The Gospel Of Life by Fr. J. Michael Miller C.S.B.

   Preparations for the encyclical began in 1991 in Rome. At a special meeting there the college of cardinals discussed current threats to human life. After their deliberations, they asked the pope "to reaffirm with the authority of the successor of Peter the value of human life and its inviolability" (#5). As a first response to their request, John Paul wrote a personal letter to every bishop in the world, seeking their input on the planned document. They replied with valuable information, suggestions, and proposals.

This encyclical, then, is not just the work of the pope. It is the fruit of genuine episcopal collegiality. By taking an active part in its preparation, the bishops, he writes, "bore witness to their unanimous desire to share in the doctrinal and pastoral mission of thechurch with regard to the Gospel of life" (#5).

Unlike some papal teachings meant primarily for Catholics, the Holy Father wrote the encyclical for believer and non-believer alike, all men and women of goodwill. He is addressing the whole world.

According to Catholic teaching, creation itself "tells" us what is true about life. The pope therefore insists that everyone who is sincerely open to truth and goodness can discover "the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end" (#2). Both the light of reason and the interior action of divine grace lead people to affirm "the incomparable value of every human person" (#2).

Thus he calls upon everyone to "respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life" (#5). All those concerned with the welfare of individuals and the future of society owe it to themselves to read this encyclical. Why is the church so passionately concerned with questions about life? Entrusted with preaching the Gospel to every creature, she realizes that every assault on human life has repercussions on her teaching. These attacks, writes the Holy Father, touch upon "the core of her faith in the redemptive incarnation of the Son of God" (#3).

The good news, which is Jesus himself, contains the message of the sacred value of human life. For the pope, "the Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person, and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel" (#2). It is a source of joy, strength, and hope for all people.

But, you might ask, why an encyclical now? The Holy Father draws a comparison to help us answer this question. At the end of the last century, Leo XIII addressed the injustices of the working class in his ground-breaking social encyclical Rerum Novarum (189 1)., Likewise, as the twentieth century draws to a close, John Paul 11 wants the church to tackle today's most pressing injustices. This entails, he believes, the defense of the "great multitude of weak and defenseless human beings" (#5). Many unborn children and terminally ill men and women are being denied their right to life.

The urgency of the present situation with regard to life questions springs from what the Holy Father calls the "new threats to human life" which are increasingly darkening the horizon. Science and technology have given rise to innovative ways of attacking life. This state of affairs cannot be ignored or go unchallenged.

At the same time, a new cultural climate is gaining ground. Some currents of public opinion are now ready to justify crimes against life "in the name of the rights of individual freedom" (#4). Governments and the medical profession can no longer be relied on to defend life's sacred value. Not only are lives being directly attacked, but the moral fabric of society is being undermined.

To meet this crisis head-on, John Paul invites us to join him in meditating and proclaiming the Gospel of life. This good news is, he says, "the splendor of truth which enlightens consciences, the clear light which corrects the darkened gaze, and the unfailing source of faithfulness and steadfastness in facing the ever new challenges which we meet along our path" (#6). After the introduction, the encyclical unfolds in four chapters. Each of these will be analyzed in later articles. In chapter one, the pope analyzes the contemporary threats to human life which are signs of a "culture of death." In more reflective fashion, he then takes up the biblical message about life in chapter two. Besides authoritatively confirming church teaching on innocent human life, abortion, and euthanasia, chapter three, the most doctrinal section, also examines the relation between moral and civil law. In chapter four, the Holy Father closes with an appeal for building a new culture of life, an enormous effort which will involve all sectors of the church and society.

Is the time not ripe for each of us to make a sincere examination of conscience as to how we think about and treat human life? Do we truly believe that life is "a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters" (#2)?

This is a first of a series on the Gospel of Life by Fr. J. Michael Miller, C.S.B., which first appeared in our Sunday Visitor. Used with permission. To subscribe to Our Sunday Visitor, phone toll free: 1-800-348-2440

  Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the July 1999 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue.