Reflections on Evangelium Vitae by J. Michael Miller, C.S.B.
Contemporary attacks on life differ from those of earlier generationstoday many people demand their legal recognition. What should citizens and politicians do when faced with laws against life? In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II explains the relation between moral and civil law which guides the churchs response to the current challenges.
Those favoring abortion, euthanasia, and other anti-life practices defend their position in several ways. On the one hand, some argue that in these matters individuals have the right to make whatever "private" choices they want. The only limitation they recognize is that of infringing on the freedom and rights of others. The state, they maintain, should neither adopt nor approve any specific ethical position on life issues.
On the other hand, some do recognize the need for legislation. But they believe that any such laws should express only what "the majority itself considers moral and actually practices" (#69). The pope, however, dissents from both views. The protection of life is not a matter of personal choice. All institutions, including the state, must defend it. Furthermore, writes the Holy Father, true values cannot rest on majority opinion. Their basis lies in the objective moral law. The natural law written in the human heart tells us what is truly right and good. Majorities cant decide this. Civil law then must acknowledge, respect, and promote the authentic moral values known from creation. Good law ensures that everyone enjoys "respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person" (#71). Foremost among these rights is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being. Because the state is not the source of human rights, it may neither modify nor abolish them.
"The doctrine on the necessary conformity of civil law with the moral law," observes the Holy Father, "is in continuity with the whole tradition of the church" (#72). It is also the precious heritage of all civilization.
But what are Catholics to do when the law oversteps its bounds? What ifas in the United Statesit legalizes the direct killing of innocent human beings? The pope restates a firm principle of Catholic teaching: "A civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law" (#72). Anti-life legislation denies the equality of everyone before the law and contradicts the common good. Abortion and euthanasia are, therefore, "crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize" (# 73).
Regrettably, many people, especially those in the health and allied professions, have to work in situations where unjust laws are in force. To what extent can they cooperate in practices which, though legal, are contrary to the natural and revealed law? Here the encyclical leaves no room for ambiguity. "There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection." (#73).
Neither invoking respect for the rights of others, nor appealing to the fact that civil law permits crimes against life, makes it morally licit to obey such a law. The refusal to take part in attacks on innocent human life is an absolute moral duty.
Individuals may never kill innocent human life or share in anyones intention to do so. Nor can they campaign or vote for an anti-life law. "This cooperation," writes John Paul, "can never be justified" (#74).
The Holy Father then makes a plea aimed at countries which have legalized anti-life practices. In these cases, he says, civil law should guarantee the right of conscientious objection to those in positions where unjust laws impinge upon their profession. According to the pope, everyone has the basic human right to refuse to take part in any consultation, preparation, or carrying out of an act against life. Furthermore, the law should protect conscientious objectors from punitive disciplinary and financial measures.
Today some countries are starting to rethink their permissive abortion laws. This raises delicate questions for Catholic voters and politicians. How should they respond to a proposed law whose purpose is to replace an existing law with one aimed at reducing the number of legal abortions?
In carefully chosen words, the pope answers: "When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality" (#73, emphasis mine).
If a politicians opposition to abortion is publicly known - and hence the possibility of scandal is removed - he or she could vote for a more restrictive law, even if it does not fully protect all innocent life. To vote for such a law can be a legitimate way of striving to reduce the evil effects of more liberal legislation.
John Paul ends chapter three with an appeal: "that our time, marked by all too many signs of death, may at last witness the establishment of a new culture of life" (#77).
This is the ninth in a series on Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, by Father J. Michael Miller, who writes for Our Sunday Visitor. ©1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Reprinting rights purchased by donations to the Friends of the Good News.