As everyone not marooned on a desert island knows by now, we will once again have to make a choice for a President of the United States this November, along with congressional candidates and senators, not to mention local legislators.
With just a few months left for us to consider the alternatives and make our decisions, how should a Catholic conscience be formed in order to choose rightly? The choices this year are momentous – and troubling. But I believe that we can find answers for perplexed voters – ourselves as well as others – by taking a look at the encyclicals of John Paul II.
He was a great saint who wrote many great things worth reading and re-reading, in particular (the greatest one to my mind) Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Never was he as much of a prophet as in this encyclical, where he not only diagnosed the problems of his time, but also prophetically showed what lay ahead by way of threats to innocent human life, to marriages, and to families.
An excellent preparation for entering the voting booth would be reflecting on the following. As he put it, today we see:
extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenseless. . . .The end result of this is tragic: not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but. . .conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil.
This “culture of death” (a phrase, it ought to be remembered, that he invented) into which increasingly godless societies – aided and abetted by their governments – have fallen, pits the strong against the weak without compunction for the innocence of the victims.
Recounting the Biblical role of blood, its shedding in the Old Testament, and its foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice in the new, St. John Paul notes that as human life becomes a commodity and the shedding of human blood a major profit-making business, today’s sacrifice of the innocents fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah: “Because they have forsaken Me and have made this an alien place and have burned sacrifices in it to other gods, that neither they nor their forefathers nor the kings of Judah had ever known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. . . .I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hands of those who seek their lives.” (Jer. 19:4-7)
As Catholics considering our options for November, the life issues need to loom large, precisely because they are life-and-death issues, issues that do not admit of compromise. Therefore, before entering the voting booth, it is impossible, almost mandatory for a Catholic to consult the encyclical on the human life issues of our time, written by a pope who has been raised to the rank of canonized saints since the last presidential election.
In The Gospel of Life, St. John Paul has masterfully placed our modern-day inhumanity to other human beings (unborn or unwanted at any stage of life) in the context of the contemporary abandonment of objective values and exaltation of the self as the arbiter of values and determiner of reality (leading many to believe the reductio ad absurdum that, socially and legally, anyone may embrace whatever gender he or she chooses to identify with).
St. John Paul’s vision of human persons and their roles as co-creators in transmitting human life extended beyond injunctions against abortion and euthanasia to a beautifully elaborated Theology of the Body. His understanding of the value of human persons, made in God’s image and intended by God to form creative, lifelong unions of self-donating love, provides a roadmap for happiness in our earthly life and a means of attaining to eternal union with God in the hereafter.
To proclaim the Gospel of Life in the public square, in our time, we need to pursue a wide variety of approaches: from a contemplative outlook that marvels at the sacredness of the human person, to participation in the social and political activities that promote life; from working to rescind the legal license to kill unwanted human life, to striving to raise Christian children who respect human life and will grow up to form their own healthy Christian families.
It may have once been possible to tend to one’s own garden and let others tend to theirs. But all of the approaches mentioned above are essential to constructing a new culture of life, because our era’s hedonistic and self-absorbed trivializing of sexuality has led to our current appalling state. In such dire straits, mere voting is not enough.
St. John Paul II knew well what it was like to contend against regimes that deny basic human rights. While our own government, for now, remains far preferable to the Communist tyranny under which he lived in Poland, we should not blind ourselves to the continued denial of rights to innocent life and our shrinking sphere of religious freedom.
No society can long continue unless it chooses to be consistent with the gospel of life and protects the sanctity of marriage as it has come down to us from God, beginning with Adam and Eve. Only in this way can our country – any country – survive and flourish.
Let us ask St. John Paul’s heavenly intercession for our deeply troubled and ailing society, and for his aid in remembering, as strong Christians, to follow his example as we cast our votes and live our lives.