The new religious education curriculum for the schools of the Melbourne Archdiocese is well advanced. Msgr Peter J. Elliott, who is the Episcopal Vicar for religious education and overseeing the project, explains how the 'Gospel of life' will permeate the new curriculum, covering all levels of the Catholic primary and secondary school.
The following article is a shortened version of a talk given by Msgr Elliott at Endeavour Forum on 24 August 1999.
The title of Pope John Paul's encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae of 25 March 1995 simply means the "Gospel of Life". In themselves, those challenging words can launch us on a positive approach to teaching children and young people the "good news" of the Christian struggle for human life on the edge of a new millennium.
The Melbourne Archdiocese has embarked on a massive project, the introduction of a new text-based curriculum throughout our primary and secondary schools. The gospel of life will permeate this syllabus. For example, throughout the primary grades children will learn that human life is unique, precious, to be respected and protected. In grades 5 and 6, units will focus on death and dying, but not in the unhealthy way seen in some secular programs, rather with a strong emphasis on the right to life and reverence for human life in God's plan.
This theme will be presented in the context of units on eternal life, that is, what happens beyond death - Christian eschatology - a theme that is appropriate in the Easter Season and Advent. From that basis it will be possible to go on and explore the great ethical issues of abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, artificial procreation, etc, in secondary schools.
In this context, the responsible and reverent transmission of human life will provide the proper context for a Christian understanding of human sexuality, because this whole area is part of the gospel of life. The Pontifical Council for the Family has set the standard here in its guidelines for parents and all who assist them, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. Plans are under way to set up a new approach to education in human sexuality, which is the right and duty of parents, the first educators, and which merits prudent support from schools and other agencies.
The sexual revolution is inseparable from the assaults on human life, and our young people need to be prepared to decode it, debunk it, and reject it. Here I would pay tribute to those who promote the natural regulation of fertility in upper levels of secondary schools, because they have unveiled the beautiful secrets of life in the womb and the need for a God- centred attitude to sexuality and having children: procreation rather than reproduction, self-control rather than hedonism, chastity rather than promiscuity.
In the context of a curriculum that includes the gospel of life, children are soon aware that the pro-life movement is favoured by the Church and that it includes many Catholics, working alongside other Christians, members of other religions, and men and women of good will united in a glorious cause.
But there is a danger if the pro- life cause is only based on tribal loyalty or associated sentimental feelings. You are not pro-life because it feels nice to be in the club. You are pro-life because this is right, this is true, and this is truly loving. Nor can you simply rest education in the gospel of life on the assertion that "human life is sacred". Children and young people see the sanctity of life violated every day through the mass media. The pro-life cause based on feelings or bald assertions is vulnerable to the apparently consistent and persuasive reasoning of influential people like Professor Peter Singer, which young people encounter in the universities.
We have to go deeper and ask what basic principles need to be inculcated in educating young people in the Gospel of Life? Evangelium Vitae can guide us in discerning the principles that form the basis for a sound education in reverence for human life and the need to struggle for the right to live.
* Respect for life begins by asking one of the greatest questions, not only "Who am I?" but "What am I?". Am I an animal? Am I a higher ape with computer skills? Or am I something more? If I am something more, my life has an innate value and dignity that involves rights and duties.
We must counteract the error that reduces people to the level of animals and then, effectively, argues that certain animals may even have more rights than unborn human beings. We need to teach children the traditional ascending hierarchy of being - mineral, vegetable, animal, human, the beautiful creation set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 337-349. We must never apologise for saying that the human person is unique and supreme.
* Life is a gift of God, so we counter the error that everything happens by blind chance, in the flow of haphazard forces. Life as gift evokes a sense of gratitude for being a created being, for being part of a beautiful world, with its harmonious order of creation.
* The gift of life shows us that we depend on God, that we should be in a responsible relationship with God. But how are we to live? We perceive the weakness in our nature, that we are fallen beings. We sense the pressure of evil around us. We cannot help thinking about "right and wrong". What we sense deep within our beings and in relationship with others, is proclaimed specifically in God's Word as "Thou shalt not kill" (cf. Evangelium Vitae, no. 41).
