John Paul II: The Apostle of Life

In an incisive tribute after the Holy Father’s death, Rabbi Daniel Lapin said: “Pope John Paul II’s singular coherence was the sanctity of life. His beam of clarity was the triumph of life over death.” John Paul II’s witness to life inspired such statements from leaders of many backgrounds, both religious and non-religious.

At the same time, thoughtful Catholics know how silly it is for the secular media to speak about “this pope’s teaching” against abortion, for example, as though it were a personal whim—with some even speculating that the next pope might somehow change this unchangeable teaching of the universal Church.

To be sure, John Paul II himself played no small role in emphasizing how non-negotiable these issues are. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he solemnly reaffirmed that the Church’s teachings against abortion, euthanasia, and all direct attacks on innocent human life were fundamental and immutable. But this pope’s contribution to the Church’s pro-life witness went beyond the fact that he reaffirmed these ancient teachings with such firmness and communicated them so energetically and cheerfully.

What was new in the way this pope dealt with issues of life and death? He deepened and developed the Church’s position on some very old moral issues. He confronted the new and complex life issues raised by advances in biotechnology, welcoming the benefits of scientific progress while firmly opposing a model of “progress” that demeans humanity. And he reconceptualized the issue of human life, placing it at the center of the Church’s evangelizing of the world.

Ultimately, this last advance was his most important contribution, and it provides the context for everything else he did on the life issues. Let us begin there.

A Gospel of Life

To appreciate John Paul’s revitalization of the pro-life message, one need only compare the way this message is expressed in the Vatican’s Declaration on Procured Abortion of 1974 (four years before his pontificate) and in his own Evangelium Vitae.

Both documents, of course, teach the same basic message about the need to respect each and every human life from conception onward. But the Declaration does so chiefly by reviewing the biological facts about the beginning of life, then affirming a key insight of natural law morality: Life is the most fundamental human right and the condition for all others, so it must be respected without any discrimination based on the stages or conditions of life.

This is both true and compelling at its own philosophical level. But it was also part of a longstanding trend in the Church to separate faith and morals into different categories—with teachings of faith explained in scriptural and spiritual terms and moral teachings articulated in philosophical terms to emphasize that they can be appreciated by unaided human reason. One problem here was that anyone who could show a way to argue to a different conclusion might imagine he’d exempted himself from the Church’s moral teaching. Some theologians even argued that only broad moral principles, not specific moral norms (like the norm against all abortion), could be taught infallibly by the Church.

John Paul II’s approach bridged this gap between faith and morals, between Scripture and natural law. His encyclical on human life begins with Cain and Abel—with the primordial human desire to advance ourselves to the point of dominating and destroying others. Cain’s sin of murder is the consequence of one way of being in the world: the way of isolated selfishness and self-assertion, of treating others as lesser beings to be dominated or even as mere obstacles to one’s own goals. According to John Paul II, the Christian answer to Cain goes beyond insisting that each person’s life is inviolable; for our mission in life is precisely to lift up and care for those who are weaker and more helpless: “Yes, every man is his ‘brother’s keeper,’ because God entrusts us to one another” (Evangelium Vitae 19).

Therefore, abstract equality of rights, though valid, isn’t enough. Weakness and dependency are invitations to the strong to abandon their self-serving existence in a “sincere gift of self” (Evangelium Vitae 25). And we are called not only to respect life, but to open ourselves in love to those who depend on us for their lives. In doing so, we fulfill our own destiny by more adequately reflecting the self-emptying love of God, shown to us in the perfect model for humanity—Jesus Christ. We also then fulfill the purpose of our God-given freedom, which in the modern world risks being divorced from the truth about the human person and becoming a mere license for the strong to dominate and destroy the weak.

John Paul II’s model for authentic living and authentic freedom reaches its pinnacle in marriage, a divinely established model for man and woman to freely open themselves in love to one another and to their power to cocreate a new human life with God. Through an amazing series of talks on the theology of the body, the Holy Father placed the Church’s teaching on contraception in a context that was more scriptural and at the same time more inspiring to couples striving for good and lasting marriages.

In short, to be pro-life is to be more Christ-like. So the Church must teach not only moral norms on life but a “Gospel of life,” which is “an integral part of that Gospel which is Jesus Christ himself” (Evangelium Vitae 78). And it needs to help build a transformed culture to support and nurture attitudes that are open to life.

