The Pope Gets Political

Evangelium Vitae – the “Gospel of Life” – is a warning and a plea to the people of the United States and other developed nations. The warning is that ours is fast becoming a culture of death. The plea is for us to join together in building a new culture of life.

Pope John Paul II declares that even now we are in the midst of an “enormous and dramatic clash” between the culture of life and the culture of death. At stake in this struggle is respect for the basic human dignity of the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human family – the unborn, the frail elderly, the poor, and the infirm. And since the character of any society is shaped in a decisive way by its treatment of those most in need of care and protection, the resolution of this struggle will determine what kind of a people we are.

At the level of intellectual engagement, the conflict between the culture of life the culture of death takes the form of a profound debate about the meaning of freedom. At the heart of the culture of death is “a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service to them.” This, according to the Holy Father, is “a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong’ against ‘the weak.’”

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So, in the name of freedom, such manifest evils as abortion, euthanasia, and other crimes against life are defended as rights whose exercise government must not only respect but protect and even facilitate by public funding of death-dealing “health care” services.

In the culture of life, by contrast, freedom is never a license to kill or oppress. Rather, freedom is ordered to goodness, to justice, to human solidarity. Freedom can never legitimately be invoked as a justification for actions that are contrary to human dignity and, as such, to moral truth. To claim a right to kill the unborn, the frail elderly, and other innocent human beings is, according to the pope, a “perversion” of freedom.

Politics for Life

At the political level, the struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death implicates a wide range of issues. Chief among them, however, both in terms of the sheer number of lives at stake and in its emblematic and strategic significance for both sides in the struggle, is the issue of abortion. What the pope says of the cultural struggle generally has particular force and salience when it comes to the abortion license that has taken more than thirty million innocent lives in our country alone since 1973, and will take more than a million more this year: “We are all involved and we all share in this struggle, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.”

Here, it is plain, the Holy Father teaches that our responsibilities to the unborn and other victims of the culture of death go beyond the merely personal obligation to refrain from seeking, performing, or abetting the procurement of abortion. All of us have the responsibility to be unconditionally pro-life.

This universal and unconditional pro-life imperative entails a variety of responsibilities. As Catholics, we are bound, for example, to pray for the unborn victims of abortion and for their mothers who are, too often, secondary victims of a vast abortion industry that flourishes in the culture of death. Moreover, we must give spiritual as well as material support to men and women in the front lines in the struggle against abortion, particularly those who offer shelter and care to pregnant women in need. Finally, though, perhaps most importantly, we must pray for a turning of the hearts of abortionists and those who assist them.

As the pope makes clear in Evangelium Vitae, the pro-life imperative also entails political responsibilities. This is most evident in the case of public officials – legislators, judges, and others charged to shape and apply our laws. Public officials are strictly bound to act in conformity with the great truth of our Declaration of Independence, that all human beings are “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” including, in the very first place, the “right to life.”

“As far as the right to life is concerned,” Pope John Paul II writes, “every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others.” Thus, it is a scandal for those in public office – particularly those Catholics in public office – to deny, or fail to protect, the right to life of the unborn child on the pretext that abortion is a purely private matter, or a religious question, or an evil to be addressed by “cultural transformation” and not by legal protection as well.

Natural Right to Life

The basic human right of the unborn child and every other member of the human family to the equal protection of the laws is no mere sectarian teaching. It is, rather, a principle of natural law – an objective moral truth, recognizable in the light of natural reason by all men and women of goodwill. In fact, this principle of natural justice is formally enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to our Constitution – ironically, the very amendment invoked by the Supreme Court when it overturned the right to life of the unborn in the 1973 cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. It is therefore not enough for a public official whose jurisdiction in any way extends to the question of abortion to be merely personally opposed to the taking of unborn human life; his or her obligation is to secure the legal protection of the unborn against abortion as a matter of strict justice.

President Clinton and many other politicians – some of them quite publicly Catholic – claim to be anti-abortion yet pro-choice. This is a classic example of trying to have it both ways. In acting to provide or protect a woman’s choice to have an abortion, the politician who adopts this stance necessarily acts to render the innocent and defenseless unborn vulnerable to violent death at the will of others. A politician’s subjective hope that no woman will ever resort to abortion cannot relieve him or her of culpability for this grave injustice. It is a simple matter of applying the Golden Rule: Would the politician vote to protect “choice” if it were he, or someone dear to him, who was thereby subjected to the possibility of being killed for the convenience or welfare of others? Obviously not.

Thus, it is mere prejudice – and, as the pope affirms, grave injustice – to place the unborn, or anyone else, in such a position of vulnerability based upon age, size, location, stage of development, or condition of dependency.

The imperative to be unconditionally pro-life applies, as the Holy Father says, to all of us, and not merely to those in public life. In a democracy, even private citizens play a significant political role. As such, we too are involved in the political dimension of the struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death. What does this mean concretely?

