of life belongs to every human being.
2. The preservation of the environment is no greater than the preservation of “human ecology”.
3. Man is subject both to biological and moral laws.
4. (§43) Parents become partners in a divine undertaking.
G. The Dignity of the Unborn.
1. (§44) There is no part of the process of life that is separated from the work of God.
H. Life in Old age and Suffering.
1. (§46) Man is neither master of life nor of death.
2. (§47) The decision to live or die must be left to God.
I. The Law of Sinai and the Gift of the Spirit.
1. (§48) Truth is essential to life; the law of God reveals the truth.
2. What is at stake is the future of the world.
J. The Gospel of Life Is Fulfilled in the Cross.
1. (§50) By the Cross we are set free; it is our sure hope.
2. (§51) The paradox: Life finds its meaning when it is given up.
III. GOD’S HOLY LAW: YOU SHALL NOT KILL
A. Gospel and Commitment.
1. (§52) God’s commandment is never detached from His love.
2. It is a gift meant for man’s growth.
B. Human Life is Sacred and Inviolable.
1. (§53) On two commandments rest all of God’s law: to love God and to love one’s neighbor.
2. (§57) The deprivation of innocent life can never be licit as an end in itself.
3. Before the demands of morality, we are all equal.
C. The Unspeakable Crime of Abortion.
1. (§58) Among the crimes against life, abortion is particularly deplorable.
2. (§59) The acceptance of abortion signifies man’s increasing incapacity to distinguish good and evil.
D. The Tragedy of Euthanasia.
1. (§64) The mystery of death is blurred when life is only valued for its pleasures.
2. Society cannot guarantee to man complete autonomy.
3. (§66) Suicide is the murder of the self, the rejection of love of self and of the absolute sovereignty of God over Life.
4. True compassion entails shared suffering, not the killing of the one in pain.
E. Civil and Moral Laws.
1. (§68) Life is not a right bestowed by the State.
2. Life is not a relative good, but an absolute good.
3. (§69) Civil law cannot rise higher than the innate moral law.
4. (§70) Ethical relativism, far from guaranteeing tolerance, belies the basic democratic relationship between civil and moral law.
5. (§71) Civil law is meant to safeguard, not create, innate rights — the first of which is the right to life.
6. (§74) Our reason confirms that killing is wrong.
IV. YOU DID IT TO ME: TOWARD A NEW CULTURE OF HUMAN LIFE
A. A People of and for Life.
1. (§78) Through the interior renewal of the Holy Spirit, we become a people for Life.
2. (§80) Man alone can do nothing; once adopted by God, man attains greatness.
3. (§81) Life finds meaning in giving and receiving love; in this, human sexuality attains full significance.
B. Celebrating the Gospel of Life.
1. (§83) Our proclamation must also be a celebration.
2. We need to develop a contemplative outlook, seeing the image of God in all people.
3. Discouragement then gives way to a challenge to find meaning.
4. We must rediscover the ability to revere and honor every person.
5. (§84) Through the sacraments we are sharers in divine life and are given all the spiritual strength necessary on our journey for everyday heroism.
C. Serving the Gospel of Life.
1. (§87) Promotion of life must be accomplished through consistent works of charity.
2. (§88) Education must be aimed at encouraging one and all to bear each other’s burdens.
3. Family policy must be the driving force behind all social policy.
4. No single group has a monopoly on the defense of life.
D. The Family as the Sanctuary of Life.
1. (§92) Parents are coworkers with God.
2. Each family member is to be respected because of his or her personhood.
3. (§93) The family is called to daily prayer.
4. Care is to be given to the humble ordinary events of daily living.
E. Bringing about a Transformation of Culture.
1. (§95) We need to develop our sense of discernment for true values.
2. The purpose of The Gospel is the transformation of humanity from within to make it new.
3. (§96) To form the conscience, we need to recognize how truth is linked to freedom.
4. Sexuality enriches the whole person and manifests itself in the gift of self.
5. (§100) Prayer and fasting are the first and most effective weapons against the forces of evil.
F. The Gospel of Life is for the Whole of Human Society.
1. (§101) Not for believers alone, the Gospel of Life is for all.
