Catholic Youth Parramatta

Bishop Anthony Fisher’s Address at iWitness Conference


It is a pleasure to join you for this iWitness conference. The witness bit I get: no doubt it is an echo of the World Youth Day 2008 call to be witnesses to Christ in our world today and anything that builds on the energy of WYD08 is to be commended!

The ‘i’ part I’m not so sure about. Several of my friends have been working on me to get an iPad and an iPhone. They are members of a fanatical religious cult, determined to get everyone to join. iWitness sounds suspiciously like another of their apps. Anyway, I just thought you’d like to know that I have my own iGadget: I have a pair of iGlasses.

Were today not a Sunday in Advent it would be the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. When I was your age and a student at the University of Sydney, I went to Canada with the university’s debating team. I then did a trip around North America, including a stop-off at Guadalupe near Mexico City.

It was very moving to see the tilma or mantle of St Juan Diego on which the Blessed Virgin had impressed an image of herself and to see the shrine where it is displayed and where so many people over the past four centuries have experienced cures. She is Patroness of Mexico and all the Americas.

Because it is a rare image of the Virgin pregnant, Pope John Paul II, who visited the shrine four times as pope, entrusted the cause of life to her loving protection, and placed under her motherly care the innocent lives of children, especially those who are in danger of not being born.

1. Why The Gospel of Life?

It is fitting, therefore, that on her feast day we might recall the great encyclical of that great pope on life issues: Evangelium Vitæ – The Gospel of Life. Its teachings built on a long tradition stretching back to Scriptures, the Fathers and the Scholastics, right through to recent popes, many curial statements, and work by bishops’ conferences, individual bishops and theologians.

The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism which followed it also had some important points to make. But when Evangelium Vitæ was published in 1995 it was undoubtedly the most authoritative statement of Catholic bioethics to date and is still so. Its major themes were recently recapitulated by Pope Benedict XVI in his homily for the Vigil for Nascent Life that he proclaimed to be celebrated all over the world on the eve of Advent.

The aim of The Gospel of Life was to be: ‘A precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability, and at the same time a pressing appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!’ (EV 5). Given that a bill to legalise euthanasia has recently been foreshadowed or attempted in every parliament in Australia (except Queensland’s), it is timely to re-examine The Gospel of Life 15 years on, and look at what wisdom it might have to offer on this matter. The euthanasia battle will, I think, be one of the defining ones for your generation, a real test of your souls.

The context for Evangelium Vitæ was the 20th and bloodiest of centuries, in which more people had died and more cruelly than in all the previous centuries together. The contemporary threat to human life is even more alarming because of the confluence of some new technologies, ideologies and social trends, often with the complicity of ‘the powers of this world’.

So having successfully engaged with those powers in the communist East, John Paul and his successor, Pope Benedict, turned the gaze of Peter to the West. The Gospel of Life represented a protest by the Church against this violent culture, a proclamation of the Christian alternative, and an instance of ‘maternal solicitude’ for the weak and oppressed.

The Lord’s question: ‘What have you done?’ which Cain cannot escape, is addressed also to the people of today, to make them realise the extent and gravity of the attacks against life which continue to mark human history; to make them discover what causes these attacks and feeds them; and to make them ponder seriously the consequences which derive from these attacks for the existence of individuals and peoples. (EV 10)

As well as the challenges of Western society as it entered the third millennium, John Paul was concerned to address that “secularism, with its ubiquitous tentacles” that he had observed in Veritatis Splendor in 1993 had corrupted some Catholic pulpits, academies, seminaries, homes and individuals. He was keen to rearm the Church with sound moral principles so it could engage with the great life issues at the heart of our ‘culture wars’.

