Last week, a young friend of mine attempted to defend the truth about marriage among a group of peers at a secular university. She presented a meaningful argument about families, social stability, and gender complementarity. None of her classmates refuted her arguments. Instead, they accused her of being a bigot and a homophobe, called her intolerant, and changed the topic to something less intellectually taxing.
My friend’s experience is practically a cliché. Americans who offer traditional viewpoints on moral issues in the public square have become accustomed to calumny. They know that reasoned arguments will rarely receive reasoned refutation.
In California, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has become the victim of a well-funded smear campaign because he expects that Catholic teachers shouldn’t publicly undermine Catholic beliefs. Last month, a philosophy professor was suspended from a Catholic university for criticizing heterodox instruction. Even non-believers suffer this fate. Fashion house Dolce and Gabbana is being boycotted because its owners believe that children deserve mothers and fathers.
In the cultural conversation about moral issues, reasoned arguments seem increasingly drowned out by personal attacks. And twenty years ago today, Pope St. John Paul II predicted this would happen.
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae, his encyclical on the mission of the Gospel of Life. Evangelium Vitae is probably the most comprehensive and compelling encyclical on moral issues I have ever read. It addresses the evils of abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. But the encyclical is fundamentally concerned with the relationships between love, truth, freedom, and justice. Twenty years after its promulgation, we must return to Evangelium Vitae. Its message becomes more relevant each year.
If we want to reverse our culture’s descent into socially accepted hedonism, we need to understand the connection between relativism, contraception, and abortion. The danger of contraception, Evangelium Vitae said, is that it fosters a “hedonistic mentality,” a “self-centered concept of freedom,” which places personal fulfillment at the center of life’s meaning and purpose. Abortion is the radical choice for personal fulfillment, convenience, or “freedom,” even at the immediate expense of another’s life. Together, contraception and abortion have contributed to a culture that believes that personal happiness is the highest possible human aim, and that it ought to be pursued by all possible means.
The consequences of contraception’s denial of the truth about human sexuality, said John Paul, have put “freedom” on the path of self-destruction. John Paul II cautioned:
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.
Evangelium Vitae argued that contraception leads inevitably to the rejection of every rational opposition to unfettered sexual license. The line between our contraceptive mentality and our fights over marriage is direct, and obvious. But the social consequences of contraception go beyond even the confines of sexuality.
John Paul II said that a self-referential, subjective understanding of freedom builds cultures where “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.” Inevitably relativism leads to “the supremacy of the strong over the weak.”
We are witnesses to the supremacy of the strong over the weak. The tyranny of evil is shrouded today in trappings of “democratic consensus.” We equate moral goodness with popular consensus. We’re shamed into tolerance of evil.
And because truth seems to have little to do with our sense of freedom, we watch the unborn be eradicated for the sake of convenience. We watch the elderly and terminally ill be coerced into suicide. We watch the rights of children be trampled to satisfy the pleasures and preferences of adults. The homes and cities of the West are built on the “shifting sands of relativism,” and we pretend, too often, that popular consensus makes goodness from evil.
Last week, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia explained that divorcing freedom from truth puts believers in grave danger. He pointed out that across the globe, the rights and safety of religious people are trampled by hedonism and greed, veiled beneath the language of human rights and civic tolerance. Evangelium Vitae's point was that contraception fosters the attitudes that lead to religious oppression and persecution. And thwarting that persecution requires exposing the lies of the contraceptive mentality.
In short, we can’t address the great cultural unraveling we’re experiencing if we do not address the consequences of contraception and abortion. “It is precisely the issue of respect for life” according to John Paul, “which shows what misunderstandings and contradictions, accompanied by terrible practical consequences, are concealed” in positions of positivistic relativism.
We have not successfully convinced most Catholics, or anyone else for that matter, that contraception has grave social consequences. Nor have we yet convinced enough Americans that abortion is a real social injustice. Until we do that, we can expect to see the contraceptive mentality continue to foster and encourage libertine social tyranny, religious persecution, and family disintegration.
But relativism is not immediately overcome by rational conversation in the public square. Rational conversation is important. But among the effects of relativism is a popular culture increasingly less capable—and less willing—to engage in rational discourse at all.
Evangelium Vitae made clear that the dignity of human life is best understood by disciples of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father’s proposal for eradicating the social evils of abortion and contraception—and their profound social consequences—is evangelization.
The Gospel of Life is the Christian gospel. John Paul said that we only understand human dignity in this life if we understand the human potential for eternal life.
I remember vividly John Paul II’s homily in Denver, at World Youth Day in 1993, less than two years before he wrote Evangelium Vitae. I was a young priest who had traveled there with pilgrims from Wichita, Kansas. John Paul outlined the culture of death’s grave social dangers. And he proposed this solution:
Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops!
Evangelium Vitae proposed the urgency of transforming human hearts—and human culture—through the Gospel of Life. Cultural transformation will take time. It is likely that successive generations will be called upon to re-Christianize the western cultural tradition. But restoring Christian culture must begin by restoring hearts—through transformative, kerygmatic encounters with Jesus Christ. Recognizing that fact was the truest genius of Evangelium Vitae.
It is time to preach the Gospel from the rooftops. The culture of death still gains ground, and the weakest among us suffer. Their suffering will be relieved when courageous men and women proclaim Jesus Christ, and witness to the real dignity of human lives made for eternity with Him.
James Conley is the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.