This article is adapted from a speech delivered by George Weigel at the Rome Life Forum, an international pro-life conference, on May 3.
Extensive Catholic use of the language of “human rights” begins with Pope St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, but it was Pope St. John Paul II (happily canonized with John XXIII on April 27) who deployed human-rights language to great effect in the two and a half decades of his pontificate.
His passionate defense of the rights of his fellow Poles helped ignite the revolution of conscience that gave birth to the Solidarity revolution — and that eventually led to the collapse of European Communism. His sophisticated use of human-rights language and his development of the classic themes of Catholic social doctrine helped teach the Church in Latin America and the Philippines a better approach to challenging authoritarian governments than the language of liberation theology, distorted as it often was by Marxist categories of thought. And it was John Paul II who put the defense and promotion of human rights at the center of the Church’s social doctrine, offering the world a powerful vision of the free and virtuous society of the 21st century in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.
In all of this, John Paul II understood, and taught, that religious freedom is the first of human rights in organized political society. For as Vatican II taught and John Paul II emphasized in his first address to the United Nations in 1979, religious freedom, affirmed in law and cherished in the consciences of a people, creates essential limits to the power of the state and sets boundaries to the capacity of the state to intrude into the convictions and conscientious practices of individuals, families, and communities. In defending and promoting religious freedom, in itself and for its contributions to a just society, the Church honors what is Caesar’s while making it clear that there are things that are not Caesar’s: areas of human life into which Caesar may not reach without becoming a tyrant.
As my colleagues and I wrote in establishing the journal First Things more than 20 years ago, the first thing to be said about politics is that politics is not the “first thing” in our lives. To suggest that politics is “first” is to set out on the path to totalitarianism, a temptation to which political modernity seems uniquely susceptible. Religious freedom, cherished in culture and protected in law, is thus a barrier against the totalitarian temptation. That is why religious freedom is, or ought to be, of concern to all citizens, whether or not they have been blessed with the gift of faith.
And so in any proper ordering of rights in the political community, religious freedom will come first. But just as the political community — the state — does not exhaust the meaning of “human community,” civil and political rights are not the only “human rights.” Thus the first “human right” is the right to life from conception until natural death — the right without which civil and political rights, and indeed all other forms of “rights,” are meaningless.
If the state effectively asserts the power to declare some members of the human community — the unborn, for example — outside the circle of common concern and legal protection, then no one is safe, for no one has any “rights” the state cannot abrogate. The perverse German notion of Lebens unwertesleben — “life unworthy of life” — may have had a higher intellectual pedigree than the crudely materialistic Communist notion of “class enemies” to be liquidated; after all, the German authors of the influential 1920 book The Permit to Destroy Life Not Worth Living were an eminent legal scholar (Karl Binding) and an equally eminent physician (Alfred Hoche), not a maniac like Stalin. But the result of this denial of the first of human rights, the right to life, was the same under both German National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism: The result was genocide.
It is something of a mystery why this lesson from the lethal experience of the 20th-century totalitarianisms has been lost, as Western countries have debated their laws on abortion and euthanasia (a debate that now includes the possibility of euthanizing children). Perhaps there is a reticence about invoking the Nazi precedent for anything; there is certainly a reticence in certain political circles about acknowledging the genocidal tendencies that were, as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski insisted, built into Communism. Nonetheless, it must be said, and it must be said without hesitation: The desperately false idea that some human lives are worth less than others, and thus have less claim on cultural and legal protection than others, is at the root of the abortion license in our countries and is now, at the other end of the life spectrum, infecting public policy toward the elderly.
Those who imagine that they are providing merely a “choice” in these matters will soon discover, as my friend and colleague Father Richard John Neuhaus pointed out, that what is permitted is soon required, when the matter at hand is a breach of some traditional moral truth. This is what happens too often today with unborn children diagnosed with Down’s syndrome or some other genetic malady. This is what happens in states that offer the “choice” of euthanasia: What is described as a “choice” soon becomes a requirement. The same, we should be aware, will likely be the case with the radically handicapped who are not aborted.