The Pope addressed his appeal principally to the members of the Church as ‘the people of life and for life’ (EV 6) because he was seeking here to erect guideposts for the 21st Century Church. So he readily relied on Scripture and the Christian tradition as his sources. Nonetheless, like all Catholic moral teaching, The Gospel of Life appeals to faith and reason, to revelation and natural law, to theology and philosophy. The Pope believed that even non-Christian believers, indeed any reasonable person, can come to recognise the value and inviolability of human life. He argued that Catholic teaching in this area

has a profound and persuasive echo in the heart of every person – believer and non-believer alike – because it marvellously fulfils all the heart’s expectations while infinitely surpassing them. Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognise in the natural law written in the heart the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded. (EV 2)

2. What does it say?

So what does The Gospel of Life say? Chapter I addresses present-day threats to human life. Chapter II outlines the Christian message concerning the dignity of human life. Chapter III proclaims the inviolability of that life. And the last chapter exhorts people to build a new pro-life civilisation.

The substance of the letter began with a discerning analysis of the contemporary scene. While the Pope focused particularly on attacks upon life when it is at its most vulnerable, i.e. in its earliest and final stages, he situated these within the broader perspective of ‘the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenceless’ (EV 3). He had in mind

murder, war, slaughter and genocide ... the violence (of) poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources ... the violence inherent not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade ... the spreading of death caused by reckless tampering with the world’s ecological balance, by the criminal spread of drugs, or by the promotion of certain kinds of sexual activity ... (EV 10).

The roots of this violence lie in an under-valuing of human life, a wrong notion of freedom, and an ‘eclipse of the sense of God’. A range of factors then conspire to assist its spread: interpersonal difficulties, family crises, widespread ethical confusion, anonymous cities full of marginalised people, new technologies, the complicity of some health professionals, law-makers, health systems, mass media, and national and international bodies, and the rise of powerful anti-life ideologies, such as individualism, materialism, pragmatism, hedonism, ethical scepticism and utilitarianism.

The result: there has emerged in the West ‘a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable culture of death. This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents ... a kind of conspiracy against life’ (EV 12). Thus John Paul wrote:

In the early afternoon of Good Friday, ‘there was darkness over the whole land, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two’ (Lk 23:44-5). This is the symbol of a great cosmic disturbance and a massive conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between life and death. Today we too find ourselves in the midst of a dramatic conflict between the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’. (EV 50)

This is, of course, apocalyptic language, an example of John Paul as preacher and dramatist. Whatever else people took away from the encyclical, this picture of the two contending cultures, the forces of life against those of death, has stuck. Nonetheless, as we will see, Pope John Paul saw some reasons to hope and invited a reconsideration of and recommitment to the pro-life Gospel.

Chapter II draws upon natural law philosophy and a broad range of Christian sources in support of the proposition that ‘life is always a good of great and inestimable value’. The theological source of human dignity is the creation, redemption and destiny of the human being; parallel to the philosophical affirmation of the inviolability of life is the theological affirmation that God is the Lord of life and that this God commands reverence for every person, especially the unborn, sick and elderly. This prophetic ‘Gospel of Life’ not only condemns offences against life but awakens ‘hope for a new principle of life’, for renewed relationships of reciprocity and care, and for an understanding of the crucial links between life, freedom and (moral) truth.

In Chapter III the Pope detailed the long and unbroken history of teaching on the sacredness and inviolability of innocent human life, before defining as Catholic dogma ‘that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral’ (EV 57). I will return to this presently. But here we might note that from this infallible proposition the Pope concluded that the deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity ... Before the moral norm which prohibits the direct taking of the life of an innocent human being there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal. (EV 57)

The Pope then explored the implications of this doctrine for particular moral issues such as abortion, embryo experimentation, suicide, euthanasia, and the civil law.

In his final chapter, John Paul proposed various positive strategies ‘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 civilisation of truth and love.’ He exhorted Christians to ‘preach the Gospel of life, to celebrate it in the Liturgy and in your whole existence, and to serve it with the various programmes and structures which support and promote life’ (EV 79).