2. Its value can be grasped by the light of reason.
A. Mary the Mother of All Rescued Life. (§102)
B. Mary is Present in and Transcends History. (§103)
C. Through Mary We Recognize That Life Is Always at the Center of the Struggle between Good and Evil. (§104)
D. Mary is a Living Word of Comfort: Do Not Be Afraid! With God Nothing Is Impossible! (§105)
1. Why did Pope John Paul II write Evangelium Vitae?
PRESENT-DAY THREATS TO HUMAN LIFE
1. What are the threats to life today? (§10) What threats to life are of greatest concern in this encyclical? (§11)
2. What once were considered criminal acts are now considered rights. How does Pope John Paul II explain this transformation in light of the crisis in culture? (§11) In light of the structure of sin? (§12)
3. How are contraception and abortion linked as “fruits of the same tree”? (§13)
4. What is the attitude of today’s culture toward suffering? (§15)
5. Our Holy Father speaks of a “perverse idea of freedom”. (§18) What are the characteristics of this notion of freedom (§19), and how does it affect society? (§20) What is the basis of the conflict between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”? (§21)
6. Why is the moral conscience of man in danger? (§24)
LIFE AS GIFT
1. What is the Gospel of Life? (§29-51)
2. Pope John Paul II tells us that through Jesus, man is given the possibility of knowing the complete truth concerning the value of human life, and the possibility of accomplishing that truth. Why does he speak of a truth to be accomplished? (§29)
3. How does the life of Jesus confirm great value of human life? (§33) Why is life always good? (§37-38)
4. How has God given man the means for exercising his freedom with respect to life? (§39-40)
5. What is man’s responsibility for life? (§42)
6. “It is altogether impossible for life to remain authentic and complete once it is detached from the good; and the good, in its turn is essentially bound to the commandments of the Lord, that is, to the law of life. The good to be done is not added to life as a burden which weighs on it, since the very purpose of life is that good, and only by doing it can life be built up”. (§48) Explain.
7. Why is bodily life not an absolute good? (§47) What is the most authentic meaning of life? (§49)
8. What is meant in saying the Gospel of Life is brought to fulfillment on the tree of the Cross? (§50-51)
LIFE AS RESPONSIBILITY
9. How does the gift of life become a commandment? (§52)
10. Under what circumstances is the death penalty warranted? (§56)
11. What are some of the pressures placed on women today? (§58-59) Why is procured abortion so morally grave? (§58) Why should the commandment not to kill be extended to the human embryo? (Read the beautiful second paragraph of §61 aloud.)
12. What is the canonical punishment by the Church for those who procure or commit abortion? (§62)
13. When are prenatal diagnostic techniques permissible, and when are they shameful? (§63)
14. What is the difference between euthanasia and withholding aggressive medical treatment? Why is the former condemned, and when is the latter permitted? (§65)
15. “It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute”. What is this riddle? How does it find an answer in the victory of Christ? (§67)
16. How does the issue of respect for life reveal the contradictions concealed in ethical relativism? (§70)
17. What is the correct relationship between civil law and moral law? (§71) Are pluralism and democracy absolute goods?
18. Pope John Paul II insists that freedom is authentic only when it is oriented toward the good. What does he mean and why is it important? (§74; also see Part Two, Question 6)
19. Can Christians ever cooperate formally with evil? (§74) Why do the negative commandments always bind, regardless of intentions? (§75)
20. God has entrusted us to one another, to care for one another, especially the weak or threatened. How can we do this? (§77)
LIFE AS A TASK TO BE PROMOTED
21. How are we as the “people of life” to evangelize the world with the Gospel of Life? What is the task of teachers, catechists, and theologians in this work? (§81, 82)
22. Pope John Paul II speaks of “everyday heroism”, “the service of charity”, and bearing one another’s burdens. (§86-88) Why is selflessness important when we proclaim the Gospel of Life?
23. “Absolute respect for every innocent human life also requires the exercise of conscientious objection in relation to procured abortion and euthanasia”. (§89) What does this mean for Catholic citizens? Catholic politicians?
24. What is the role of the family in living and proclaiming the Gospel of Life? (§92)
25. Why do we need a cultural transformation (§95), and what is the first step involved? (§96)
26. How does the trivialization of sexuality lead to contempt for new life? (§97; see also Part One, Question 3)
27. What is the fundamental understanding necessary in order to develop a correct scale of values? (§98)
28. What fundamental contribution do the Church and humanity expect from women? (§99)
29. For whom is the Gospel of Life given? (§101)
30. The concept of gradualism is a frequent theme of Pope John Paul II. Although we live in an age of instant gratification, this encyclical again reminds us that life is a process. How is our earthly life a part of this process?
Evangelium Vitae Study Guide © 2009, Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.
The “Overview” to the Evangelium Vitae Study Guide was written by Helen Hull Hitchcock, founding president of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its journal, Voices.
The “Study Outline” (based on the encyclical’s original table of contents) and the “Discussion Questions” for Evangelium Vitae were originally prepared for a study program in the Diocese of Arlington, in particular by Patrice Connolly. Margaret M. Whitehead, a member of the editorial board of Voices contributed to this project.