In order to avoid equitable redistribution, the wealthy are even willing to embrace eugenic policies: “The powerful of the earth…are haunted by the current demographic growth, and fear that the most prolific and poorest peoples represent a threat for the well-being and peace of their own countries” (16). Hence we must “unmask the selfishness of the rich countries which exclude poor countries from access to development” and should in fact “question the very economic models often adopted by states” that contribute to “injustice and violence” (18). Accordingly, John Paul II exhorts governments to prioritize “greater opportunities and a fairer distribution of wealth so that everyone can share equitably in the goods of creation…by establishing a true economy of communion and sharing of goods, in both the national and international order” (91). Such global economic redistribution is “the only way to respect the dignity of persons and families” (91).
The culture of death is the eclipse of humanity following the eclipse of God, as John Paul II argues in this and other encyclicals. But Evangelium vitae also plainly blames neoliberal economics: unfair, underregulated competition; the drive to maximize profits and reduce labor costs without heed for human flourishing; the monetization of every aspect of human life; and, we might add, the ensuing corruption of politics. To struggle against this anti-Christian anthropology, which values human beings only in terms of their economic utility, the whole economy must change.
That brings us to his third insight: the legal regime resulting from this economic system misconstrues freedom as maximal autonomy from obligation to others (i.e. libertarianism). John Paul II teaches that “crimes against life” are now justified by invoking “the rights of individual freedom” (4). This false appeal to freedom stems from an equally false understanding of personal autonomy. John Paul II traces this back to “the mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others” (19). This is a “notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity.” He concludes: “such a culture of death, taken as a whole, betrays a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong’ against the weak who have no choice but to submit” (19).
This perverse absolutizing of personal liberty makes neighbors look like enemy combatants and makes self-defense (standing one’s ground) the primary legal question. “If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy,” John Paul II writes, “people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself” (20).
Eventually, absolute freedom also includes freedom from the social bonds of truthfulness, or freedom to invent alternative facts. Once freedom becomes so debased that it justifies “the destruction of others,” then “the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim” (19). According to John Paul II, the erosion of truth itself is the final result of valorizing personal liberty, rejecting solidarity, and excluding the weak, sick, and poor from moral obligation by the rich and powerful. “At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining,” he writes, and “social life ventures onto the shifting sands of complete relativism” (20).
In this situation, the state becomes a “tyrant” and democracy creeps toward “totalitarianism.” Instead of providing a secure home in which all live together, the state guarantees “the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members” by taking the side of the most powerful partisans (20).
The culture of life—and with it, democracy and truth itself—can be sustained only when solidarity with “the weakest and most innocent” takes priority above all else, especially an idolatrous claim to absolute freedom. This points to the fourth insight. A culture of life is not supported through negative prohibitions alone; more important is the positive duty to promote life to the maximum.
Throughout Evangelium vitae, John Paul II teaches that the prohibition of murder (“You shall not kill”) defines only the outer boundary of Christian charity. Following this command of God demands far more from us. “Detached from this wider framework,” he warns, “the commandment is destined to become nothing more than an obligation imposed from without, and very soon we begin to look for its limits and try to find mitigating factors and exceptions” (48). The commandment is stated negatively as the “extreme limit” of just action. Yet it implies “a positive attitude of absolute respect for life; it leads to the promotion of life and to progress along the way of a love which gives, receives and serves” (54). The commandment not to kill is a “no” from which one “must start out in order to say ‘yes’ over and over again, a ‘yes’ which will gradually embrace the entire horizon of the good” (75).
This duty is by no means restricted to what is convenient, limited in scope, or free of cost. The negative commandment against murder is a positive commandment to pursue the neighbor’s good as my own, no matter what difficulties this may entail. If this project is to “embrace the entire horizon of the good,” it must not set comfortable limits on love of neighbor. Such a project requires a politics of “dreaming” or Christian utopianism, as Pope Francis has suggested. Indeed, its devotion to fraternity extends in principle all the way to martyrdom. At the very least it should include the willingness to relinquish one’s own cultural preferences and favorite ideologies—for example, so-called “gun culture”—if that is what will defend the life of the weakest and most defenseless.
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