Encyclical Is Positive, Problematic

Article excerpt

The basic positions taken in John Paul II's latest encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, are well-known -- the condemnations of direct abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty (its justification is practically nonexistent).

The method is similar to the approaches his encyclicals have employed in the past -- the assumption of the traditional natural-law teaching of the Catholic tradition on particular points, an explicit scripturally based understanding of fundamental themes and principles with a concentration in this case on the Cain and Abel story, and a commentary on contemporary cultural trends.

There is little that is new in the encyclical. On the major points of murder, abortion and euthanasia, the pope expressly claims to confirm the existing teaching. The position on the death penalty is stronger and more negative than found in past papal documents but consistent with recent emphases of John Paul II.

What effect will this document have on Catholics in the United States? In my judgment, not much. As mentioned, much of the encyclical is not new. Probably the majority of Catholics and of theologians are in fundamental agreement with the thrust of the teaching on abortion and euthanasia from the moral perspective, although I have some modifications and see more gray areas and nuances and fewer certainties than the pope. Those who have disagreed with the teaching on these points will probably continue to do so. The opposition to the death penalty will be somewhat upsetting to a few Catholic opponents of abortion and euthanasia.

The encyclical constitutes a practical follow-up dealing with these particular questions in the light of the more theoretical points made in Veritatis Splendor, the 1993 encyclical. Some of the same points are developed here, but Veritatis Splendor often caricatured the positions taken by revisionist Catholic theologians and that, generally speaking, does not occur in this document.

This theological commentary will discuss three points -- the positive aspects of the encyclical, two problematic aspects and the teaching on law and public policy.

Positive aspects

John Paul II's basic thesis about a failure to respect the sacredness and dignity of human life in our contemporary society is shared by many people today. Our age has experienced much violence, killing and disrespect for human life. Life is a gift of God and, although not absolute, a very fundamental and sacred value.

The pope frequently mentions the danger of individualism in the world today. Many commentators in the United States certainly agree with that criticism and have called for a more communitarian understanding of our political existence. Contemporary citizens need to develop and cultivate a much greater concern for the community and the common good.

Freedom is not an absolute. The pope illustrates this by insisting on the relationship of freedom to truth. He could have put more emphasis on the relationship between freedom and justice.


All recognize a tendency among some today to reduce morality only to the question of freedom.

Such an emphasis easily leads to an ethical relativism. Ethical relativism bankrupts morality and humanity by denying any possibility of human community and working together. A common understanding of morality often enunciated today is that I must be free to do my thing and you must be free to do your thing.

Materialism and the possession of things often become all important in our society. Having is more significant than being. Life in this understanding can easily be reduced to just another thing or possession.

An overemphasis on efficiency and technology constitutes a danger in our society. The pope points out the penchant for trying to have complete control over our lives. However, we are finite creatures and will never have such full There are many things that h pen to us in this life that we do not want and cannot control. …