on August 3, 2014
In 1983 John Paul II wrote what would later become the rallying call for the Catholic Church's involvement in the conservative 'culture wars', particularly in the United States where society was bitterly divided following the turbulent 60's and 70's, the contraceptive pill, the Hippie Revolution, Vietnam, AIDS, and Roe v Wade. Despite John Paul II's appeal to universality in this encyclical letter, one can't help but feel when reading this encyclical with Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendour, John Paul is aiming a trio of doctrinal writings exactly at the heart at what he sees as a decadent, corrupt materialistic society out of control, particularly in the sexual arena. One of the main signs of this in John Paul's worldview was the intolerable legalisation and acceptance of birth control and abortion, consequently leading to a heartless utilitarian calculus towards human life. Interestingly John Paul chooses to link the (in his view) intrinsic evils of contraception and abortion with moves to legalise euthanasia, the termination of human life by medical assistance in certain cases.
It is fairly clear John Paul viewed abortion and euthanasia (and also artificial contraception) as closely linked, and also as 'attacks' on human life. He also views such acts as transgressions of the natural and divine law, and hence serious sins. The unstated premise in John Paul II's neoscholastic thinking is that human life is a basic good, and as such cannot be undermined in any way, a position close to that of legal scholar John Finnis, and also stated more clearly with less sectarian appeals to divine authority.
John Paul II obviously attempts to encourage the reader to accept his views in the encyclical by using Papal Infallibility (by using the criteria set out by Vatican I and II) and also appealing to Catholic tradition, the Bible, the natural law, the views of other bishops, and the 'sense of the faithful.' As powerful as these arguments may be for Catholics, the premises and the views about religion underlying them will not appeal to the sceptic or unbeliever. This simply leaves the reasons John Paul gives in a rational sense, as a moral philosopher. Unfortunately it can't be said reviewing the literature on these controversial issues that the arguments he uses in the encyclical are compelling or popular outside Catholic circles, and conservative ones at that.
To his credit John Paul II links his views to Catholic social teaching, and is noticeably aware that the moral problems of abortion and euthanasia (as well as contraceptive use) are closely connected to social issues in the societies in which they occur, especially like poverty, social exclusion, and unemployment. It is not for nothing that Pope John Paul was a social ethics professor for many years before becoming Pope and also wrote some of his most beautiful writings on social justice issues, the environment, and work.
This shows the hypocrisy and lack of understanding of so called 'pro-life' people who think the social justice teachings of the church on poverty, human rights, personal dignity and equality can be simply detached as a matter of 'prudential judgment' while the church must not budge on questions around abortion, sexuality, or euthanasia. There is much hypocrisy as well as irrational fanaticism in the culture wars, particularly among those who cry 'abortion is murder' yet think taxation is theft, criminals should just be executed, wars should always be supported as a matter of patriotism, there is nothing wrong with capital punishment, and unemployment and poverty are simply always due to certain kinds of people being too lazy to take care of themselves. The approach of many Catholics who uncritically back certain conservative politicians (even Bishops) who claim to be 'pro-life' yet embrace people like Ayn Rand or Herbert Spencer who described those on welfare as 'parasites' and backed ruthless competition in their philosophy need to re-read this encyclical carefully, especially the parts on social justice and to care for women who choose to carry through their pregnancy despite hardship and poverty.
The same might be said for those who think it is terrible to let people go hungry and homeless, yet don't think that legalising euthanasia is fraught with dangers and poses incredible risks, especially for the sick, weak, elderly and vulnerable, or that the abortion of many millions each year through the world is not something to be highly concerned about.
The most problematic aspect of the encyclical deals with the issue about how to regulate 'sinful' acts, including those listed in the encyclical. John Paul II seems to think the best way to deal with these sins (as he sees them) is to make them illegal, in a criminal sense. In a certain sense this is already the case in most places - taking innocent human life (including in abortion and euthanasia) is a criminal offence, unless a lawful excuse or justification can be found. John Paul II seems to think though there are no possible exceptions for the rule against taking an innocent human life, and anyone who has an abortion or engages in euthanasia must be treated as a murderer. I personally prefer Pope Francis who says the church must be a hospital of mercy rather than a law-court of ruthless justice. The (mis)use of excommunication as a 'punishment' in abortion cases in recent years has been nothing short of a scandal - might not a special penitential rite, offering unconditional forgiveness for those who have had an abortion (or assisted in one) be a much better and more healing experience? Could not something similar be done for euthanasia? It might be a start, and more reflective of Jesus who healed the person before he told them not to sin again.
The black and white approach given in the encyclical is problematic for many reasons, even if the reasoning is understandable. The main problem is it opens the door to things like criminal prosecution and jail time for women, some perhaps who might be in extreme psychological distress, who have an abortion. The problem already arises in criminal prosecutions for those who assist in euthanasia, often being found not guilty or being only given the lightest punishment because the circumstances of the case dictate mercy rather than punishment. I think for a woman who had an abortion after being raped needs counselling and healing, not prison time.
The other and more problematic issue is in many cultures and countries religion and religious views commands little or no respect, particularly those of the Catholic Church, due to sex abuse scandals and other issues. It makes it very easy to dismiss the hardline set of positions on contested moral issues given in this encyclical as just another exercise in blinkered religious fanaticism - something not helped by John Paul's backing of fundamentalist movements and fundamentalism in the church during his Papacy.
Finally there is the problem of the militancy and extremism of the anti-abortion movement itself, which in some examples has felt it right to take human life to defend it (i.e. bombing abortion clinics, shooting doctors or medical staff at clinics, or engaging in terrorist acts). The Gospel of Life has to be broadened to reject all forms of violence and also protect children (and women!) from all forms of violence and abuse, something the church has disgustingly failed to do, sadly most glaringly perhaps under John Paul II's own scandal-ridden papacy (for example his unwavering support for corrupt sex abuser Fr Marcial Maciel of the Legionaries of Christ).
While I think John Paul II was on the right path on wanting to defend the sanctity of human life (especially given his experience of the World Wars and the terrible violence in Europe in his period) I feel very uncomfortable with the extreme religious language John Paul II uses, and even more so with the way his message has been distorted and warped by right-wing Christian fanatics into a set of meaningless slogans thrown about with no reasoning or thought while strong anti-life views (i.e. unfettered capitalism is good) is wedded to hatred of certain classes of people like homosexuals. The 'Gospel of Life' will only make sense when all human beings are respected and valued, including the unemployed, poor, homeless, asylum seekers, immigrants, homosexuals, etc. It makes no sense to say it is wrong to abort a baby while it is fine to persecute the hated gay, the illegal immigrant, or the black prisoner.
Thankfully Pope Francis has made some excellent steps along this direction while driving some much needed nails home into the myth you can be pro-life but not care about the poor or the marginalised. Let's hope the 'Gospel of Life' and 'Gospel of Joy' rather than the 'Gospel of Life' and 'Gospel of Tea-Party Republican/Moral Majority Values' prevail in the future.