What is the “Gospel of Life”?
Segment One: What is the “Gospel of Life”?
Overview: The Gospel of Life ( Evangelium Vitae - available on-line) is a contemporary recounting of the present-day threats to human life by John Paul II with a stirring call to become “people of life” committed to building a new culture based on the dignity of the human person. The full text is available on-line, by clicking here. In the Gospel of Life, John Paul II highlights modern contemporary threats to human dignity which he calls an “eclipse of the value of life in contemporary society” (10). Issues like abortion, embryonic research, and euthanasia are different in nature from other violations of human dignity (e.g. war, poverty, discrimination) because they are based on a dangerous notion of personal rights and freedom.
As Catholics we are all called to be “pro-life” and work toward building a “culture of life.” How should each of us answer that call? We come from different ages, life experiences, and family commitments. The culture in which we live is often hostile to a pro-life world view. Sometimes, even when we want to get involved, we don’t know how to help or where to get involved.
If there is one single Church teaching document that best describes what it means to be “pro-life”, the Gospel of Life is it. The Gospel of Life sets forth a compelling Catholic vision of life based on the dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God. It also speaks frankly about the very real threats to human dignity in our modern world and concludes with a stirring call to become “people of life.”
Let’s start where John Paul II does, back in the first book of the Bible, in Genesis. His starting point might surprise you. He does not begin with the beautiful account of creation or the happiness in the Garden of Eden or even in the first sin of Adam and Eve. He turns instead to the fourth chapter of Genesis and the story of Cain and Abel. He begins with this story to teach us a very important lesson about our contemporary culture.
Let’s quickly recall the story. Abel was a shepherd. His brother Cain was a farmer. As was the custom, Cain and Abel both brought the first fruits of their labor as a sacrifice to God. For some reason not stated directly in the story, God preferred Abel’s sacrifice. Cain got very angry and then killed Abel. When God asked Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”, Cain tries to avoid responsibility for his action and replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God punishes Cain for his crime, but still holds out the promise of his mercy by placing a mark on Cain to protect him from death by those wishing to avenge the murder of Abel.
The story of Cain and Abel has “universal significance” John Paul tell us;“it is a page rewritten daily… in the book of human history” (n.7). Anger and envy get the upper hand. Brother kills brother. Conscience is dulled.
After Cain killed his brother, the Lord confronts him and asks, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). In the Gospel of Life, John Paul suggests that the Lord is asking this same question to us today in order to make us realize “the extent and gravity of the attacks against life which continue to mark human history”. (10) He goes on to recount a list of grave attacks on human dignity in the modern world, including war, genocide, poverty and malnutrition of children caused by the unjust distribution of resources; “the scandalous arms trade”, “the reckless tampering of the world’s ecological balance”; and many more. Few would disagree with this argument. But then, John Paul raises the argument to a different level. He calls us to focus “particular attention on another category of attacks, affecting life in its earliest and in its final stages” (n. 11). When life is taken through abortion or euthanasia, much of our contemporary culture does not regard it as a crime. Instead, it is held up as a “right”. John Paul terms this phenomenon the “eclipse” of the value of life.
In an eclipse, the position of the moon blocks the light of the sun. Even though the light is there, we can’t see it clearly. Many people accept abortion, embryonic research and euthanasia as individual rights because they do not clearly see the value of each human life made in the image and likeness of God. Their consciences are dulled.
If we as Catholics want to live out the Gospel of Life, we need first to clearly understand and then take to heart the true vision of human life as Jesus taught, “I came that they may have life, and have it in abundance.” (Jn 10:10)
Gospel of Life: Introduction – section 17
Genesis 4: 2- 6
Questions to Consider:
1. Why did John Paul II place particular attention to attacks on life in its earliest and final stages of the Gospel of Life?
2. What does the mark of Cain say to us about God’s mercy and judgment? What insights does it offer in the debate over capital punishment?
3. Have you ever had an experience where consciences were “dulled” in respect to a life issue? How did you respond?