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In April my family and I left Los Angeles to spend the summer in Berlin. Though the trip was planned a long time ago for my sabbatical, we soon realized that it would be an accidental spiritual tonic after the wearying confinement of pandemic life. Never have we lived so long without the stifling air of cars, television, and American politics; never have we spent so much time walking together through tree-lined streets and parks. We found a friendly Catholic parish in our neighborhood, sparsely attended but welcoming. While we temporarily lost touch with home and church, we have never felt as safe in public with total strangers. We let our school-age children walk alone to the bakery and ride the train unaccompanied. That would be unthinkable in Los Angeles.
The perspective of the expatriate is supposed to bring wisdom—Hugh of St. Victor counsels students to embrace poverty and discipline, but also exile. In our distance from the United States and enjoying our newfound, if temporary, safety, my wife and I have watched with horror the news of the latest massacre of innocents at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, followed days later by shootings in Oklahoma and Iowa. The murdered children in Texas are the same age as ours, the teachers the same age as we are, executed in a public school just like our own. As many have noted, this raises sharp questions for the NRA lobby, who long ago accepted child sacrifice as the cost of their greed, and for certain members of Congress, who paint their face with Christianity to conceal their lust for power.
Yet the massacres in Uvalde and elsewhere raise troubling questions even for ordinary American Catholics, who greet the end of Roe v. Wade as a victory for what St. Pope John Paul II called the “culture of life.” I understand why many do so, but prudence urges some reflection. Setting aside the enormous pastoral, jurisprudential, and political complications of that recent decision, Catholics still face difficult questions about the nature of our political commitments to a culture of life.
For unrelated reasons I found myself rereading John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life), during the weeks between the leaking of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion and the shooting in Uvalde. What is the meaning of a “culture of life,” reexamined outside U.S. politics and apart from its usage as a culture-war cliché? What perpetuates a “culture of death”? Pope Francis has drawn criticism for reasserting an integral ethic of life—linking the climate crisis to the dignity of the unborn, for instance—and for resisting the reduction of political responsibility to a single issue. Many of Francis’s detractors assume that John Paul II would have endorsed their current strategy: to trade support for Republican neoliberal economics in exchange for the appointment of pro-life justices, by anti-democratic means if necessary.
It turns out that the text of Evangelium vitae suggests something quite different. John Paul II offers a probing social analysis of the “culture of death,” in the course of which he articulates some critical principles for a future politics of life. To be sure, the encyclical focuses rightly and above all on abortion and euthanasia. But only an inattentive reader could imagine that those are the only evils John Paul II was worried about. The encyclical offers a structural understanding of contemporary threats to human life, of which abortion is the signal, but by no means sole, instance. Evangelium vitae has many themes—too many to discuss here. But I would like to commend four of its insights to American Catholics contemplating our moral obligations in 2022. John Paul II’s words have an arresting relevance in our era of gun violence, and they help expose the error of treating one kind of violence against the most vulnerable as scandalous, and another as business as usual.
The first insight: to perceive the extent of the culture of death we must move beyond individual morality and examine economic and legal structures. John Paul II explains that he needed to write this encyclical because times had already changed since the Second Vatican Council. While he names abortion as the gravest crime, his alarm is precipitated by four larger factors. First, new threats to human life have emerged from advanced technological techniques for causing death. Second, these tools are defended by legal justifications that employ a novel ideology of absolute freedom. Third, the victims killed by such violence are the most vulnerable: “such attacks strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any means of self-defense.” Fourth, they occur within the familial sphere of parents and children, which should be an environment of safety and nurture. These criteria apply to abortion and euthanasia. They also apply to massacres of elementary-school children with semi-automatic weapons—weapons purchased legally under laws passed in the name of “freedom.”
On several occasions, John Paul II urges us to search beyond the “subjective responsibility of individuals” (12, 18, 59). Instead, to perceive the widespread culture of death, we should turn our gaze to the “structure of sin,” which he defines as follows:
This is the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable “culture of death.” This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency…a war of the powerful against the weak (12).
The “culture” he has in mind is a moral reality, but one that is “actively fostered” by “economic and political” realities that demand our critical attention. “Today the problem goes far beyond the necessary recognition of these personal situations. It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social, and political level,” and only at that level can we appreciate the full extent of the culture of death (18).
