The Prophetic Humanism of Evangelium Vitae

Gloria Dei vivens homo. “The glory of God is man fully alive.” This classic assertion of Irenaeus is the driving motif of Evangelium Vitae and, I would suggest, the driving motif of the teaching of this pontificate. Evangelium Vitae is much more than instructions on what is necessary to advance “the culture of life” joined to warnings about the encroaching “culture of death.” Instructions and warnings there certainly are and must be, but the message is one of a comprehensive and compelling vision of the human project itself.

Like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great before him, I have little doubt that a hundred years from now the entire world will, in a taken-for-granted manner, speak of John Paul the Great. At the end of this bloodiest of centuries, as humanity crosses the threshold into the third millennium, he is the only figure on the world-historical stage who offers a believably hopeful message about the human future. Persistently, like a trip-hammer, there resounds throughout this pontificate the assurance with which this pontificate began, “Be not afraid!”

It is a reassuring word directed not just to Catholics or to Christians but to all who are engaged in the human project itself. The human project, the humanum, is God’s project, and we have God’s word that it will not fail. At stake in the human project is nothing less than the glory of God. In the Holy Father’s writing, and not least in Evangelium Vitae, we would make no mistake to hear the echo of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s magnificent reflections on Herrlichkeit, the glory of the Lord. In this encyclical there resounds as well the theme of Veritatis Splendor, reflecting John Paul’s lifelong philosophical and theological reflection on “the acting person” who is called to respond in freedom to the revelation of God. God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, the Holy Father is fond of saying, is both the revelation of God to man and the revelation of man to himself. “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

John Paul’s vision of the human future is grounded in an anthropology that is profoundly Christocentric and Trinitarian. This pontificate represents a resurgence of authentic humanism. It is a Christian and theological humanism, to be sure, but it is universal in its understanding of the humanum called to communion with the communion that is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is prophetic humanism. While it is irrepressibly hopeful, this vision is not to be confused with optimism. Optimism is simply a matter of optics, of seeing what one wants to see and not seeing what one does not want to see.

Evangelium Vitae is not optimistic. Like its author, it looks long and unblinkingly into the heart of darkness, into the abyss of “the culture of death.” Yet at the heart of darkness there is hope, because at the heart of darkness there is Christ. Evangelium Vitae is centered, as St. Paul declared his gospel to be centered, in “Christ and him crucified.” The great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed that the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity that is on the far side of complexity. The Gospel of Life is on the far side of the culture of death. “Be not afraid” is on the far side of every reason to be afraid. In short, this is a believable humanism because it is on the far side of the cross.

The attack on the innocent, says John Paul, is an attack on God. This is not rhetorical hyperbole. The attack on God is at the heart of the story of sin and redemption; it is, finally, the God-Man on Calvary, nailed and bleeding and in the throes of death, crying for the forgiveness that his death secures. The attack did not succeed then, it will not succeed now, it will not succeed ever. In the words of John the Evangelist, cited in Evangelium Vitae, “The light came into the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” The darkness, the encroaching culture of death, will never overcome it. Never. Evangelium Vitae is an urgent, pleading invitation to humanity to walk in Veritatis Splendor, the splendor of the truth of the risen Christ. The encyclical is an impassioned love letter, pleading with humanity to rise to its destined greatness.

With respect to health care and much else, the message of Evangelium Vitae is frequently perceived as being essentially negative in character. And it is at critical points posited against much that has happened and is happening in the “medical ethics” community. As Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, who is one of the founders of the movement, has pointed out, biomedical ethics is a growth industry that is in too many cases a wholly owned subsidiary of the industry of medical practice and research. Too often ethicists have simply issued moral permission slips for whatever their paymasters want to do. The enterprise is driven by technological—and financial—imperatives, and the ethicist who raises inconvenient questions, never mind the ethicist who issues a firm “No,” will do his career no favors. In this context, Catholic teaching is portrayed as an impediment to medical, technical, and even moral progress.

One of the great graces of my life was to work closely with Martin Luther King Jr., in the years immediately prior to his death in 1968. For all his personal failings, I believe that Dr. King was an authentically prophetic figure in our public life. Dr. King said, “Whom you would change you must first love, and they must know that you love them.” The office of prophecy is an office of love. This great truth is reflected in the love letter that is Evangelium Vitae. Truly prophetic figures walk in the steps of the supreme prophet who declared, “I have come not to condemn the world but to save the world … that they may have life, and life abundant.”

