Evangelium Vitae - Catholicism, the media and the 'culture of death'

Evangelium Vitae - Catholicism, the media and the 'culture of death'

Bishop George Pell

The Pope's encyclical 'Gospel of Life'

The release of Pope John Paul II's encyclical 'Gospel of Life' earlier this year was timely in view of the growing pressures in Australia - already successful in the Northern Territory - to legalise euthanasia. This push has been assisted by the ready availability of the mass media.

Bishop George Pell of Melbourne analyses the significance of the papal encyclical and the role of the mass media while providing a critique of the "messengers of death", notably Dr Peter Singer.

This is an abridgment of Dr Pell's address given at the University of Sydney for a seminar, "Towards a New Culture of Life."

Pope John Paul II, in his beautiful encyclical on morality, Gospel of Life, published early this year to complement his 1993 letter The Splendor of Truth, has touched the heart of the moral conflicts and confusion in English-speaking countries generally and the Catholic community in particular.

These conflicts focus upon the sanctity of life (euthanasia, infanticide), gender (feminism), race (multiculturalism), the definition of the family, children (blessing or burden?), the environment, the interpretation of literature, the writing of history and centrally the meaning of sex, with all the consequent differences over abortion, contraception and pornography.

The "modern" spirit is deeply subjectivist and relativist, at least in the realm of general moral theory, although this is often married, in the same individuals, with fierce moral convictions on particular issues. It is not only traditionalist or orthodox moralists who are tempted to intolerance. Webster's Dictionary defines political correctness as "marked by or adhering to a typical progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially race, gender, sexual affinity or ecology."

The crucial clash is between Judeo-Christianity and the new paganism which explicitly denies the existence of the one true God. Increasingly the neo-pagans are prepared to avow this publicly rather than veiling themselves in a discrete agnosticism, and many of them are prepared also to spell out the radical moral consequences of their atheism.

Neither can it be denied that a variation of the culture wars is also occurring within Judaism and the Christian denominations, with recurrent hostilities, muted or overt, between those we might describe as orthodox or progressive.

Committed progressives tend to draw their convictions from the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life. In the case of Australian Catholicism. the fundamental policy differences lie between those wanting to respond to the continuing decline in faith and practice by further accommodation to the spirit of the times and those seeing the long struggle to slow and reverse this decline as essentially fuelled by fidelity to the Gospels and the Catholic tradition.

Earlier this year a New York writer, George Sim Johnston, claimed that in our dreary decade of Clinton and Yeltsin the present Pope was the only world leader with the stature of Churchill and De Gaulle. Certainly his role, with Ronald Reagan, in the collapse of Communism dwarfs the efforts of Pope Leo the Great and then Pope Gregory the Great in the fifth and sixth centuries to defend Rome and the remnants of the Roman Empire in the West from the depradations of the barbarians.

Most of Eastern Europe today is still far from the promised land, economically and politically, but they are free. It is not surprising that one magazine I saw spoke of the Pope as a second Moses!

However, the Pope has set himself another and more difficult task: to help strengthen and revive the moral and religious sensibility of the Western world. He has set in place much of the intellectual groundwork for this with the new Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and his many encyclicals, but the fruits in the West, unlike Africa, some parts of Asia and even South America, have been scarce. We are part of a big problem.

In Gospel of Life, the Pope has not just spelt out his intellectual arguments on the sanctity of life. I also believe that in his attack on the "culture of death," the soft nihilism which has settled over Western Europe and the English-speaking world, he has also struck a popular chord, which we can replay many times, develop and refine for our particular audiences, and which will provoke many, many responses from the less religious as well as all Christians. His is a message, not just for the Catholic community, but for all society. It is our task to exploit these opportunities and for this we shall need the media - print, radio and television.

In the USA today the average citizen spends nearly thirty hours a week watching television; a pattern repeated in many parts of the First World where most children now spend more time before a TV set than in the school room.

A South Australian document in 1983 showed that children spent 11,500 hours in schooling. During those years they watched at least 15,000 hours of television and films (the "unsupervised classroom") and spent another 5,000 hours listening to radio or reading newspapers, comics and magazines. All in all, exposure to media messages is almost double the amount of time spent at school.

John Logie Baird's invention of television in 1926 has revolutionised the spread of news and views more than any other single factor since the invention of printing by Johann Gutenberg in Germany in about 1440; the only possible rival is the introduction of universal primary education.

This media revolution has not finished. It is continuing as vast international networks expand their outreach and an increasing number of channels, either free-to-air or through pay-TV, are offered to the public.

The Church is confronted by a major social phenomenon, whose importance it is difficult to overstate. Clergy of my generation well remember that grace builds on nature. This truth applies also in the world of the mass media, and we are far from building as well as we might.