Pro-Life Imperative

The pro-life imperative demands that we give priority to this struggle in carrying out our duties as citizens. In voting for candidates for public office, for example, we cannot treat abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and other matters of life and death as on a par with other political issues – even pressing political issues such as tax reform and environmental protection. Plainly it can never be legitimate to support a pro-choice candidate even partly on the basis of his commitment to legal abortion or its public funding. Only in the rarest and most extraordinary circumstances could it be right to support such a candidate on the basis of his superiority in other respects to a truly pro-life opponent. True solidarity with the unborn and other potential victims of legalized homicide and other grave injustices demands that their plight be foremost in our minds in choosing our legislative representatives and other public officials. As the American Catholic bishops have said, “abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue for all men and women of good will.”

A dilemma arises for voters as well as for conscientious public officials when they face the question whether to support and vote for laws that, though falling short of all that justice requires in the way of protecting the unborn and other innocent victims, would nevertheless, if enacted, provide more protection than any politically feasible alternative. The pope acknowledges that such dilemmas are not infrequent. Here is what he teaches us in Evangelium Vitae:

When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, a public official, whose absolute personal opposition to 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. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

Although there are dedicated pro-life people who continue to believe otherwise, it seems clear to me that the Holy Father is saying that a person who makes manifest his commitment to continue working for the full legal protection of the unborn may, as a matter of prudence, support and vote for laws that, though not perfectly just are less unjust than the existing law or any currently politically attainable alternative.

At the same time, as the pope makes clear, there is never a legitimate excuse for failing to work toward the goal of full equal protection for the unborn and other victims of the culture of death. It is not enough merely to attempt to ameliorate the extent or gravity of unjust laws. The universal and unconditional pro-life imperative demands that we work unceasingly, even if by necessity incrementally, toward the ultimate goal of bringing our laws fully into line with the requirements of true justice.

Of course, the civil law need not forbid and punish every offense against the moral law. As the pope says, “certainly the purpose of the civil law is different and more limited in scope than that of the moral law.” But, as John Paul II also observes, the protection of fundamental human rights, and, in particular, the right to life, is among the central purposes of civil law. To the extent that civil law fails in this obligation and, worse yet, authorizes and promotes the violation of basic human rights, it forfeits its authority and, thus, its capacity to bind in conscience. Such gravely unjust laws as those authorizing and promoting abortion and euthanasia, far from creating an obligation of obedience, give rise, the pope declares, to “a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.” Indeed, as the Holy Father reminds us, “a law which violates an innocent person’s natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law.”

Recently, some people of goodwill who plainly sympathize with the victims of the culture of death have begun to lose heart about the political struggle to restore the right to life of the unborn and to prevent the introduction of assisted suicide and euthanasia. They are tempted to think that the turning of hearts that is required if respect for life is truly to prevail in our nation must be accomplished by nonpolitical or nonlegislative cultural transformation. To these people, the pope speaks a powerful word in Evangelium Vitae: “Although laws are not the only means of protecting human life, nevertheless they do play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behavior.”

The pope is here reminding us that political action and legal reform are crucial elements in the struggle to build a culture of life. Far from being alternatives to the cultural transformation that we must bring about if respect for human life is to be restored in our country, they are an indispensable means of accomplishing this transformation. Reform of the law is, to be sure, not the only means. Nor is it sufficient. Prayer is indispensable, too. So is direct assistance to pregnant women in need. So is education. “The underlying causes of attacks on life have to be eliminated,” the pope says, “especially by ensuring proper support for families and motherhood.” But political efforts to secure and protect the legal rights of the unborn, the elderly, and other victims of the culture of death must not be abandoned: “By virtue of sharing in Christ’s royal mission, our support and promotion of human life must be accomplished by the service of charity, which finds expression in personal witness, various forms of volunteer work, social activity, and political commitment.”

Prophetic Vision

I have spoken particularly of the pope’s treatment of the evils of abortion and euthanasia. This, I think, is appropriate, in view of the grave threat that these evils pose to so many innocent people in our society. And it is also worth noting that in Evangelium Vitae the Holy Father, expressly invoking his full authority as the successor of St. Peter, and teaching in communion with the bishops of the Catholic Church, formally declares that abortion, euthanasia, and every act involving “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.” (Indeed, the pope implicitly confirms that these teachings are infallibly proposed by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church, in accordance with the norms of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council.)

But it is also important to observe that the pope calls attention to other threats to life, other dimensions of the culture of death, other evils that must be overcome in the building of a new culture of life. For example, the Holy Father condemns indifference to poverty, ignorance, and other impediments to the full development of the human person. He calls attention to the respects in which materialism, consumerism, and sexual immorality assault human dignity and contribute to the culture of death. And he praises both “a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples,” and the “growing public opposition to the death penalty.”

The pope is, of course, a priest. But in Evangelium Vitae, he is also a prophet. He knows that his warnings and pleas, like those of the great prophets of ancient Israel, will be ignored and even ridiculed by influential parties who are themselves invested in the culture of death. Still, he encourages us to join him in a spirit of Christian hope and even confidence. “There is certainly an enormous disparity between the powerful resources available to the forces promoting the ‘culture of death’ and the means at the disposal of those working for a ‘culture of life and love.’ But we know that we can rely on the help of God, for whom nothing is impossible.”

This article originally appeared in the October 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Robert P. George

    Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. He also serves as the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He is co-author (with Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson) of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.

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