It is said that all philosophy begins in wonder, and certainly the truth about life begins in the wonder at life itself. Evangelium Vitae quotes the words from Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” John Paul speaks of the “awe and wonder at God’s intervention in the life of a child in its mother’s womb.” Every life destined from eternity to eternity. Yet the occasion of wonder is also marked by such fragility. At the entrance gates of life and at the exit gates of life, only those who wonder can be trusted with the protection of life. “Human life,” says the encyclical, “finds itself most vulnerable when it enters the world and when it leaves the realm of time to embark upon eternity.” As philosophy begins in wonder, so public justice and health care that are worthy of human beings cannot survive the loss of wonder. The culture of death advances not only when man no longer wonders at the mystery of God, but when he no longer wonders at the mystery of himself. Our task as the Church is to call man back to God, but also to call man back to himself. Gloria Dei vivens homo. “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

The Catholic Church does not support a pro-life movement. The Catholic Church is a pro-life movement. Put yet more precisely, the community gathered by the Evangelium Vitae, by the Gospel of Life, “subsists” in the Catholic Church in a singular way. We must be immeasurably grateful for all the other Christians, and especially for our evangelical Protestant brothers and sisters, who have joined us in this great cause. As we should also cherish the growing number of Jews and secularists who are coming to recognize what is at stake in the contention over what are called the “life issues.” And yet it is the Catholic Church and its teaching so powerfully articulated by this pontificate that gives voice and vibrancy to this great cause.

The greatness of the cause is not limited to the “life issues.” The cause is necessarily and urgently and unrelentingly about abortion, euthanasia, embryo experimentation, eugenics, and related assaults against human dignity. But a pro-life movement that is born from the Gospel of Life is, while engaged in the issues of the time, finally grounded in the ultimate truth of God’s purposes from eternity. We have not begun to grasp the greatness of the cause until we see it in its world-historical, cosmic, and redemptive dimensions. We can devise the most careful and detailed ethical guidelines for Catholic health care, but I expect they will have little effect unless our understanding of the human person and what we owe the human person is deeply grounded in a theology of health care and a piety of wonder. At stake is nothing less than the future of the human project to which the Father has irretrievably pledged himself in the incarnation of the Son, and to which we are called to keep faith in the power of the Spirit.

A theologian friend, when he first read Evangelium Vitae, remarked that the Holy Father had upped the theological ante that is at stake in the protection of human life. I think it more accurate to say that Evangelium Vitae alerts us to what the ante has always been. The battle against the culture of death is not simply a matter of taking a position on this issue or that, although positions we must certainly take. Rather, Evangelium Vitae makes clear that the cause by which we are engaged is to be understood in the terms offered by St. Paul in Ephesians 6: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Some find such language off-putting in its apocalyptic intonations. They fear it leads to unbridled fervor and even fanaticism, and no doubt that is a real danger. We must indeed encourage the faithful to make their witness in a manner that is civil and winsome and persuasive. Evangelium Vitae repeatedly affirms the great value of democracy, which rests upon the acknowledgment of human dignity, including the dignity of those with whom we disagree. Yet concern for civility and democratic discourse must not be permitted to obscure what is at stake in this great contest.

The encyclical declares, “The Gospel of life is for the whole of human society.” It is not a peculiarly Catholic or Christian or religious imposition upon others. In the words of an earlier encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” What she proposes is the possibility of humanity’s choice between life and death. The proposal is sometimes thought to be too negative. The Church is perceived as saying No to this and No to that, but every No is premised upon a greater Yes. In all our preaching, and teaching, and working with others that Yes must become more luminously evident. In the words of Dr. King, “Whom you would change you must first love, and they must know you love them.” True love, however, is never a love that deceives. It never minimizes what is at stake.

The contest between the Gospel of life and the culture of death is constitutive of the Church’s being, and the Church’s being is constitutive of the human future. If we compromise in this contest, we compromise the Church, and if we compromise the Church, we compromise the human project, and if we compromise the human project, we have betrayed the eternal purpose of God, for “the glory of God is man fully alive.”

