4.3.6 Democracy in CST texts (v): John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

Back to 4.3.5

Unit 4 Contents


Four years after Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s argument that democracy depends on recognition of the connection of freedom and truth was powerfully re-expressed in Evangelium Vitae, ‘The Gospel of Life’ (1995).

Evangelium Vitae can be seen as a development of one passage in CA.  This is not in the reading on the last screen but is in a chapter on economic life. It addresses what he describes as “the specific problems and threats emerging within the more advanced economies” (#36), such as the UK.  He then discusses each of the following in turn: the dehumanizing effects of consumerism; “senseless” ecological destruction; the “more serious” destruction of the “human ecology” of marriage and family life; and the widespread recourse to abortion (##36-39). With reference to all of these, he then introduces a dramatic contrast between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death” (#39).  He comments: “Human ingenuity seems to be directed more towards limiting, suppressing or destroying the sources of life than towards defending and opening up the possibilities of life” (#39).

It will immediately be plain that this presents a very big-picture analysis.  No doubt there are not many people who would say they embrace a ‘culture of death’.  What then does Pope John Paul II mean?  It is helpful to read this in the context of some of the huge social developments in Western countries that took place during the 25 years between the mid-1960s, when the ground-breaking documents that effected the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ were written, and the early 1990s.  In relation to the issues on which he comments in this passage of CA, only the first of the following developments – and perhaps not even that – could easily have been foreseen at the time of Vatican II:

  • the growth of mass consumerism across the Western world, thanks to a combination of growing incomes and easy availability of ever cheaper manufactured products (e.g. all kinds of household goods, entertainment products, cars and, from the 1980s, information technology)
  • the emergence of compelling evidence of ecological destruction and widespread concern about its future consequences (this development is outlined in Module A, Unit 3 [3.2], and a major statement by Pope John Paul on ecological responsibility in 1990 can be studied there: 3.4.2)
  • the sexual revolution, huge increases in divorce, and rapid changes in and diversification of forms of family life in many countries (statistics showing the latter in the UK are in Module A, Unit 6: 6.1.3)
  • the legalisation of abortion (subject to various limitations) in many countries, including: the UK in 1967, some US states from around the same time and the USA as a whole from 1973, France (1975), West Germany (1976), New Zealand (1977), Italy (1978) and the Netherlands (1980).

Perhaps the following passage in CA, specifically about consumerism, may be taken as summing up the way that Pope John Paul saw the combined effect of these developments as reflecting a turn away from true human living:

In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of the person which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones. If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to human instincts – while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free – then consumer attitudes and lifestyles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to the person’s physical and spiritual health. (#36, italics original)

There is no doubt that among those developments, John Paul had an especially great concern about the last, the legalization of abortion.  The Catholic Church is opposed to abortion for one straightforward reason: the Church teaches that the unborn child growing in the womb is a human person.  If this is so, his or her human rights, including the right to life, must be respected.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the teaching on abortion appears under a heading given by the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not kill”.1. The Catechism does not set out the reasons for this teaching about the beginning of human life, and to examine these here is beyond the scope of this unit.2. But, granted what the Church teaches, it is not remotely surprising that the pope would be deeply alarmed by the changes in law on abortion noted above.

Pope John Paul II had a equally great concern about a partly parallel issue to do with the end of human life: the deliberate ending of a person’s life by euthanasia or by assisting suicide.  The Catholic Church opposes this practice for a similarly clear reason: it involves one person intending to end the life of an innocent person – who is neither a convicted criminal nor a combatant in war – and such intentional killing is never justified.3.  It is always wrong.  Again, the Catechism locates its teaching about this in its article on the fifth commandment.4. What is required in place of such killing is the most humane and holistic care possible of those near the end of their lives, such as has begun to be made a reality in the hospice movement.  Less than a year before Evangelium Vitae was published, the US State of Oregon became only the second jurisdiction in the world officially to permit assisted suicide.  The first had been Switzerland in 1942.  Since 2000 a number of other countries have legalised euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, notably the Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2002), Luxembourg (2008) and five other US states.

Evangelium Vitae (EV) speaks about all the issues addressed in ##36-39 of Centesimus Annus and also others.  Chapter 1 offers a trenchant diagnosis of the “culture of death” and includes a powerful analysis of freedom and “its essential link with the truth” (##18-20, quoting #19).  This critiques “a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong’ against the weak who have no choice but to submit” (#19).  Chapter 2 presents, in contrast, “The Christian Message Concerning Life” (its title).  Chapter 3, “You Shall Not Kill”, addresses a number of concrete issues of public morality: capital punishment (##53-57); abortion (##58-63); euthanasia (##64-67); and finally the relation of democracy and moral truth (##68-74).  With this topic, the Pope was drawing attention to what he saw as one of the underlying factors contributing to leading people away from life: the assumption that moral relativism can provide a coherent basis for democracy.

