Twenty years ago this month, on the solemnity of the Annunciation, St. John Paul II published Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). It was the 17th year of his pontificate. He was 75 years old.
The idea for an encyclical on the dignity of human life was first suggested to the pope after a consistory of cardinals convened in Rome in 1991 to discuss threats to human life in the modern world. The cardinals urged him to “reaffirm with the authority of the Successor of Peter” the Church’s well-trod teaching on human life. A discussion ensued at the Vatican as to whether its development should mirror the process used in the development of his influential Familiaris Consortio on the family published a decade earlier: namely, convene a Synod of Bishops on the topic, and then develop an Apostolic Exhortation from the Synodal Statement. John Paul II decided against the idea of a synod. He chose to use the authority of his own office—what George Weigel refers to as “the world’s most authoritative pulpit”—to publish a more doctrinally-weighty document, an encyclical. After consulting in writing every bishop in the world for input on its preparation, he drafted Evangelium Vitae (EV). Although theological experts usually assist in the drafting of papal documents, EV so clearly bears the imprint of the saint’s personality and set of concerns, that it’s likely he drafted the encyclical himself. Five years after its publication, he said  that EV was “central to the whole Magisterium of my Pontificate.”
The Random House edition subtitles the document: “The encyclical letter on abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty in today’s world.” But the official Vatican subtitle, “On the value and inviolability of human life,” tells us more about the working thesis of the text. Whether addressing the connection between contraception and abortion (no. 13), in vitro fertilization, prenatal diagnosis, embryo destruction and infanticide (no. 14), threats to the incurably ill and dying (no. 15), or anti-birth policies imposed on developing nations (no. 16), the pope insists that the inviolability of human life, and the rights to which it gives rise, must be the basis of our moral analysis. The concepts are especially active in the encyclical’s three solemn condemnations: the intentional killing of the innocent, abortion and euthanasia, respectively (see nos. 57, 62, 65).
But EV’s most novel comments are reserved for the death penalty. The document reconceives the killing in capital punishment as a kind of societal self-defense. While, the practical implications of such have been felt the last twenty years in the Church’s worldwide turn towards abolition, the doctrinal implications are yet to be unpacked. By conceiving the killing of criminals in terms of norms traditionally limiting lawful killing in self-defense, we see that what the pope defends in cases of “absolute necessity” is no longer retributive killing, but death as an unintended side effect of a proportionate act of self defense aimed at rendering aggressors incapable of causing harm.
George Weigel suggests that EV should be read as the “third panel” in a “triptych” of encyclicals, together with Centesimus Annus (1991) and Veritatis Splendor (1993), all concerned with the moral foundations of a free and virtuous society (Witness to Hope, p. 757). And it’s true that the message of EV can be seen as an extended urgent warning that “democracy stands or falls” with the values it embodies and that “without an objective moral grounding” it will be incapable of ensuring a stable peace (no. 70).
But EV should also be read in conjunction with Ut Unum Sint, published two months after the encyclical (in May 2005), on the imperative of Christian unity. Those who have witnessed the advance of the culture of death since EV’s publication have experienced first hand the fearsome truth of what Pope Benedict XVI repeated so often, namely, that outside the context of faith, morality “weakens and then dies” (Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 71). All believers in revealed religion, therefore, and especially in the Gospel of Life, must tirelessly strive for unity if we are to give the strongest witness possible to the dignity of human life.
Among the innumerable fruitful initiatives surrounding, and proceeding from, the publication of the great encyclical, two in particular stand out.
A year before EV’s publication, Saint John Paul erected the Pontifical Academy for Life and installed at its helm the heroic French Catholic geneticist Jérôme Lejeune. EV can be seen as the unofficial mission statement and manifesto of the august new Academy.
And exactly two years after its publication, in March of 1997, the Culture of Life Foundation was formed, receiving the direct apostolic blessing of the pope.