Just as the proponents of the abortion license, euthanasia, and other expressions of the culture of death avoid the obvious analogies to the lethal activities of the totalitarian powers of the 20th century, so, too, do the opponents of the right to life avoid certain obvious facts, especially in the abortion debate. Yet the passionate (and, in some cases, plainly irrational) public conduct of those who propose abortion as the “solution” to a grave personal crisis tells us something important about the implausibility of their case.
In the ongoing debate over abortion, the science is all on our side. As any serious embryology textbook will tell you, the product of human conception is a unique human being with a unique genetic identity. Absent tragedy, in the form of miscarriage or lethal intervention, or in the form of abortion, the product of human conception will, in due course, be a mature human being: not a fish, or a bird, or some other form of primate, but a human being. This elementary truth of science is now confirmed daily by sonograms, which allow couples to see that what they have brought into being is a human being, and nothing other than a human being.
And if the science is on our side, so, I think, is at least one segment of the culture. In the United States, several hundred thousand people march in witness to the right to life every January, in Washington, on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s notorious 1973 decision legalizing abortion on demand, Roe v. Wade. The weather is usually bad. The media generally ignore us. But we come, every year, and our numbers are growing. More to my point about culture, though: We are getting younger. The U.S. March for Life is now getting both larger and younger at the same time. Why?
One reason, I suspect, is the science, including the technology of the sonogram. Another, darker, reason is that every American child born in 1974 or later knows, at some level of his or her consciousness, that he or she was a deliberate “choice,” which means that he or she might have been aborted, that he or she might not have been. This tends to concentrate the mind. Young women have also begun to understand (after two generations of sorrow, many broken marriages, and a lot of unhappy childhoods) that the sexual revolution is a very bad thing for women, and that the sexual revolution, especially when offered the technological insurance policy of legal abortion on demand, is a very convenient arrangement for predatory and irresponsible men. The work the pro-life movement has done in building crisis pregnancy centers that offer women in crisis something better than abortion — centers that offer medical care, economic assistance, adoption services, and aids in living as a single parent — has also made a difference.
And yet the incidence of abortion in America remains horribly high, and the abortion license decreed by Roe v. Wade has distorted many other aspects of our public life. The denial of the right to life is now even putting pressure on the first civil right, religious freedom, even as the Obama administration’s determination to export the abortion license is making America many enemies abroad.
So there is much work to be done. And there is no better guide to that work than John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.
Evangelium Vitae should be read, and preached, and taught, as the third panel of John Paul II’s triptych of encyclicals about the moral foundations of the free and virtuous society of the 21st century. In 1991, Centesimus Annus celebrated the new possibilities of freedom opened up by the collapse of European Communism; at the same time, the pope raised cautions against the idea that democracies can be “value-neutral” and reminded citizens of old and new democracies alike that a virtuous citizenry is essential in making democratic self-government work. In 1993, Veritatis Splendor taught that recognizing the binding moral truths inscribed in the world and in us is the surest foundation of democratic equality, as that recognition of moral truth also sets the foundations for the defense of the socially marginalized, the just management of wealth, the integrity of government, and the disciplining of self-interest so that the creation of wealth serves the common good. Evangelium Vitae built on this strong foundation by making a powerful argument that democracies risk self-destruction if what is morally wrong — and can be known by reason to be morally wrong — is defended as a civil or political “right.” Thus Evangelium Vitae extended John Paul II’s long-standing critique of philosophical utilitarianism by making it clear that the cause of freedom is deeply damaged by reducing human beings, at whatever stage of life and in whatever condition of life, to “useful” or “useless” objects.
