Today, Thursday, March 25th, the solemnity of the Annunciation, marks the twentieth anniversary of Saint John Paul II’s promulgation of Evangelium Vitae, his powerful and foundational encyclical on the dignity of human life. As with his other writings, the Pontiff chose the day wisely, on which we celebrate the conception of Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and thus the beginning of the Incarnation, which changed not only the world, but all of human nature.
We are living in what John Paul even twenty years ago called a ‘conspiracy against life’, and, to put it mildly, things have not improved in the two decades since. In the midst of a superficial affluence, the reek of death is all around us. We have free-for-all abortion in all stages of pregnancy, contraception, a demographic death spiral and, soon, open access to euthanasia. Those on the side of the culture of death have far more resources, and almost complete control of the mainstream media, of the educational establishment, and of the culture in general, than the smaller, under-funded, beleaguered and scattered groups trying to defend the ‘culture of life’. Despondency, despair and compromise are constant temptations, especially when many members even of the official Church, as well as other religions, do not seem to be fully on board, and at times even antagonistic to the Holy Father’s clarion call to support and promote the Gospel of Life.
We may be tempted to give up hope, but that would be to set our sights on this world alone, which is, by and large, under the dominion of the Evil One. Rather, our hope should rest on eternal realities, as Pope Benedict reminded us in Spe Salvi. It is this supernatural hope, founded on a spiritual foundation, that should spur us on in our own work to defend life.
I have read Evangelium Vitae many times, as I teach it in class year after year, and I am beginning to get the strong impression that Pope John Paul, for all of his optimism, may not have expected much victory in the pro-life battle here on earth. Perhaps, just perhaps, he had in mind that curious phrase in the Catechism that “the kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil.
Of course, I am not sure if we are living in the midst of this ‘final unleashing of evil’ (I rather think many things have yet to happen before the end of the world!), we can all agree that evil is certainly in the ascendant.
Regardless of what was in the Pontiff’s mind, his emphasis in the Gospel of Life is on the ‘Gospel’ and ‘life’ in the spiritual and eternal sense.
Here are some of his thoughts:
First, John Paul begins by founding the dignity of value of human life on its relationship to God, and its eternal destiny. We do not value life because it is worthwhile, or enjoyable, or because euthanasia and abortion, once admitted, could get out of control. Even lives that are filled with suffering have worth, in fact, perhaps more ‘worth’ than those without, for suffering is redemptive, while complacency is not.
Second, the Holy Father writes that our temporal existence here is not an ultimate, but a penultimate reality, and our full existence begins only after death, in the life hereafter. In fact, all that happens to us in this life only has value, for good or for ill, insofar as it affects our eternal destiny. As Saint Francis of Assisi declared, ‘what a man is before God, that he is, and no more’.
Third, and following from this, in all the crimes against life, John Paul teaches that “more harm is done to the perpetrator than the victim”. This may sound odd when we consider the great suffering caused by late-term abortions, to give just one example of many, but we must remember that moral evil far outweighs physical evil, and the guilt on the soul of the one doing the evil, without repentance and conversion, will lead to his eternal separation from God, a fate far worse than physical death.
Fourth, we are called to avoid any compromise with evil, including any formal cooperation with laws or actions against life, even if we think the outcome may be beneficial. We may never do moral evil so that good, regardless of how much good, may come from it.
Finally, the Holy Father states that it is through culture that we will best evangelize. This cultural change, however, occurs on the level of the individual conscience, through education and spiritual formation in all its levels, whether formal or informal. The witness and spiritual sacrifice of doing one’s daily duties well, especially familial ones, is one of the best ways to build the culture of life. The value of mothers, is particularly indispensable.
As Saint (Mother) Theresa of Calcutta (whom John Paul II canonized) wisely stated, ‘we are not called to be successful, but faithful’. Even if the culture of death seems to be triumphing, we should never despair, for ultimately our hope is not in this world, the form of which is already passing away. That is not to say that we give up the fight, but rather fight with all the more hope and zeal, to bring as many souls as possible to the kingdom.
The conception of Christ in the womb of the Virgin should give us that hope, for “God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” And, in the end, He will triumph over all the evil, and His mercy and justice manifested to all, when the end of time does indeed arrive, in its, or rather His, own good time.
Solemnity of the Annunciation
Twentieth Anniversary of Evangelium Vitae
March 25, 2015