At the end of this century, at the threshold of the third millennium, the Catholic Church is without doubt the world’s most influential champion of human dignity, human rights, human reason, and the human capacity to order our life together in freedom, justice, and peace. That this is now widely recognized is an astonishing development. The world-historical stage has been cleared, and on that stage is being played out the greatest of dramas, the contest between the Gospel of life and the culture of death.

This contest is not one contest among others. We cannot “balance” our concern for this contest with our concern for other contests. It is not an “issue” to be played against other issues. And yet this is precisely what many do. If I may dare say so in the present company, the bishops have not always sounded a certain trumpet in this respect. There is no doubt a necessary truth in the formula “A consistent ethic of life.” Equally, there is no doubt that the formula is frequently misused to cover an evident embarrassment over the Church’s perceived preoccupation with the “life issues,” and most particularly with abortion. Also in statements made on behalf of the bishops, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the desire to make the Church’s message more winsome to those who disagree and the desire to be accepted by those who disagree. In the process the message is changed. The message that is heard—and it is the message heard because it is the message sometimes sent—is that abortion is not, after all, so singular a question as the Church’s teaching might otherwise suggest.

In this connection, there has been criticism of the recent statement, “Political Responsibility: Proclaiming the Gospel of Life, Protecting the Least among Us, and Pursuing the Common Good.” Particular attention has focused on one passage that is representative of the message sent:

We stand with the unborn and the undocumented when many politicians seem to be abandoning them. We defend children in the womb and on welfare. We oppose the violence of abortion and the vengeance of capital punishment.

The formulation is epigrammatically attractive, but permit me to suggest that it is potentially devastating. On behalf of the bishops, four assertions are made: (1) We oppose abortion. (2) We oppose injuring illegal aliens. (3) We oppose hurting children on welfare. (4) We oppose capital punishment. Now I happen to agree, and perhaps most Catholics agree, with all four assertions. That is not the problem.

The problem is that the form of the statement suggests a parallelism, indeed a moral equivalence, among these issues in public dispute. The problem is that this paragraph and the document of which it is part—a document that calls upon the faithful to take all the issues into account in making their political decisions—puts the witness of the Catholic Church overwhelmingly on the side of the political party that is relentlessly opposed to the protection of the unborn and is, to say the least, ambivalent about euthanasia.

Catholics of unquestionable good will can, and do, disagree over what justice and compassion require in immigration policy and welfare reform. Certainly Evangelium Vitae itself places severe strictures on the use of capital punishment. The great problem with a statement such as “Political Responsibility” is not that it is politically partisan, although that is no little problem. The great problem, it seems to me, is that it is almost entirely untouched by the prophetic humanism of Catholic social teaching as it is so vibrantly articulated by this pontificate. That prophetic humanism is trivialized and largely replaced by a cataloguing of issues in political dispute, by a calculating of trade-offs for political effect. One finds in “Political Responsibility” snippets of Evangelium Vitae and other magisterial documents, but one looks in vain for the structure of the argument that gives that teaching its spirit, its life, and its power to guide the human project into the promise of the future.

Perhaps we should not be too critical of those who draft documents for institutional approval. The prophetic humanism of Evangelium Vitae is a radical teaching that can only with great difficulty penetrate entrenched habits of bureaucratic thought and procedure. We can be grateful that the Catholic witness in the public square—which, as the Council reminds us, is primarily the sphere of the laity—is by no means limited to documents issued in the name of the bishops. Through numerous associations and alliances, both old and new, the Catholic people are called to give voice to the prophetic humanism that shakes the foundations of established routine and rhetoric. In health care and on other fronts, the integrity of the Catholic witness is being severely tried and in some instances, gravely compromised. In the face of the culture of death, the most careful and detailed ethical directives will be of little effect unless they are supported by a vibrant faith that our mission is to call the world to wonder at the truth that Gloria Dei vivens homo, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

This article was originally delivered as a speech before the John XXIII Dallas meeting of bishops on health care.


  • Richard John Neuhaus

    Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric (first as a Lutheran pastor and later as a Roman Catholic priest) and writer. Born in Canada, Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a naturalized United States citizen. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things and the author of several books, including The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006).

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