* Human life must be understood in terms of relationships with others. "Thou shalt not kill" requires respect for others, starting with the natural community, the family. Rights are recognised and respected in any well-ordered community and this begins at home. One of the great presuppositions behind the anti-life forces is an exaggerated selfish individualism. Pope John Paul II warned of this individualism before the Cairo Conference on Population and Development because it is the basis of the ruthless secularist ideology that has permeated the major United Nations meetings of this last decade of the millennium.
* Once we get our understanding of the person clear, the most basic right is the right to live. It is all very well to affirm the right to life, but there are conflicting understandings of the source and status of human rights. On the basis of a sound and reverent understanding of the human person, rights are recognised as natural and innate. They are simply "there" from the moment each of us exists. It is important to offer secondary students some understanding of the basis of human rights as innate and inviolable, contrasting this with "rights" that rest on the changing whims of social consensus, experts, ideologues or dictators.
* That life is good in itself has to be affirmed in order to divert attempts to make the "quality of life" the criterion why some should live and others die, or to eliminate eugenics theories that would eliminate the "unfit" or the "surplus population" because they are suffering, living in poverty or cutting down trees. Life is Beautiful was the title of an unusual film about a Jewish father who went to the extermination camp with his young son. This brave man never lost sight of the beauty of life, even in a man-made hell. But there are many of these "hells" among our young people today. They face the challenges of youth in despair, the abuse of drugs, teenage suicide, reckless life threatening behavior, violence. The gospel of life must affirm, in the face of all this, "yet ... life is beautiful."
* What Cardinal Newman called a "particular providence" is present in everyone's life. This flows from the divine gift of life, for each of us has been created for a reason, and this conveys a sense of purpose, plan, destiny - whatever we want to call it - which is present in the course of the earthly journey of every person. The gift of life is now seen as uniquely different from person to person in the way the journey of life unfolds. The need for young people to find meaning in their lives is paramount.
* That all human life is sacred rests on a belief in the personal God who created us in his own image and likeness, who gives us life, who reveals his moral laws and who wants us to enter a right relationship with Him.
The negative side of the struggle for human life should also be presented to young people and older children, that is, the reality of evil and the sin involved in collaborating with evil. The "culture of life" encounters what Pope John Paul in Evangelium Vitae and other documents and allocutions calls the "culture of death". Children and young people should thus learn that life itself in terms of our choices, moral decisions, commitment, is always a "tale of two cities". St Augustine presented this as the City of God struggling against the City of this world, or the Kingdom of God against the Kingdom of Satan.
Most of us have seen the film Schindler's List, a convincing story of the Nazi Holocaust. Remember the SS officials. Only one of them looked evil and he turned out to be a raving psychotic. The others were ordinary, almost faceless men, petty bureaucrats, pale boring little people, but they were the mass murderers.
Therefore, we need to guide children and young people never to imagine that we may expect to see monsters staring at us from the abortion clinics. We should not demonise those who kill. They are mainly ordinary people doing something very wicked - and they entangle many other ordinary people, mainly women, led into pain, emptiness and suffering by consenting to certain deeds.
This leads to the need to temper all education in life issues by encouraging compassion for all the victims of abortion, first of all the unborn children and then for the women involved in their deaths. Teenagers should be made aware of the caring agencies that assist women who are the "second victims" of the abortion tragedy. It is also important to let young women in our secondary schools know that abortion does have a deep impact on many women who have allowed it to happen to them, not forgetting other parties involved.
The same strategy of education through compassion and information applies in a slightly different way to the euthanasia issue. Here we need to back up the right to life of the people who are targets for euthanasia with descriptions of what a hospice is, how palliative care works, how pro-life medical personnel do not discriminate between people because they happen to be old, mentally handicapped, or because they look "different".
The euthanasia issue raises the need to teach children and young people that "being sincere" is no excuse for committing a crime against life. It is not enough to arouse enthusiasm for a cause. Commitment must be based on a pro-life conscience. To form a pro-life conscience we dare not resort to subjective notions of conscience, as if the conscience were a smorgasbord of opinions or a range of feelings "on special" in the supermarket of values. A pro-life conscience is informed, guided by the objective and compassionate principles I have outlined.
But pro-life compassion can only begin in the earliest years, by teaching little ones to love their brothers and sisters, to reverence the life of the new born babe, to respect that aged aunt or precious grandmother. Whatever the school hopes to achieve can only be accomplished if the family itself is a citadel of life and love. Ultimately, that is our greatest challenge that I leave with parents and grandparents. We will do our best through the schools, but the real ground work is up to you.