The passing, late last year, of the Abortion Law Reform Bill in the Victorian State Parliament reminded me of Pope John Paul II's belief that a new cultural climate has been developing in our society, one that justifies certain crimes against life in the name of individual freedom. It claims permission and promotion by the state, so that these evil acts can be perpetrated with total freedom, even with the assistance of health care systems.
John Paul II observed that much in today's world gravely threatened the life of human beings, hence he spoke of 'a culture of death.'
The Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) reminds us that our dignity rests above all on the fact that we are called to communion with God. This invitation is addressed to us as we come into being.
If we exist, it is because God created us through love, and through love He continues to hold us in existence. We cannot live fully according to truth unless we freely acknowledges that divine love and entrust ourselves to the Creator.
Many of our contemporaries, however, either cannot perceive, or explicitly reject, this intimate and vital bond of man to God (Gaudium et Spes, 19). Today's modern permissiveness - pornography, excessive alcohol, drug abuse, suicide, abortion, euthanasia, violent crime and experiments on the unborn - 'poison civilisation; they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honour of the Creator' (Gaudium et Spes, 27).
John Paul II explained 'culture of death' as signifying a new cultural climate that justified certain crimes against life as expressions of individual freedom. When the State legalises this culture of death it allows medical professionals, scientists, politicians and journalists to foster a way of thinking that deadens the conscience of society.
In Evangelium Vitae John Paul II stated, 'Choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable. Even certain sectors of the medical profession, which by its calling is directed to the defence and care of human life, are increasingly willing to carry out these acts against the person. In this way the very nature of the medical profession is distorted and contradicted, and the dignity of those who practise it is degraded'.
Here, the Pope draws our attention to the insidious cultural climate developing around us with its mind- set that certain evil acts can be carried out with total freedom leaving the individual alone to make such decisions with impunity. Hence our society has become increasingly desensitised to human rights, human dignity and respect for human life.
Each day the media subjects us to regular reports of acts of violence in our community, in many of which it is young people who are both the perpetrators and the victims.
One might well ask what is happening with these young people today? Why is there such violence in their lives? Why is there such a callous disregard for their own lives and the lives of others?
The most recent World Meeting of Families, held in Mexico in January 2009, opened with the aim of challenging what one Vatican official called 'a post-modern culture sick with individualism.'
This gathering of some 9,000 participants, including 30 cardinals and 200 hundred bishops, came together to ponder and confront 'an educational emergency and a generational fracture from the spread of (moral) relativism.'
The meeting spoke out strongly against the evils of abortion, contraception and the cutting off of medical treatment for the terminally ill. In his opening address, the President of the Mexican Bishops' Conference, Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes, said the traditional family was under siege by 'civil laws that by favouring contraceptives and abortion are threatening the future of the people.'
The words of John Paul II in his 'Agenda for the Third Millennium' were echoed: 'These [those who promote the culture of death] are the ones who will entice you into the paths of criminality, of drug abuse, of illicit, degrading activities, of empty superficial pleasures. Firmly resist every deceitful sower of selfishness and violence. And if any one of you by chance should find yourself ensnared in the paths of evil and feel you are lost, having come back to your senses, may you find courage to turn back to the Father's house, like the prodigal son in the Gospel: 'I will arise, I will arise'' (p. 130).
Why is this culture of death making such headway in our society?
One notes all around us the promotion of a nihilistic, pleasure- seeking that focuses on instant gratification. Modern day films, music, television programs, the internet and games often portray violence and endless pleasure-seeking as normal, desirable, even necessary.
Many people, it seems, are desperate for distractions to mask the emptiness of their lives.
But life is not about constant thrill-seeking. It is about balance, about life-giving experiences and about believing. As Benedict XVI said at his Mass of Installation as the successor of Peter: 'We are not some casual, meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. The value of every human life is at the heart of the Gospel.'
Fr Dennis Byrnes is a retired parish priest in the Lismore Diocese who resides in Port Macquarie.