The culture of death strikes the most vulnerable and defenseless in society. Cain’s question—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—appears today as a “lack of solidarity toward society’s weakest members” and a cruel “indifference” to their survival (8). John Paul II defines the weak as “the elderly, the infirm, immigrants, children” (8). “Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good. We need then to ‘show care’ for all life and for the life of everyone” (87).
The culture of death, then, is sustained through economic and political structures, and it particularly attacks children and immigrants as well as the unborn and terminally ill. This is the second insight: the root of the culture of death is an economic system backed by a legal regime. The economic system is the commodification of human life, which calculates its value exclusively in terms of efficient profit accumulation (i.e. neoliberal capitalism).
John Paul II asks Christians to examine how goods are distributed in our society and who exerts power within that distribution. For example, he examines what links together not only the recent increase in abortion and euthanasia, but also technological investments in artificial contraception, artificial reproduction, and prenatal eugenics. The link, he concludes, is a certain approach to assessing the value of human life. If we read his analysis carefully, we can depict the main features of the ideology he describes: an excessive concern with “efficiency” (12), a reduction of human beings to disposable “biological material” (14), “the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return” (15), and the lack of “fair production and distribution of resources” among countries (16). The goodness of life is reduced to “economic efficiency” and “inordinate consumerism” (23). Human dignity is replaced by “the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness” (23). Human beings become commodities, “reduced to the level of a thing” among other things (34).
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.
John Paul II teaches that God has “entrusted the life of each individual to his or her fellow human beings.” This sets up a reciprocal dependency that creates “solidarity” even at the cost of radical self-giving. The measure of this “law of reciprocity” is Jesus himself, on the Cross (76). “It is therefore a service of love which we are all committed to ensure to our neighbor,” John Paul II writes, “that his or her life may always be defended and promoted, especially when it is weak or threatened” (77). John Paul II calls Christians to “heroic acts” of “selfless generosity,” like donating organs or adopting orphans (86). Surely the banning of certain classes of weapons would be another such act, even if it impedes one’s favorite outdoor sport.
Yet another mass shooting struck just in the last month, this time in Highland Park, Illinois, on July 4. Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, consoled the community during Mass at Immaculate Conception Church, the seats overflowing with mourners. “Gun violence is a life issue,” he preached in his homily. “The right to bear arms does not infringe the right to life.” Why do the massacres of innocents keep happening in the United States? What is it about our politics, our economy, and our self-image that makes our gun laws so resistant to change? As Evangelium vitae emphasizes several times, the most dangerous evils are those that are called by false names and maintained through self-deception. “In the present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the ‘culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death,’” John Paul II urges, “there is need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs” (95). If we take a step back from the personal morality of abortion and euthanasia, larger structures of sin can come into view: an economic system of extreme neoliberal capitalism; an ideology of absolute libertarian freedom; and a cultural habit of setting limits on how much we are willing to promote the life of the poor and vulnerable, through social welfare provisions and economic redistribution.
The recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade will not end the culture of death in the United States—far from it. New state restrictions on abortion without social provisions for women and children will not reflect a true culture of life in the holistic sense envisioned by John Paul II.
Catholics who advocate for the dignity of all human life still have a lot of work to do. They should be the loudest proponents for gun-control restrictions, for drastic measures to mitigate climate disaster, for expansive health-care and child-care benefits for working families, and for a return to the more progressive kind of tax code that prevailed before the 1980s. They should condemn un-Christian fictions about American exceptionalism or libertarian fantasies that prevent us from defending the lives of innocent children right in front of us. They should be the first to welcome a national “family policy” even if it means higher taxes. As John Paul II writes: “the cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to adopt a new life-style…a passing from indifference to concern for others,” so that our neighbors are “not rivals from whom we must defend ourselves, but brothers and sisters” (98). These words are a sharp rebuke to the blood-soaked gun culture of the United States.
To date the alliance between the Catholic pro-life movement and Republican politics has indisputably come at a grave cost. Over the past forty years it has taken billions in wealth from the poorest Americans and given them to the rich and powerful. It has exposed the weakest Americans to more precarious employment, health care, and legal status. It has inflicted still unknown and unfolding damage to the credibility of democratic participation itself and to the peaceful transfer of power. If now, instead of these evils, the culture of life were only to cost higher taxes and stronger gun regulations, will Catholics still celebrate it?