In the Holy Father’s account, this melding of faith and the moral life does not cut Christians off from the broader culture and isolate them in their own sect. On the contrary, the life of self-sacrificing love, dedicated to the service of the weakest among us, is the answer to the deepest desires and questions of every human heart—the way to true human happiness. To cite the title of John Paul Il’s very first encyclical, Christ is redemptor hominis, the redeemer of all mankind, and to be more Christ-like is to become more fully human. Christians must not be afraid to offer this model, and especially to show it by example, to all around them.

Nor did this deepening of the pro-life message have anything to do with becoming more harsh and judgmental toward those who have resorted to taking a life. On the contrary: As the Second Vatican Council had said (in a document that Archbishop Wojtyla helped write), such acts “debase the perpetrators more than the victims” (Gaudium et Spes 27), and the Church must reach out with the gift of repentance and conversion. In calling for a “new feminism” promoting the acceptance of unborn human life, John Paul II became the first pope to write directly to women who have had abortions, encouraging them to accept the Lord’s forgiveness and become “promoters of a new way of looking at human life” (Evangelium Vitae 99).

For Christians, this revitalized pro-life message means that there can be no facile divide between the life of faith and love of all human life. Public figures and others who label themselves committed believers but denigrate the unborn, the disabled, and the terminally ill live a contradiction, for “whoever attacks human life in some way attacks God himself” (Evangelium Vitae 9). True love of God means defense of human life; he who attacks or ignores the lives of humans in need here on Earth does not know the God he has not seen.

By placing a commitment to human life at the heart of the Church’s message to the world, this pope made his most profound and lasting contribution to the pro-life movement.

New Thinking on Old Issues

Catholic reflection on the moral obligation to support life is centuries old and was advanced by Pius XII and other popes. But John Paul II authorized the first extensive doctrinal document on the subject, the Declaration on Euthanasia in 1980, and remained personally engaged in these issues throughout his pontificate. Applying the distinction between domination of life and reverent care for life to these issues, he spoke of a middle way between “therapeutic obstinacy” (insistence on aggressive treatment to the point where it does more harm than good) and a failure to provide normal care to the helpless.

The issue of providing food and fluids, especially to patients diagnosed as being in a “persistent vegetative state,” became a matter of intense Catholic debate in the 1980s. Some theologians proposed that feeding such patients is without benefit, because it maintains only a “physiological functioning” that cannot pursue the spiritual purposes of life. But that argument was alien to this pope, who wanted us not to judge other people’s spiritual potential but to fulfill our own by serving the most helpless. In 1998 he praised the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities for its position paper in favor of providing food and fluids to patients in the “vegetative” state. And in March 2004, when he himself was already too weak and frail to deliver his entire speech orally, he issued an address upholding the inherent human dignity of these patients and insisting that food and fluids are part of the “normal care” we owe them.

In keeping with John Paul II’s sincere openness to the positive benefits of scientific inquiry, his speech made use of the latest medical findings on the so-called vegetative state. And in keeping with his teaching that science must be pursued in a moral context, he deplored the use of a misleading term like “vegetative” to describe fellow human beings. The pope’s address clarified an issue debated in Catholic circles for two decades and became a key factor in the U.S. debate arising from the Terri Schiavo case in Florida.

John Paul ll’s groundbreaking statement on capital punishment in Evangelium Vitae followed naturally from the account of Cain and Abel opening this encyclical: God marked Cain to warn others that he was a murderer but spared his life, showing more mercy to him than he had to his brother. In fact, the Holy See had been pleading for clemency in capital cases for many years. But John Paul II’s statement deepened the Church’s rationale for seeking an end to capital punishment.

Deeper thinking was overdue, for some old arguments justifying the death penalty rested on shaky ground. Thomas Aquinas had said that the criminal harming others is like a diseased organ that can be excised to protect the body of society. But modern Thomists like Jacques Maritain had helped the Church to emphasize the dignity of the individual as more fundamental than the state; and John Paul II, having endured the horrors of both Nazi and Communist versions of collectivism, knew how important that emphasis was. He also knew that for the Church to build a culture of life, in which violence against others is unthinkable, society must learn to forgo needless violence even when it may feel it has a right to use it.

John Paul II’s contribution was to argue that society as a whole should not see itself as having special rights over the life of the individual, but should only consider taking life in the same cases when an individual may do so—when no other way can be found to defend oneself or others against attack. If a murderer can be rendered harmless by non-lethal means, that solution is more in keeping with a culture of respect for all human life. Applying the same principle to issues of war and peace, John Paul II urged the United States not to launch a “preemptive” attack on Iraq as long as there was any chance that sanctions and other non-military initiatives might succeed.