Here we shall read from only the last of these sections – but, as always, it is important to have at least a basic understanding of its context. The discussion of democracy as such starts in #69.  #68 gives an idea of the robust language which Pope John Paul II employs in opposing the claim that there are moral ‘rights’ to abortion and euthanasia that should be made into legal rights.


Reading (7pp)

Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, ##68-72


The lengthy quotations at the end of #71 and start of #72 are from Pacem in Terris, ##60-61 and #51 respectively.  Both these passages in PT are in readings you did earlier (see 4.3.3).




Within this reading, it is #70 and the first paragraph of #71 which are directly on the critical importance for democracy of recognizing the connection of freedom and truth.  The following can be seen as a pithy summary of the point: “Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality” (#70).

Granted which,

It is… urgently necessary, for the future of society and the development of a sound democracy, to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person: values which no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy, but must only acknowledge, respect and promote. (#71, italics added)

But are you convinced?  Is the seriousness and urgency in John Paul II’s warning about democracy justified?


We can imagine a line of response to the argument in CA and EV about democracy and truth that runs as follows.  Of course relativism is incoherent – and in fact most people aren’t relativist.  They do believe that there really is right and wrong, even if they can’t easily justify their beliefs.  For instance, violent assault, rape, and racism are always morally wrong.  So John Paul II must be mistaken when he says that the basic problem is “the ethical relativism which characterizes much of present-day culture” (#70).  People in democracies are not really as relativist as he thinks – because we’re not that stupid!  But we do believe in individual freedom: it’s up to each person to make their own judgments about right and wrong.  All the law can do is to protect this individual freedom – and it’s only the wrongs that threaten this freedom, such as assault, rape and discrimination based on race (to give the same examples), that we need to make illegal.  Therefore we can have a democratic politics that is completely committed to protecting freedom but doesn’t need to get into questions about what is ultimately true about the human condition.  So John Paul is right about relativism, but he isn’t convincing about the importance of the inherent connection of freedom and truth.



What do you make of this line of argument in response to Pope John Paul?

Do you think it presents the kind of thinking that is quite widespread?  What other points do you think people who would identify with it would also make?

Is it intellectually cogent, or is there a problem with it?

Has Pope John Paul already answered it in the passages you have read?


One fairly obvious problem with this line of response is that it certainly doesn’t enable us to deal with some of the issues that are highly controversial in public debate.  Perhaps most obviously, the question of what is true about when the human embryo or foetus becomes a human person can’t be answered on the basis of appealing to freedom.  But as soon as a human person does exist, his or her human rights must be respected as fully as for anyone else.  Therefore on this issue there obviously is a real question about what is true.  Appeal to freedom cannot be enough to resolve it.

However, in relation to a whole range of less controversial issues, perhaps that way of arguing in response to Pope John Paul is persuasive.   In order to assess this, the next screen will examine more closely the claim that freedom and truth are inherently connected. 


End of 4.3.6

Go to 4.3.7 Freedom and truth

Module B outline

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  1. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three, Section Two, Chap. Two, Art. 5, accessible (3 Jul. 2014) at  http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm

  2. Two main documents in which the Church’s teaching on the beginning of life is set out more fully than in the Catechism are:

    – Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Declaration on Procured Abortion’, 1974, accessible (27 June 2014) at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19741118_declaration-abortion_en.html

    – Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day’, 1987, accessible (27 June 2014) at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19870222_respect-for-human-life_en.html.

    For succinct and fairly reliable presentations of main arguments both against and for abortion (with a focus on debates in the USA), see the relevant pages at www.procon.org, as accessible via http://abortion.procon.org/

  3. You might recall that an outline of Church teaching on capital punishment, in the Compendium, was part of a reading in Unit 3 (3.1.5).  As noted below, Evangelium Vitae also addresses capital punishment, in chap. 3, sec. 2. Within a discussion of criminal punishment in general, John Paul says, “It is clear that… the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated… and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (#56, italics original)  The Church’s teaching in relation to combatants and non-combatant immunity in war can be studied in Unit 7. 

  4. See Catechism as cited above.  A main document in which the Church’s teaching on the end of human life and euthanasia is set out more fully than in the Catechism is: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Declaration on Euthanasia lura et Bona’, 1980, accessible (3 Jul. 2014) at  http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19800505_euthanasia_en.html.  For succinct and fairly reliable presentations of arguments both against and for euthanasia and assisted suicide (with a focus on debates in the USA), see the relevant pages at www.procon.org, as accessible via http://euthanasia.procon.org/