Law & the Gospel of Life

Article excerpt

Renata, thank you! Father McShane and brother priests; faculty and students of this distinguished university and School of Law; members of the Institute on Religion, Law, and Lawyer's Work; friends one and all:

I sure appreciate the invitation and welcome. Any opportunity to visit Fordham is an occasion I relish; to do so and address this impressive group on such a noble topic as Law and the Gospel of Life is an honor indeed.

Know, please, that I do so hardly as a scholar, professor, or jurist, but as a pastor. Thus will my remarks be somewhat succinct and simple. Thanks for your patience.

The title assigned me - Law and the Gospel of Life - obviously has in mind the masterful encyclical of Blessed John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, written seventeen years ago.

Blessed John Paul II directs his teaching, not just to Catholics; not just to Christians or people of faith; but "to all people of good will." This is rather important. True enough, his teaching is expressed in terms of religious belief and teaching, but his fundamental thesis - that human life is sacred, and thus merits dignity, respect, and protection by law - is rooted in natural law, a source of ingrained principles accessible to all, not just religious folks.

Natural Law is a concept of objective truth, known by anyone with the power of reason - a truth not relativized by the special interest of religious preference, class, gender or individual bias. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." It is a question of endowments that are intrinsic to us by the very fact of being human. And thus the rights appropriate to us are "inalienable." They cannot be taken away by any state or power or law or choice of individuals.

And what specifically cannot be taken away? Our life, our liberty. No human institution or individual has given us these rights. They have been given to us by God. This is what Frederick Douglass knew. This is what Gandhi knew. This is what Martin Luther King knew.

As King wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." And then he refers to a famous philosopher, from whom he learned that "an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust." The philosopher cited by Dr. King was St. Thomas Aquinas.

Since good law is classically seen as a protector of culture's most noble values from culture's basest urges, it will not surprise this audience that John Paul spends a chunk of time looking at contemporary culture. While no one could accuse this Polish Pope of being a pessimist, he does still realistically note a variety of threats to me sacredness of human life in today's culture: for instance, abortion, infanticide, eugenics, misuse of artificial reproductive technologies, contraception, euthanasia . . . and an even broader range of dangers to human life in poverty, an unjust distribution of economic resources, war, the arms trade, drugs, and human trafficking. No "single issue" politician is Karol Wojtyla! For John Paul II, "ideas have consequences." The litany of threats to me Gospel of Life just mentioned are but consequences of faulty and toxic cultural ideas, a web he calls famously the Culture of Death. This he defines as a culture that denies the basic solidarity inherent in me human person, obsessed instead with efficiency and convenience. In rather stinging language, the Pope speaks of "a war of the powerful against the weak." Listen: "A person who, because of illness, handicap, or, just by existing, threatens me wellbeing or lifestyle of . . . the more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of 'conspiracy against life' is unleashed. …