This pope’s teachings on capital punishment and on war had nothing in common with secular arguments that ignore the reality of sin or people’s responsibility for their actions. They were outgrowths of his commitment to the inherent personal dignity of each and every human being, made in the image and likeness of God.

These teachings were also based on his understanding that societies are themselves vulnerable to sin. In his 1984 encyclical Reconciliation and Penance, he described situations of “social sin,” which can ultimately be traced back to the “very personal sins” of public leaders who neglect their responsibility to protect others (Reconciliation and Penance 16). In urging these leaders to appreciate their responsibility, the Holy Father emphasized that societies and governments have no special warrant to ignore moral considerations when they seek the good of all. In Evangelium Vitae, he also authoritatively distinguished those who sinfully promote unjust laws from those who eliminate or reduce injustice by working to protect human life (73). His support for public figures who oppose all abortion, but must pursue the “art of the possible” in voting for incremental pro-life legislation, provided much-needed support for Catholics seeking to ban partial-birth abortion and other evils.

From Taking Life to Making Life

At a time of pervasive public debate about embryonic stem-cell research, it is sobering to consider that when Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in October 1978, the first “test-tube baby” was only three months old. The forces set loose in science and society by in vitro fertilization have led to debates about human embryo research, “adoption” of frozen embryos, human cloning, and genetic engineering of offspring.

The 27 years of John Paul II’s pontificate therefore coincided with a new age in mankind’s power over human life at its foundations. And beginning with his first encyclical in 1979, Redemptor Hominis, he called for careful assessment of such developments in light of the inherent dignity of the human person, insisting on the priority of “ethics over technology” (16).

In a series of talks in the 1980s, the Holy Father surprised many with his basically positive judgments about the medical promise of genetics. As always, however, he distinguished valid use from dangerous abuse: Genetic engineering may bring cures and relieve human suffering, but it must not be used to manipulate human life or to try to manufacture the “superior” human being.

In 1987, under John Paul II’s supervision, the Holy See reaffirmed and elaborated on a Catholic teaching against human in vitro fertilization that was first articulated by Pope Pius XII. The new document, Donum Vitae, warned prophetically against human cloning, artificial wombs, and the mistreatment of human embryos as mere objects of experimentation. It also left the door open to technologies that may assist human procreation, helping couples have children without reducing reproduction to a laboratory procedure.

When the Church began to raise objections to some reproductive technologies, even Catholics asked whether efforts to provide children for infertile couples should really be opposed alongside efforts to destroy unborn children. Shouldn’t the Church be pro-child and accept different ways of pursuing this goal? But Evangelium Vitae’s analysis of the difference between dominating other humans and serving them was tailor-made for explaining the moral problem here. In vitro fertilization and, to an even greater degree, cloning, were not ways to share love and be open to life, but ways to dominate life in its very creation. Human life was to be manufactured and subjected to quality control, in a way more suited to an object or even a commodity. This error at the beginning set the stage for all the abuses we now see in researchers’ willingness to treat the human embryo as a new kind of laboratory rat.

Under John Paul II’s direction, the Holy See has worked for an international consensus against human cloning and warned the nations of the world that misuse of our new biological powers may herald a “new slavery” in which human beings are made solely to be manipulated and used by others. His wisdom was exactly what the world needed to hear—that the dignity of human life can be as demeaned by the way we make life as by our willingness to take life.

Finally, by establishing the Pontifical Academy of Life in 1994, Pope John Paul II ensured that the Church would keep studying new developments in human cloning, stem-cell research, care of the dying, and many other issues in bioethics, aided by careful moral reflection and the most up-to-date scientific knowledge. His lasting legacy is a Church unafraid to confront such issues, confident that it can make a distinctive contribution on behalf of the dignity of each and every human being.

All this is only to scratch the surface, to point out a few highlights in more than a quarter-century of reflection, evangelizing, and leadership. Nor can we forget that Pope John Paul II’s most poignant witness to the inherent worth of each human life was taught not in words but through the selfless service and quiet suffering of his last months on earth. In the end, he took all due care of his own mortal life while also facing eternity unafraid, filled with gratitude for all who offered their love and support during his final illness. He taught the world how to live, and then he taught us how to die, uttering a final “Amen” to a life spent in service to God and to human life. May we so live that we can say the same “Amen.”


  • Richard M. Doerflinger

    Richard M. Doerflinger is Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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