3. Three Authoritative Pronouncements

Evoking the conditions laid down by the two Vatican Councils for the exercise of papal, episcopal and ecclesial infallibility, the Pope taught:

By the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom. 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium [LG 25]. (EV 57)

After rehearsing the Catholic tradition on abortion he likewise declared:

By the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops – who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine – I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium [LG 25]. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church. (EV 62)

Thirdly he addressed euthanasia, declaring with barely less authority:

Taking into account these distinctions, in harmony with the Magisterium of my Predecessors and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium [LG 25]. (EV 65)

4. Compassionate and Positive

While frankly identifying evils to be avoided, the Pope was careful to situate this teaching within a broader positive gospel of ‘reverence and love for every person and the life of every person’ and ‘the task of accepting and serving life [which] involves everyone’ (EV 41, 43 cf. 54). John Paul identified signs of hope, even amidst the prevailing culture of death. There are many individuals, families, voluntary groups and institutions who reverence, defend and serve human life. Individuals such as parents, health workers, pro-life activists and others make this central to their whole vocation. Among ordinary people there is a growing sensitivity towards issues of human rights, lifestyle and ecology, and a growing opposition to war, capital punishment and violence of various kinds. Growing numbers of people are willing to embrace ‘the responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life’. And there are ‘all those daily gestures of openness, sacrifice and unselfish care which countless people lovingly make’ EV 26, 27).

John Paul the pastor showed that he was well aware of the pressures which draw or drive people to violent solutions, such as abortion or euthanasia: violence, especially against women, and other pressures from outsiders, dire personal difficulties, isolation and abandonment, fear and loneliness, the struggle to make ends meet, unbearable pain and suffering (EV 11, 18). He had only words of compassion for women who are the second victims of abortion:

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. (EV 99)

So Evangelium Vitæ was not just about proscribing particular violent acts. It invited reflection upon the ideological and structural background to moral decision-making – the ideas and relationships which most influence how people behave.

Another particular merit of The Gospel of Life was that its final chapter offered a range of positive strategies for building ‘an authentic civilization of truth and love’. The Pope recognised that there are ‘many different acts of selfless generosity, often humble and hidden, carried out by men and women, children and adults, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick’ (EV 86). Nonetheless there must also be specific programs ‘proclaiming, celebrating and serving the Gospel of Life’ (EV 28): Natural Family Planning, marriage and family counselling, and pregnancy help centres; communities and associations for care of drug addicts, minors, the mentally ill, AIDS patients, the disabled and the dying; and adequate responses to the needs of the elderly and the terminally ill, including family support, good palliative care, good hospitals, clinics and convalescent homes (EV 88). Some people will devote themselves specifically to the vocations of parenting and healthcare (EV 87, 89); others will engage in voluntary work and social activism of various kinds (EV 90); legislators and those with economic clout should make laws and policies which support respect for life, the family and the elderly (EV 92-4); teachers, academics and the media can assist in moral education or in shaping a culture and lifestyles which give primacy to being over having, the person over things (EV 96-8); women must articulate a pro-life feminism (EV 99); and all need to develop a deep critical sense and a prayer-life of awe and gratitude before the mystery of life (EV 95 & 100).

5. Wisdom on Euthanasia

Given recent developments in our part of the world, The Gospel of Life’s wisdom on euthanasia is of more than passing interest. I have already noted some of the social and ideological factors identified in Evangelium Vitæ as contributing to a culture inclined to such ‘solutions’. John Paul suggested several further special factors which contribute to the call for euthanasia. There are personal ones:

In the sick person the sense of anguish, of severe discomfort, and even of desperation brought on by intense and prolonged suffering can be a decisive factor. Such a situation can threaten the already fragile equilibrium of an individual’s personal and family life, with the result that, on the one hand, the sick person, despite the help of increasingly effective medical and social assistance, risks feeling overwhelmed by his or her own frailty; and on the other hand, those close to the sick person can be moved by an understandable even if misplaced compassion. (EV 15)

There are also social factors:

All this is aggravated by a cultural climate which fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs .... [There is also] a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands ... As well as for reasons of a misguided pity at the sight of the patient’s suffering, euthanasia is sometimes justified by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and which weigh heavily on society. Thus it is proposed to eliminate malformed babies, the severely handicapped, the disabled, the elderly, especially when they are not self-sufficient, and the terminally ill. (EV 15; cf. 64)

