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Evangelium Vitae (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. The Pope issued the encyclical 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.
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 §§ 58, 61-62, concerns abortion:
58. Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an “unspeakable crime.” (citing Gaudium et Spes, 51.) . . .
61. The texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it. But they show such great respect for the human being in the mother’s womb that they require as a logical consequence that God’s commandment “You shall not kill” be extended to the unborn child as well. . . . Christian Tradition — as the Declaration issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out so well — is clear and unanimous, from the beginning up to our own day, in describing abortion as a particularly grave moral disorder. . . .
62. 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, §§ 58, 61-62)
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)
With respect to abortion, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the teaching is “unchangeable”:
2271. Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.
Finally, the Evangelium Vitae also deals with capital punishment:
In this encyclical, the Pope states that “execution is only appropriate in cases of absolute necessity, in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” However, in today’s society, with the improvement of the penal system these cases are very rare. The purpose of punishment is “to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” The nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully examined and should not go to the extreme except in cases in which it is required. The Catechism states “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means …because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” This is saying that if society is able to contain a person who has committed a crime, then there is really no need to put this person to death. This is especially true if the person is able to convert while his time in prison.
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 four 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.
Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.(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 Archbishop Tarcisio 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).
- Complete text from the Vatican