Tomorrow, on the Feast of the Annunciation, we mark also the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae. In that encyclical, the Polish pope insisted that “everyone has an important role to play” in proclaiming the Gospel of Life:
Together with the family, teachers and educators have a particularly valuable contribution to make. Much will depend on them if young people, trained in true freedom, are to be able to preserve for themselves and make known to others new, authentic ideals of life, and if they are to grow in respect for and service to every other person, in the family and in society.
This is what it means to build a culture of life in the broadest sense, the implications of which reach far beyond opposition to grave evils like abortion or euthanasia: human freedom must be directed toward truth, toward “authentic ideals” of life in the family and in society itself.
The culture of life, in which the dignity and worth of every human person is protected and cherished, is the only sure foundation upon which to build an authentic civilization of love. The full dignity and worth of the human person is revealed in the light of the Incarnation: we were made by God, in the image of God, for communion with God.
The more this truth is obscured, the more the true dignity of our own humanity is veiled. A culture which denies truth itself—or denies that truth is knowable or communicable—is a culture that cannot grasp the true worth of human life, let alone defend it.
Pope Benedict XVI understood this very clearly. When we lose sight of the truth about the human person, we lose both a proper sense of the worth of every human life, but we also lose the proper understanding of what it means to be person. A person is not just an isolated individual; a person always exists in relation to other persons, and finds fulfillment in the giving and receiving of love.
Obscure the truth of the human person and what remains is, in then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous words, “a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” The dictatorship of relativism arises when we become untethered from the truth about who we are and what we are destined for. In this state, we are not free; quite the opposite. We are left with only ourselves, cut off from the common ground of truth, with no ability to recognize the true dignity of others. The culture of death and the dictatorship of relativism are thus intertwined; indeed, they are two facets of the very same problem.
Pope Francis picks up on this theme, too, linking it definitively to his great theme of solicitude for the poor. Shortly after he was elected pope, Francis spoke to various ambassadors and diplomats. He spoke of the significance of his chosen name, Francis, for understanding the Church’s closeness to the poor. Then the Holy Father continued:
But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism”, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.
Here we see the common thread which runs from the culture of death, through the dictatorship of relativism, straight to what Pope Francis has dubbed, the culture of waste:
This “culture of waste” tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful — like the unborn child — or are no longer of any use — like the elderly person.
Pope Francis goes on to tie this “culture of waste” to a lack of respect for material goods and nature itself. As I’ve highlighted before, when we lose sight of our proper relationship with the creator—our origin and end—our relationship with all of creation suffers.
Finally, and for this reasons, what Pope Francis calls the culture of waste, is intimately connected to that materialism—as common in consumerist societies as in socialist ones, according to John Paul II—that reduces man to the sum of his economic choices and ignores the fullness of his freedom and, indeed, the fullness of his humanity. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II connects our disordered relationship to the material world back to the dangers of thinking about man in primarily economic terms:
When… man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him.
The implications of the Church’s social teaching and the Gospel of Life are far ranging, indeed. Tomorrow’s anniversary is as good a time as any to read (or re-read) Evangelium Vitae. It is worth recalling that the surest antidote to the culture of death, the dictatorship of relativism, and the culture of waste is the proclamation of the Gospel of Life. And what better occasion than the Feast of the Annunciation to contemplate anew the dignity to which we have been raised, and the true source of all our hope:
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
Author’s Note: I have the privilege of spending several weeks every summer helping to lead the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society—studying Catholic social teaching and the thought of St. John Paul II in his beloved city of Kraków. Since 1992, our seminar has been doing its small part to equip young men and women with the tools of the Church’s social teaching, which is to say, forming them with an eye to true freedom so that they may “preserve for themselves and make known to others new, authentic ideals of life in the family and in society.” This summer’s seminar will run from 29 June through 16 July. For those who are interested, you can learn more about the seminar at: www.eppc.org/tms. The deadline for applications is fast approaching: this Friday, March 27.