The grave moral decline in many societies, which the Holy Father laments in this encyclical, certainly finds some of its causes in the modern mass media. If this moral confusion intensifies, if the culture of death with its emphasis on violence, ugliness and pornography gains more and more ground in the media, it is inevitable that the decline of Christian faith and practice, especially in Western countries, will also gather pace.

There are no necessary reasons why this must happen and one of the principal strengths of this encyclical is to spell out the central issue in these culture wars, in this dramatic conflict of good and evil, whose significance often goes unrecognised, lost in the grey mists of uncertainty and sentimentality. What is the value of human life? Is human life sacred?

The Holy Father hammers home his theme. The value of life today has undergone a kind of eclipse (par 11): a fact recognised by the Consistory of Cardinals in April 1991 when they unanimously asked the Pope "to reaffirm with the authority of the Successor of Peter the value of human life and its inviolability" (par 5).

This encyclical is the answer to that request. It is one of the Holy Father's most important writings, an eloquent and passionate appeal to "respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!", because only in this direction can one recognise the splendour of truth and the reality of freedom.

Human decency

This encyclical prompted less hostile comment throughout Australia than had the previous letter on morality Veritatis Splendor. I had expected the opposite, in view of the theme chosen, and especially the solemn papal teaching condemning the murder of the innocent, abortion and euthanasia. Why was the encyclical so well received? A couple of reasons come to mind.

In all societies influenced by the great religions there are huge reservoirs of respect for life, selective and imperfect as these enthusiasms always are. There are oceans of basic human decency, ripe for development and refinement, especially through the media, by Christians and all lovers of life.

The encyclical taps into a rich vein of human conviction and sentiment in favour of life, even among weak and sinful people who might no longer be regular church-goers, but whose moral imagination and even subconscious stirrings move to a rhythm established by generations of Christian liturgy and learning.

Those who have laboured mightily to overturn community sensibilities on abortion and euthanasia, usually under the banner of personal autonomy and moral relativism, are well aware of this inconvenient moral bedrock. For these reasons their subversion of public opinion has to be gradual and progressive; they have to go step by carefully planned step lest their final destination and the full import of their policies be recognised prematurely.

They use carefully devised euphemisms; abortion becomes "the interruption of pregnancy" or "not carrying on with the pregnancy," and euthanasia becomes "dying with dignity" rather than mercy killing. They carefully highlight the hard cases which exist at the boundaries of every good law, rare and tragic examples, e.g., of a mother in childbirth dying to save her baby. They then draw extensive and unwarranted conclusions as though these exceptional circumstances were the norm. Hard cases still make bad laws.

One of the great virtues of the encyclical is that it spells out what are the issues in this struggle for life. It names death and destruction. The story of Jacob Epstein the sculptor and Nikita Krushchev the Soviet ruler points this up. When Krushchev visited New College Chapel at Oxford University he denounced Epstein's powerful statue of Lazarus rising from the dead as "disgusting."

Friends hastened to tell Epstein who immediately telegraphed Krushchev: "Let you and me stick to our lasts. I, to sculpture, you, to murder."

The enemies of life do not like their deeds to be brought into the spotlight. Always the supporters of abortion will be among the most vocal opponents of any public showing of films which demonstrate what actually happens in the womb when life is extinguished.

Another useful exercise here in Australia, as elsewhere, is to identify the principal advocates of the death culture and answer their arguments, while spelling out fully to the general public what they are saying in their books and articles. Give the big picture, not just the next step.

There is only one serious candidate for the role of King Herod's propaganda chief in Australia, our most notorious messenger of death. This is Peter Singer, who for twenty years has never ceased to advocate abortion, euthanasia and infanticide.

Appointed Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, Melbourne, at the age of 31, he is a prolific writer and determined propagandist. His zeal for dispatching "sub-standard" humans is accompanied by great enthusiasm for animals, especially apes, while his 1975 book Animal Liberation is sometimes described as the bible of the animal liberation movement.

He is our best known philosopher overseas, author of the entry on ethics in Encyclopedia Britannica, a regular contributor to quality journals such as the New York Review of Books. In fact this attempt of mine to give him the credit he deserves was prompted by an article of his in the British magazine of the year, The Spectator, on September 16, which was billed: "Peter Singer attacks the sanctity of life. When infanticide is right," and by the fact that he is seeking election to the Australian Senate as a Victorian candidate of the Greens Party.

All defenders of life should work hard to expose his full message and so deny him the new political platform and public respectability he is seeking for his views.