And all of this, John Paul II insisted, can be known by anyone willing to think carefully about human beings, society, and freedom. The Catholic Church’s teaching on the right to life from conception until natural death is not like the Church’s understanding of Mary’s Immaculate Conception; it is not, in other words, the result of an argument conducted within distinctively Catholic theological premises. Nor is the Church’s insistence on legal acknowledgment of the fundamental right to life some attempt by the Church to “impose” its conception of justice and the just society on everyone else. The Church “imposes” nothing. The Church simply asks civil society and the state to recognize the facts of science, to “read” the moral truths inscribed in those facts accurately, to take those truths seriously, and to acknowledge those truths in public culture and in law. Anyone willing to engage a serious argument can grasp what the Catholic Church proposes on the life issues. And it is undemocratic for the opponents of the right to life to caricature the Church’s teaching and practice as irrational or authoritarian, or both.
On the contrary: It is the people of life who defend reason.
It is the people of life who understand that freedom is not mere willfulness.
And it is the people of life who offer women in crisis pregnancies, the elderly, and the radically handicapped something nobler than a lethal technological “solution” to their challenges.
Pope Francis has positioned the Catholic Church’s defense of the right to life in the context of his important critique of today’s “throwaway culture,” or as he sometimes puts it even more strongly, today’s “culture of rubbish.” Here is what the Holy Father wrote in Evangelii Gaudium last year:
Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist, and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual [Evangelii Gaudium, 213, quoting John Paul II, Christifideles Laici].
And then the Holy Father adds:
Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question [i.e., the right to life from conception until natural death]. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations.” It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life [Evangelii Gaudium, 214].
Pope Francis has also reminded us that we often communicate our convictions about the right to life best when those convictions are the expression of manifest acts of compassion and charity — when what we declare to be true is understood to be the foundation of the divine mercy we celebrated on the Octave of Easter.
We live in a confused and broken world in which there are many “walking wounded.” Virtually everyone we meet has been touched — and often wounded — by the sexual revolution and its consequences. Each person we meet — each of us — bears a burden of conscience about our failures to live up to our noblest aspirations. We who are Catholics have been given the great gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so that we can bring our burdens of conscience to the Son of the Merciful Father and receive the forgiveness we seek. That should make us even more effective witnesses to the power of mercy to bring confused men and women to an experience of the truth that sets us free in the deepest meaning of “liberation.”
What all of this means, practically, is that our arguments for the right to life must be complemented by our service to women in crisis pregnancies, as our arguments against euthanasia must be set in the context of our care for the elderly and the radically handicapped.
And these arguments must always be crafted in positive terms. There are many things to which Catholics and other people of conscience must say “no” today. But we must always place our “no” in the context of the “yes” that makes sense of the “no.”
We say “yes” to the dignity and beauty and infinite value of every human life, at every stage and in every condition; that is why we say “no” to abortion and euthanasia.
We say “yes” to freedom understood as our capacity to know what is good and to choose what is good freely, as a matter of moral habit; that is why we say “no” to the humanly degrading notion of “freedom” as mere willfulness, as my “choice,” period.
We say “yes” to democratic self-governance as a noble experiment in living freedom according to the moral truths that make for human happiness; that is why we say “no” to the debasement of democracy that takes place when moral wrongs are declared civil rights.
We say “yes” to compassion understood as “bearing with” the suffering of others; that is why we say “no” to misguided ideas of compassion that reduce the human subject to a disposable object, in a culturally corrupting process that John Paul II described as the “censorship of suffering.”
And we live our “yes” in compassionate care for women in crisis pregnancies, and for the elderly and the radically handicapped; that is why we say “no” to public policies that permit, and indeed encourage, and in some cases require, human beings to be treated as problems that can be “solved” by the lethal elimination of the “problem.”
In doing and saying all of this, we are giving the West the opportunity to experience a new birth of freedom. Democracy and decadence cannot long coexist. Democracy and the denial of reality cannot long coexist. As John Paul II argued vigorously in Evangelium Vitae, democracies that poison the “culture of rights” become “tyrant states.” In standing for the right to life at all stages of life and in all conditions of life, we are standing for the best in our civilizational heritage.
So let us stand fast. Let us stand firm. And in defending and promoting life, let us be the joyful, compelling witnesses to compassion, mercy, and truth that the Risen Christ calls us to be.
– George Weigel, the biographer of Pope St. John Paul II, is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.