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Let Life Weep at the Grave: A Reconsideration of John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae

Lauren Bujaky

John Paul II’s indelible mark on the papacy has reinvigorated the sentiments of faith, hope, and love in the Catholic Church. Though his legacy permeates the Catholic faith’s re-fidelity to doctrine, familial relationships, and religious life, John Paul II’s emphasis on human dignity supersedes his other accomplishments as the essence of his pontifical life and works. [1] Because his work for dignity is quite prolific, perhaps even contributing to the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, I will focus solely on his written conception of life in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life.”

However, John Paul II’s explication of the Gospel is susceptible to dangerous misunderstanding within a post-Christian culture of morally sentimental peoples. The sentimental are those who uphold human dignity qua human dignity, those who reach for a moral agenda because it “makes them feel good.” How then should we properly communicate the truth of Christ’s life and death to those who are unknowingly opposed to the foundation of dignity? How should we understand the union between Christ’s life and death so that evangelism is not merely an extension of post-Christian morality?

Alexander Schmemann, an influential Orthodox priest of the twentieth century, analyzes post-Christian moral sentimentality in a helpful manner. Schmemann writes concerning secularism, “It ‘works’ and it ‘helps.’ . . . be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation.”[2] This ‘helpfulness’ is pervasive in the twenty-first century, where postmodernism has woefully impacted our perception of self, others, and God. For the sentimental secularist, life is vaguely defined by love not judgment, mercy not wrath, and self-worth not depravation. We seek ‘help’ rather than truth. For the Christian, however, truth undergirds each moral claim. As Schmemann says rather frankly, “for Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion.”[3] So, how do we speak the Evangelium Vitae, the fullness found within the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, without allying ourselves with the mere ‘help’ of secular society?

John Paul II does not deny the cultural crisis of sentimentality; he explains this failure as an ‘eclipse of God and man,’ or “when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man.”[4] His response to sentimentality is Christ’s blood, in which man’s life is victorious and death “shall be no more.”[5] For the devout Christian, this response to culture’s identity crisis is convicting: we are prompted to promote life in a culture fraught with death. But what is this response to sentimentality for the non-Christian? John Paul II’s emphasis on life over death bears resemblance to the moral ‘helpfulness’ of a post-Christian culture, where sentimentalism seemingly seeks life and not death. Thus, John Paul II’s message could be understood simply as moral inspiration for non-Christians. Of course, locating dignity in the lives of humans through Christ’s own life is consistent with the Gospel, but John Paul II’s application seems to mirror the secularist’s sentimentalism rather than the distinctively Christian love of God.

This dilemma is found most clearly in the Evangelium Vitae’s explanation of suffering. John Paul II recognizes that suffering today is “indeed opposed as an evil, always and in every way to be avoided.”[6] But, he then binds suffering with human dignity, where dignity is not marred by suffering but bolstered in its communion with Christ’s own suffering on the cross. But this is nonsensical to the non-Christian, whose aversion to Christ is met with a want to preserve life and ultimately eliminate suffering. John Paul II’s understanding of the Gospel emphasizes life-preservation, and thus, the moral sentimentalist is ‘helped’ not redeemed by Christianity. Without Christ’s life and death, the Gospel becomes either ‘helpful’ or ‘dreadful’, emphasizing either our worth or depravity. Schmemann may offer a balancing insight: “It is when Life weeps at the grave of a friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”[7] The Gospel involves both life and death, a seemingly paradoxical understanding of humanity’s deep sinfulness and incomprehensible worthiness. This is the true foundation of human dignity. John Paul II, though correct in his explanation of life’s worth, addresses secularism where it stands, not where it needs to be. Where, then, is the proper balance between life and death so that post-Christian peoples find Christ not ‘help?’

Sources:

[1] Gregory M.A. Gronbacher, “The Encyclical Legacy of John Paul II” Acton Institute: Religion and Liberty 7.6 (Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 1997), 11-12

William Doino, Jr., “John Paul II’s American Legacy” First Things (New York: The Institute on Religion and Public Life), 2014.

[2] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 109 & 99.

[3] Schmemann, Life of World, 99.

[4] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1995), 40.

[5] JPII, Evangelium Vitae, 46.

[6] JPII, Evangelium Vitae, 42.

[7] Schmemann, Life of the World, 100.