He is a consistent and explicit atheist. Because he denies the existence of God, there can be no purpose to creation, no natural law, no universal human rights, no key role for humans. "The differences between us and non human animals are differences of degree, not of kind," he writes (p. 5).

On some issues he is clear-headed; on others he is muddled, or perhaps just evasive. He admits that the foetus is a living human being and therefore claims that he and the Pope "at least share the virtue of seeing clearly what is at stake in the debate" on abortion (p. 6).

However, he puts the human foetus at a level much lower than a chimpanzee, even lower than a dog, with no right to life simply because it is human. It is self-awareness, in his view, which grounds a right to life (p. 7). In 1988 his colleague at the Monash Centre for Human Bioethics, Helga Kuhse, compared the human embryo to a lettuce leaf.

The muddle goes much further. For no good reason related to self-awareness, Singer suggests that there should be a ceremony a month after birth, when the baby would acquire the same (limited) right to life as older people.

This brazen endorsement of infanticide for neo-nates will not be acceptable to public opinion today in Britain or Australia; not even in the Northern Territory. The moral decline would need to slip a few more notches for this to happen. However a cut off point for infanticide one month after birth is consistent with Singer's gradualism; grotesque but still more plausible than seeking to legitimise the killing of babies up to two or three years of age, until they do develop self-awareness.

It is ironic that this man who is now confident enough to seek high political office in Australia was prevented by public hostility from giving three public lectures in Germany and Austria in 1989-90.

The most notorious incident occurred at Marburg University in Germany in June 1989, at a European Symposium on the mentally handicapped, when Singer was violently confronted by an anti-euthanasia coalition. There were meetings and demonstrations, provocative slogans and placards: "Boycott the Murder Seminar"; "For Singer Handicapped Children are Human Vegetables." Singer's invitation to speak was withdrawn and then the entire symposium was cancelled.

As an aspiring politician his doctrines need to be known and understood by the Australian public.

Contemporary language

A second reason for the quiet reception of the encyclical by the secular media was the fact that most outsiders recognised that the Pope's latest teachings are spelling out in contemporary language what they always thought Catholic teaching to be.

Moral relativism or proportionalism remains disconcertingly alive among Christian moralists, and indeed some Catholic moralists, and the papal teaching is significant as another, indeed final, rejection of these options. It will also be important in the developing history of the doctrine of infallibility on moral issues, as distinct from matters of faith, because the criteria for an infallible teaching are clearly met, although no explicit claims for the three solemn teachings are made on this score. None of this comes as a surprise to educated outsiders, despite the discomfiture of some professional Catholic writers.

We are therefore better placed on many life issues to explain our positions than we are tempted to imagine in our moments of depression. There is a lot of support among the silent majority.

It is another and more difficult task to recognise these particular strengths and then build on them because, as Father Avery Dulles SJ pointed out last year, a permanent inbuilt tension exists between the Church and the popular media of communication.

The Church has to explain the eternal mystery of God, which requires reverence and faith. The press, on the other hand, is iconoclastic, highlights the new and different, and has to write for the agnostic and atheist.

The Church is bound to a fixed creed and seeks personal commitment to a revealed religion; we are concerned with grace and working for eternal salvation.

The press find it very easy to overlook this core spiritual dimension of Christianity and to concentrate on more tangible phenomena. The ABC's popular religious soapie The Brides of Christ was an egregious example of this.

The Catholic community here has to be involved in the struggle for Australian public opinion for there is no other non-government organisation with our Church's capacity for influence. We have many religious allies: a potentially huge number of fellow travellers among nominal Christians and the recently unchurched, but unfortunately no Australian parallel to the strength of Protestantism in the USA, especially in the southern states. We bear a heavy responsibility for the defence and extension of Judeo-Christian influence in our public life.

Continuing progress in the struggle for life, against euthanasia, needs volunteer workers, money, new levels of co-operation and prayer. God will be with us if we ask for help. It will also mean taking our message to the general public, especially through TV, through regular, short and appropriate television clips, paid advertisements, showing that opposition to euthanasia does not entail heartless suffering, and that only primitive and barbaric societies have executed their sick and elderly; a procedure which is strikingly inappropriate for a rich society where medicine has made such advances in palliative care.

In this struggle we have the explicit backing of the Holy Father, a solemn magisterial teaching by the successor of St Peter, that "euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God"; and that this is "a doctrine based on the natural law and upon the written word of God, ... transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium" (par 65). Nothing could be clearer than this.

The English Catholic author Paul Johnson tellingly underlined the importance of the Holy Father's letter Gospel of Life for the years which lie ahead: "Abortion and euthanasia are merely the plinth on which the innovators intend, during the 21st century to erect a system on which they will be allowed to do anything with human life which technology makes possible."

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