Public Arguments: The Gospel of Life

Observers have been marvelling at the uncommonly warm reception given to Pope John Paul II’s latest encyclical, The Gospel of Life. The Newsweek cover story was especially welcome.

Contrary to some opinion leaders, the Bishop of Rome does not simply “make up” Catholic teaching; he is more bound to it than any one. So there are few surprises about Catholic teaching on abortion and euthanasia in the new encyclical — except that its longer, fuller arguments take interesting new turns. (Even Frances Kissling said so.)

By now, the pope on contraception is also no surprise; he has been writing about it since his little book Love and Responsibility. The one surprising thing is how alone the pope seems; few other bishops or priests seem to preach on this subject. Apart from the pope, over the last 30 years I have heard only one sermon opposed to contraception.

The one surprise is the pope’s judgment that nowadays justifications for capital punishment are “very rare . . . practically non-existent.” When any of my good friends disagrees strongly with an opinion I have long held, respect for him forces me to re-think. In this case, the motives are even stronger. In Europe, concurrence with the pope’s judgment might be easier; here in America, it seems less convincing. Why is that? That’s where re-thinking is needed.

In an intelligent comment praising the encyclical, the editors of Commonweal (April 21) single out “at least three aspects” for further questioning. When the pope addresses his partners in dialogue as participants in “a culture of death,” while positioning himself within “the culture of life,” the editors ask, how can dialogue go forward? People are “understandably suspicious about ‘dialogue’ that can lead to only one conclusion.”

But is it true that dialogue requires each participant to give up knowing what they already know? I don’t think so. We don’t enter into dialogue in order to surrender what truth we already have, or in order to compromise half-way between the truth we know and the truth others know. (At a time when many people claim to know no truths at all, only to have opinions, it especially does not become us to pretend to be relativists when we are not.) As long as all parties have good will and try to attain genuine communication, dialogue is useful and nearly always quite enlightening, no matter what the starting point of the parties. Each party will at least get to see how things appear to the other; and this is worthwhile in itself.

Secondly, Commonweal continues, “the way in which the pope writes about women continues to be an enormous handicap.” Commonweal thinks that the Pope mainly praises women for being mothers, and does not really appreciate the advantages of a culture that “enables women to contribute outside the home.” Rhetorically, I agree, the encyclical would have been better than it is, if it had included a few sentences celebrating the new roles open to women in advanced societies. Women today, I agree, have been exploring new dimensions of “the image of God” in which they have been created. More about being a woman, not less, is revealed thereby.

By contrast, while Commonweal is being quite honest in articulating why so many Catholic husbands and wives are now using contraceptives — in order to participate, as they think, in the new possibilities open to women — the editors’ reasoning is here vulnerable to philosophical and theological criticism. They write: “The pope’s repeated condemnations of the so-called ‘contraceptive mentality’ make no effort to recognize the genuine moral goods married couples seek to balance in the use of contraception.” But if, as the popes have held, the use of contraception is inherently evil, then one can hardly call it a “genuine moral good” that may be placed in “balance” with other goods.

Usually, those who grasp the traditional Catholic case against contraception, and those who do not accept it, go sailing right past each other; they hardly ever make their arguments join, step by step. On this important question, serious dialogue is still absent.

When the editors of Commonweal further mention a “conceptual trap” created in Humanae vitae, one wishes they would state more clearly just what this “trap” is. About this disagreement, there has been much shouting in the dark these last 30 years, but very little calm and patient argument.

Finally, the editors think that the pope’s view of modern society is too simply. If pluralism has faults, they write, the absence of “moral relativism” in Catholic Croatia, Rwanda, and Argentina has  hardly protected the weak. Again, the medieval nations of Christendom, before modern pluralism set in, did not always meet the highest standards. And when the pope urges “conscientious objection” by Catholics today to parts of modern culture, they ask, isn’t such action “a quintessential expression of modern individualism and tolerance?”

At one point, the editors fail to capture the sophistication of the pope’s argument. They hold that the Holy Father characterizes modern society as a “culture of death.” But they do not notice that he analyzes “society” in three dimensions: political, economic, and cultural. (In this, he follows the chapter headings of Gaudium et spes.) The pope is criticizing, not the whole of modern society, but its cultural dimension. Cultural decline drags down political and economic possibilities.

Many times, the pope has lauded democratic polities for defending the human person and protecting human rights. In Centesimus annus, especially in sections 32 and 42, he laid his finger on sound, moral, and even Christian aspects of capitalism, while noting how these are frequently distorted. In that same encyclical, he began turning his attention to the realm of culture, the realm he concentrates on in Veritatis splendor and Evangelium vitae.

Chapter 4 of the new encyclical is entitled “For a New Culture of Human Life.” Even if one grants that the political and economic institutions of a particular society are (as this world goes) in decent working order, nonetheless, a decline in its cultural ethos may undermine or corrupt them.

The candid analysis offered by the editors of Commonweal — and their future inquiries into the good questions they have raised — might be furthered by distinguishing among these three realms of discourse as clearly as the pope has.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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