On Evangelium Vitae

by Rev. J. Michael Miller, CSB

The third chapter of Evangelium Vitae presents the doctrinal core of the encyclical. Here Pope John Paul II authoritatively confirms Catholic teaching on the value and inviolability of human life. He begins by reaffirming a traditional principle: "The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person" (#57). By "innocent" the pope means an individual who has committed no crime; he or she is weak and defenseless.

From the beginning, the church’s living tradition has consistently taught that in no case whatsoever can one deliberately kill innocent human life. Church teaching in this regard expressed by the popes, the Second Vatican Council, national episcopal conferences, and individual bishops - is unanimous.

Why then does the pope again take up this question? It is not because official Catholic teaching is either unclear or doubtful. Rather, he sees the "progressive weakening in individual consciences and in society of the sense of the absolute and grave moral illicitness of the direct taking of all innocent human life, especially at its beginning and at its end" (#57). Such a view, the Holy Father thinks, cannot go unchallenged.

This pastoral concern leads John Paul to use his special teaching ministry to reassert Catholic doctrine: "Therefore, 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" (#57).

There is nothing new in this declaration. The pope repeats what the bishops, in union with him, have always held to be true: "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." Such an action, he then adds, is "a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law" (#57).

In the Holy Father’s statement the adjective "innocent" raises several questions. Is it ever morally permitted to take human life? What about self-defense and capital punishment?


Christian reflection has long meditated on the problem of self-defense. Here the pope says that we face "a genuine paradox." Two goods are in conflict: the right and responsibility to protect one’s own life or that of others, and the duty not to harm the life of one’s neighbor. John Paul recognizes that in "the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes" (#55), individuals may renounce the right to defend their own lives. Such acts of radical self-offering imitate Christ’s sublime example on the cross.

The Holy Father also hastens to add, however, that the moral principle outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the state" (#2265). True charity can entail attacking an assailant to deter him from his crime.

An unjust aggressor is, by definition, not innocent. The church therefore allows one to render such a person incapable of causing serious injury, even if, as a very last resort, this means taking the attacker’s life. In this case, the aggressor is the one morally responsible for the fatal outcome, not the person acting in self-defense.


The encyclical also takes up the question of capital punishment. The pope notes with approval that "there is a growing tendency, both in the church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely" (#56). On this score, it seems, the United States is out of step with a global trend.

The church’s official teaching, however, still permits capital punishment. An individual judged to be guilty of a very serious crime does not enjoy the absolute protection of his life that belongs to the innocent. The Catechism of the Catholic Church favors, but does not insist on, abolishing the death penalty: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must ["should" in the currently published translation] limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person" (#2267).

John Paul II foresees few instances when capital punishment would be justified. "Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent" (#56). The pope is even more restrictive than the Catechism. He limits capital punishment to "cases of absolute necessity; in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society" (#56).

The only reason the pope gives for the death penalty is legitimate self-defense. By his silence, he excludes using it for other reasons, such as its deterrent value or as punishment. Addressing this issue at the press conference which released the encyclical to the public, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, observed that the Catechism’s section on the death penalty will be rewritten in the light of Evangelium Vitae.

The fundamental principle remains intact: No one may licitly kill an innocent human being. God alone is the Lord of life.

This is the sixth in a series on Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, by Father J. Michael Miller, who writes for Our Sunday Visitor. ©1997 by Our Sunday Visitor. Used by subscription.

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