Euthanasia is any action or calculated omission intended to cause death so as to relieve suffering. Even if motivated by mercy or respect for autonomy, euthanasia is clearly wrong because it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. But John Paul was careful to distinguish this from other actions such as withdrawing over-burdensome treatments or giving appropriate pain relief. Pro-euthanasia campaigners continue to obscure this. So we must be very clear: Catholic teaching has never required the prolongation of life at all costs; ‘heroic’, ‘extraordinary’ or ‘disproportionately burdensome’ treatments may properly be forgone, especially when death is close and unavoidable, ‘so long as the normal care due to the sick person is not interrupted’ (the Pope probably had food and fluids in mind here).

We must give every opportunity for a dying as free as possible from unnecessary suffering, supported and accompanied by others, helping them to fulfil their duties and to prepare to meet God. Thus the Pope emphasised Church support for the use of appropriate palliative care, even if this might diminish clarity, consciousness or life-span; ours is not a ‘grin-and-bear-it’ stoicism. In modern Western societies pain in a dying or chronically sick person generally indicates poor pain management; with good palliative care this should rarely if ever happen.

Evangelium Vitæ recognised that those who seek euthanasia may do so out of anguish, desperation or conditioning, thus lessening or removing their subjective responsibility, and that those who engage in euthanasia may be motivated by (misguided) pity rather than a selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering (EV 15, 66). It nonetheless argued that euthanasia is ‘false mercy’, indeed ‘a disturbing perversion of mercy’.

True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear. Moreover, the act of euthanasia appears all the more perverse if it is carried out by those, like relatives, who are supposed to treat a family member with patience and love, or by those, such as doctors, who by virtue of their specific profession are supposed to care for the sick person even in the most painful terminal stages ... The height of arbitrariness and injustice is reached when certain people, such as physicians or legislators, arrogate to themselves the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to die ... Thus the life of the person who is weak is put into the hands of the one who is strong; in society the sense of justice is lost, and mutual trust, the basis of every authentic interpersonal relationship, is undermined at its root. (EV 66)

This is contrasted with ‘the way of love and true mercy’ which recognises that ‘the request which arises from the human heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death, especially when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail.’ (EV 66)

What, then, are pro-life young people to do in a society such as ours which is on the precipice of legalised euthanasia? Democracy, the Pope reminded us, is not infallible; it should not ‘be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality’ (EV 70). So even if opinion polls or parliamentary votes suggest that many people support euthanasia this does not make it right; pro-euthanasia laws, even if popular, would undermine our political and social order and endanger the lives of the most vulnerable. Such laws should never be made and if made should never be obeyed. It is a primary purpose of civil law to ensure respect for certain fundamental rights, such as the right to life, and to protect the weak. Governments

can never presume to legitimize as a right of individuals – even if they are the majority of the members of society – an offence against other persons ... The legal toleration of abortion or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others, precisely because society has the right and duty to protect itself against abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom. (EV 71)

In his multi-faceted pro-life program John Paul proposed that special attention must be given to the elderly:

Neglect of the elderly or their outright rejection are intolerable .... It is therefore important to preserve, or to re-establish where it has been lost, a sort of ‘covenant’ between generations. In this way parents, in their later years, can receive from their children the acceptance and solidarity which they themselves gave to their children when they brought them into the world ... The elderly are not only to be considered the object of our concern, closeness and service. They themselves have a valuable contribution to make to the Gospel of Life. Thanks to the rich treasury of experiences they have acquired through the years, the elderly can and must be sources of wisdom and witnesses of hope and love. (EV 94; cf. 46)

6. Conclusion

The Gospel of Life was written for your generation: those who must lead and serve in our Church and community in the century ahead. It presents young people like yourselves with an exciting challenge: to be and to become ‘the people of life and for life’. The adventure of the Gospel, the hope of the Popes is 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’ (EV 6).

Tags: Bishop Anthony Fisher   iWitness   CYP

« Return to news list