When as a young adult I was wandering in the spiritual wilderness as an agnostic relativist, God left me a couple of “lifelines” to help me find my way home. One was that I was always pro- life. I really couldn’t shake it.
In many ways this didn’t seem to fit with my other convictions or with those who shared them. There I was, vegan, progressive, pacifist, skeptical, “spiritual but not religious,” anxious that people not “impose their morality” on others.
Sure, the pro-life movement is more diverse than it gets credit for, and there was a pronounced “consistent ethic of life” in what I already believed. But the situation was uncomfortable enough for me that I probably thought about the issue more deeply and seriously than I did about any other.
The harder I thought, the clearer it was. The arguments against the pro- life position, I found, were simply terrible, all fallacious or based on false premises or carrying morally repellent consequences or — too often — simply absent, with name-calling and calumny substituted in their place.
In the end, I decided it is not only true but obvious that if abortion is not wrong, nothing is, all the fulmination of the world notwithstanding.
As I reached this firm conclusion, it became like a submerged rock against which the happy little boat of my worldview had run aground. In the salvage operation, I began to rethink much that I had previously taken for granted.
This wasn’t the direct cause of my coming to an adult faith in God, but it certainly helped to clear the way.
It was only after coming to faith that I discovered St. John Paul II’s encyclical letter “Evangelium Vitae” — “The Gospel of Life” — written 20 years ago last month. It remains one of the greatest, most profound things I have ever read.
It begins like this: “The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as ‘good news’ to the people of every age and culture.”
Even these words were a revelation and an affirmation. Imagine! The pro-life message is “at the heart of Jesus’ message,” and it’s good news for everyone. And it is to be proclaimed with “dauntless fidelity.”
This beloved saint, who has inspired me so much, went on over the next nearly 50,000 words to take some of the hard-won ideas from the best thinking I had ever done and purify them and state them with great clarity and eloquence, and, most of all, deepen them with a force of profound beauty.
My thinking was rooted in the natural law. His was rooted there too, but even more in the Gospel itself, in the spiritual dimension of the person. I was thinking about this earthly life. John Paul was too, but through the lens of eternity. I grasped the greatness of each human life as an irreplaceable subjective experience of the world. He fully broadened the horizon to include the greatness of every human life as it is rooted in being a “thought” of God and an image of God — every person as someone God loves enough to die for.
St. John Paul spoke like an Old Testament prophet, convicting the culture of a darkening of conscience and its influential powers of erecting “structures of sin,” spreading the kind of terrible confusion that calls what is evil good. He advocated (and practiced) speaking plainly and directly, avoiding the Orwellian euphemism that is the linguistic weapon of the culture of death. He diagnosed the consequences to freedom and democracy of failing to live by the most fundamental principles of defending innocent human life.
And yet this was no polemic. It is an encyclical full of mercy, of tender regard and welcome for those who have had abortions, and of rigorous argument, and it is all the context of the Gospel, connected with all the rest of the church’s social vision, all directed toward the building of something positive and beautiful:
“To all the members of the Church, the people of life and for life, I make this most urgent appeal, that together we may offer this world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.”
These are the words not of a hater but of a lover.
And it reflected a consistent ethic of life, flowing naturally from the dignity of the human person.
This great masterpiece of St. John Paul II was one of my first encounters with the deep wisdom of the church, a wisdom that transcends worldly wisdom. This, even beyond the message itself, proved to be a great support to my mustard seed of faith. The encyclical bore the unmistakable fragrance of the divine presence.
In the last 20 years, Evangelium Vitae has lost none of its vitality and urgency. I would encourage you to read it, study it and pray with it.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected] dioceseduluth.org.