It’s become common for Christians to speak of the importance of a “culture of life,” a phrase popularized by Pope John Paul II and dealt with extensively in his Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life). John Paul II argues against abortion and euthanasia, as well as birth control, the death penalty, and unjust war. He writes,
19. … There is an even more profound aspect which needs to be emphasized: freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth. When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim.
20. This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. Thus soci- ety becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual. In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.
The Pope’s point, wisely made, is that democracies do not inherently respect the right to life even of its own people. Absent an overriding commitment to a truth greater than the will of the majority, a nation may well choose to kill its unborn children, its elderly … anyone lacking the political power to defend themselves. Hence, he advocates for a culture of life built on the scriptures’ “gospel of life.”
Of course, his interpretation of the gospel is not universally accepted, even among Catholics, many of whom reject the Pope’s teaching on birth control. Nonetheless, there is a lot of wisdom in this tract. Sadly, the teaching has been distorted by the politicians and by those advocating for more extreme views. And I think there’s an important, subtle flaw in the Pope’s thinking that makes this distortion all but inevitable.
It was partly in response to this teaching that Congress involved itself in the tragic Terri Schiavo case, literally passing an act of Congress to preserve the life of a woman in a persistent vegetative state with very severe, irreparable brain damage.
There’s an important error to notice here. Somehow or other, in the face of the truly great sin of mass abortion, the Pope transforms the “gospel of Jesus” to the “gospel of life,” as though the kingdom of heaven is about the principle that no one should die. But as soon as you say it that way, the contradiction becomes obvious. The gospel came by the death of Jesus and triggered the willing submission of countless Christians to martyrdom. The gospel is about death to this world but life in the age to come. It’s not about keeping people alive — not at its core. It’s about something bigger and much more important. Staying alive is not the most important thing.
It’s not that the “culture of life” is wrong so much as that we can be duped by slogans into overlooking the necessity of framing the value of life within the gospel. I mean, most Christians think suicide is sin, but is it sin to go to Saudi Arabia to teach the gospel, knowing that the odds of being executed are near 100%? I don’t think so.
Moreover, while “Thou shalt not kill” is certainly a command that Christians must honor, it is not the heart of the gospel or even of gospel ethics. The heart of gospel ethics is love —
(Gal 5:6b) The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
(Rom 13:8-10) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Love fulfills the law. So what happens when “Thou shalt not kill” and love are in contradiction? I think, clearly, love is the right choice. It’s not always easy to decide what to do in a given case, but the principle should be plain.
Let me offer a true example from my home town. Several years ago, gunman entered a Christian school and held small children hostage, threatening to kill them all. The police showed up and tried to reason with the man to talk him into giving up. However, they could not risk the lives of the children, who were very young and panicked. The situation was as grim as you can imagine.
A police sniper had the gunman in his sights and, eventually, was given the order to fire. The sniper was a devout Christian — as were the police chief and mayor, who gave the order. He pulled the trigger, the gunman died instantly, and the children all came out alive.
A Christian killed a man quite intentionally. Did he violate the Ten Commandments? Clearly not. It was an act of love, rescuing the innocent children from death. In the real world, sometimes we have to kill people to be loving people.
Love does not equal never killing anyone for any reason. That’s not good Bible. And it’s not what the Pope said. And if I’m ever in a persistent vegetative state, please — PLEASE — pull the plug. I’m going to a better place. You see, the gospel changes how we see those decisions. It’s not about preserving life in this world at all costs. It’s not.
I’ve done a little estate planning, and as part of that, we have our clients sign the Alabama version of a living will. It’s my experience that devout Christians check the box to pull the plug rather than being kept alive in a vegetative state. They don’t really hesitate. It’s an obvious choice. They know they’re going to a better place. Those who are less certain of the afterlife sometimes say that they want all means used to keep them alive — some even say to keep them alive at any cost to their families.
Which decision is truer to the gospel and which is more loving? Life is not always the choice of love.
Now, once we accept this line of reasoning, we have to face some serious problems. The first is that the ethical world gets a little more gray. When I was a kid, the preachers all railed against “situation ethics.” A book by that name had been recently published, and it became standard cant to preach against it. In fact, it still is in many circles. But it’s true that the right decision very often depends on the situation. Yes, it’s wrong to kill. Except to save 30 terrorized children. Or when Jay is in a persistent vegetative state. The situation matters.