Evangelium Vitae:3

Man Against God:

Roots of the Moral Crisis

by J. Michael Miller, C.S.B.


Besides pointing out the tragic signs of the conspiracy against life, Pope John Paul II is eager to expose the roots of this culture of death. His description of Cain’s murder recalls the origin of all acts of violence against one’s neighbor. Every time human life is taken, he says, one gives in "to the ‘thinking’ of the evil one" (#8), to the devil who "was a murderer from the beginning" (Jn 8:44).

In novel and ingenious ways the forces of evil continue to sabotage reverence for life. Why, the pope asks, are we so willing to attack life, ratifying Cain’s sin over and over again? The encyclical gives an answer: the culture of death is rooted in our "Promethean attitude." Man sets himself up against God. Human beings dare to assume that they "can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands" (# 15).

According to John Paul, three main factors feed this tragic arrogance: a false understanding of freedom, a loss of the sense of God, and an eclipse of moral conscience.


An individualistic idea of freedom feeds a culture of death. A person who is captive to this spirit lets his choices be determined by "subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim" (# 19). Freedom becomes the right to make arbitrary decisions. Worse yet, this so-called freedom is closed to the objective truth about what is truly good and evil.

When individualism takes hold, social life is built on "the shifting sands of complete relativism" (#20). The result? Convention, not truth, controls how we make moral decisions and civil laws. "Everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining," the pope laments, "even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life" (#20).

But, according to John Paul, inalienable rights belong to everyone precisely because of their humanity. In today’s world, however, these rights are the object of legislative debate. Rather than being accepted as "given" by creation, they are now viewed as "granted" by the state. Consequently, writes the pope, a nation "arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members" (#20).

"To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law," writes the Holy Father, "means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others." This sinister caricature of democracy, he affirms, leads to the "breakdown of a genuinely human coexistence and the disintegration of the state itself has already begun" (20).

A society founded on a twisted idea of freedom is an agglomeration of individuals without mutual bonds. When freedom is understood as absolute autonomy -- the right to do as you please -- conflict with others inevitably results. They are enemies to be defended against. To the extent that solidarity with other people is denied, the authentic meaning of freedom is undermined.


The pope asserts that "when the sense of God is lost, the sense of man is also threatened and poisoned" (#22). A decline in religious faith seriously impacts how human life is treated.

Indifference to religion leads people to deny man’s uniqueness compared to other earthly creatures. They view the individual as a "thing" instead of a "person." Life is no longer recognized as a gift of God, a sacred reality entrusted to human veneration and responsibility. Rather, it becomes man’s "exclusive property, completely subject to his control and manipulation" (#22).

For the pope, a waning sense of God inevitably paves the way for the frenzied pursuit of material well-being. The "quality of life" is then restricted to consumption, beauty, and physical pleasure. The more profound aspects of existence, such as the interpersonal, spiritual, and religious, are ignored. Without God, contempt for life inevitably results.


Contemporary women and men, the Holy Father thinks, are finding it ever more difficult to distinguish good from evil, even in matters touching the fundamental value of human life. Moral conscience, whether of an individual or of society as a whole, is becoming obscured. Not surprisingly, when people are confused about what is truly good with regard to life, they very often make choices which violate its dignity.

Despite the gravity of the present situation, John Paul closes the first chapter of his encyclical on a note of hope. The blood of Christ, he writes, is "the foundation of the absolute certitude that in God’s plan life will be victorious" (#25). Signs of his victory over death are even now evident in the world. Faith in the risen Christ allows us to work with unflagging hope to build "an authentic civilization of truth and love" (#6).

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