When the Vatican released The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) in 1995, liberals applauded John Paul II's critique of our bottom-line culture. But progressives doubted that his full-scale attack on a "culture of death" would win many converts to the pro-life cause. Wishful thinking, no doubt, but quite wrong. A decade later, we know that The Gospel of Life, written by a fearless prophet with an ear for poetry and a knack for grabbing headlines, remains a great gift to the pro-life movement. In short, The Gospel of Life has sharpened the battle lines of a global struggle for power over human life, and has exposed a "conspiracy against life" that links seemingly disparate cultural, political, and economic forces. It has taken time for the pontiffs observations to trickle down into the national and global debate over abortion rights, euthanasia and cloning, but now his terminology is part of our lexicon. Google "culture of life" and the search engine logs over 600,000 references. Google "culture of death" and more than 400,000 citations are noted. The links underscore the vast body of commentary generated by media, religious, and political groups that target sanctity of life issues, using the terms first employed by the pontiff.
A groundbreaking document, The Gospel of Life's ongoing influence resides in its unique and dramatic presentation of several related themes. The document's most important contribution is its stark juxtaposition of two opposing forces, a kind of theological Lord of the Rings. The intensity of language and tone seek to dispel both the complacency of a world that reveled in the collapse of the "evil empire," and the confusion of a world that even today is transfixed by the siren song of Progress.
Speeding the pope's cautionary message into the American heartland is The Gospel of Life's heavy reliance on scriptural references to affirm the truth and staying power of moral absolutes. While previous Vatican documents on moral teaching typically restated natural law arguments, this papal letter has been described as Christ-centered and "evangelical" in tone, the fruit of four decades of ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Protestants. The emphasis on scriptural support for the intrinsic value of human life, and for prohibitions against killing the innocent and defending the weak broaden the document's appeal beyond the Catholic community, even beyond Christian churches. The reliance on scripture and on a powerful narrative to examine the often paradoxical phenomena of modern democracies that affirm human rights, while denying their weakest members the right to life, helps to explain the continuing influence of this document in our culture.
Liberal commentators have acknowledged the power of the pope's stirring moral commentary, but often find The Gospel of Life's dark portrait of modernity overdrawn. A Commonweal editorial, published at the document's release, fretted that the pontiff gave short shrift to feminist achievements and the practical value of contraception in women's social advancement. Yet many observers immediately perceived the document's unique strengths. The pope has "struck a popular chord, which we can replay many times, . . . and which will provoke many, many responses from the less religious as well as all Christians," predicted then-Bishop George Pell of Melbourne, Australia. In a 1995 address, Pell applauded the pope's striking depiction of the "central issue in these culture wars, in this dramatic conflict of good and evil, whose significance often goes unrecognized, lost in the grey mists of uncertainty and sentimentality. What is the value of human life? Is human life sacred?"
Pell used the papal letter's public release as an opportunity to take aim at Australia's most prominent "messenger of death," Peter Singer, the ascendant Australian philosopher and advocate of infanticide, abortion and euthanasia. At the time, Singer was seeking political office. …