Culture of life

The phrase "culture of life" is a term used in discussion of moral theology, especially of the Catholic Church. Its proponents describe it as a way of life based upon the theological truth that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. As such, a "culture of life" presumably opposes practices destructive of human life, often including abortion, euthanasia, research on human embryonic stem cells, contraception, capital punishment, unjust war, sadistic humiliation, narcissism, and excessive selfishness. Social conservatives in politics of the United States frequently use the term a "culture of life" in opposition to abortion and stem cell research. Economic liberals sometimes support their efforts.



Although various authors used the term from time to time, the expression "culture of life" entered popular parlance from Pope John Paul II, who first used it in a World Youth Day tour of the United States in 1993. Speaking to journalists at Stapleton International Airport near Denver, Colorado, the Pope denounced abortion and euthanasia, stating that "The culture of life means respect for nature and protection of God's work of creation. In a special way, it means respect for human life from the first moment of conception until its natural end." Cardinal Bernard Law reiterated the theme, urging Americans to "spread the culture of life over the culture of death."

Beyond Holy Scripture, one possible source for this philosophy is the Didache, a first century Christian document which exposes the doctrine of two ways: the way of life and the way of death. This work is part of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and Popes often cite it.

The Pope returned to the theme in April 1995 through the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life):

In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death, there is need to develop a deep critical sense capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.

Some of the issues that are included in the Catholic Church's description of the culture of life include:

United States politics

Following the promulgation of the Pope's encyclical, advocates of a culture of life founded Culture of Life Foundation and Institute in the United States to promote the concepts behind the Evangelium Vitae. Pope John Paul II recognized and blessed the foundation in 1997.

The "culture of life" entered the mainstream of United States politics on 3 October 2000, during the U.S. presidential election campaign. Texas Governor George W. Bush cited the term during a televised debate against Vice President Al Gore; Bush expressed concerns that Mifepristone, then newly approved as an abortifacient pill, would cause more women to abort their pregnancies, whereas his goal was to make abortions more rare and to "promote a culture of life." Bush said:

Surely this nation can come together to promote the value of life. Surely we can fight off these laws that will encourage doctors or allow doctors to take the lives of our seniors. Sure, we can work together to create a culture of life so some of these youngsters who feel like they can take a neighbor's life with a gun will understand that that's not the way America is meant to be.[1]

As the media then noted, Governor Bush directly borrowed this language from Pope John Paul II. They saw his invocation of the phrase as an attempt to gain support of "moderate" Catholics who dislike abortion, while not coming out so strongly against the practice that it would alienate voters. Some Catholics, however, criticized Bush for apparent inconsistency between his support of a "culture of death" and his strong support for the death penalty, which Catholic social doctrine does not forbid categorically. As Governor of Texas, Bush repeatedly authorized executions of convicted murderers. He returned to the same theme on a number of other occasions during his campaign, stating, "I think the next president must talk about a culture of life."

George W. Bush narrowly won that election for President of the United States and took office on 20 January 2001. During his eight-year Presidency, politicians repeatedly invoked the "culture of life." Notable instances included:

George W. Bush signing the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, surrounded by members of Congress
  • The summer of 2001, when a political controversy occurred over the position of the federal government on stem cell research, and President Bush faced accusations of backtracking on his earlier "culture of life" rhetoric;
  • March 2003, when the United States Congress passed a bill prohibiting partial-birth abortion, which proponents cited as advancing the "culture of life";
  • The Unborn Victims of Violence Act in April 2004, which defined a violent attack on a pregnant women as two distinct crimes: one against the woman, and the other against her fetus. Politicians promoted this act as improving the rights of the "unborn", hence advancing the culture of life;
  • The US presidential election, 2004, when the Republican Party incorporated the phrase into its official platform, referring to the opposition of the Party against abortion, stem cell research involving the destruction of human embryos, and euthanasia.
  • The Terri Schiavo controversy of March 2005, when the phrase was used in support of legislative and legal efforts to prolong the life of a brain-damaged woman in an alleged persistent vegetative state.

Culture of death

As pro-life advocates, proponents of a "culture of life" sometimes compare their opponents to the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide.[2] They claim that their opponents share the same disregard for human life.[3]

Pope John Paul II popularized the opposing term "culture of death" in Evangelium Vitae (April 1995):

12. In fact, while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today's social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable 'culture of death.' This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of 'conspiracy against life' is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.

This encyclical uses the phrase "culture of death" twelve separate times, often in opposition to the "culture of life" that the Catholic Church promotes.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor reiterates Evangelium Vitae, for example, that without morals, "it is the strong who decide the fate of the weak," and "Human beings therefore become instruments of other human beings." That way lies eugenics, and we know from German history where that leads. "We are already on that road: for what else is the termination of six million lives in the womb since the Abortion Act was introduced, and embryo selection on the basis of gender and genes?”[4]

Advocates of a "culture of life" argue that a "culture of death" results in political, economic, or eugenic murder. They point to historical events such as the Holocaust or the Great Purges in the Soviet Union as examples of devaluation of human life taken to an extreme conclusion. In the United States, the term is used by those in the pro-life movement to refer to support legalized abortion and/or euthanasia.[5]

The Catholic Church defends the right of life for all persons from conception to natural death. The Church consequently disapproves of certain medical procedures that may harm or kill a fetus, which the Church holds to be a person with an inviolable right to life. Some Catholic hospitals and medical institutions regularly obstruct such medical treatments. The Catholic Church also always opposes contraception and abortion. This can be verified in Humanae Vitae, the encyclical written during the papacy of Pope Paul VI[6] in 1968.

Disputes surrounding the term

Like the term "pro-life," the term "culture of life" is not without its critics, who argue that religious conservatives do not have a monopoly on valuing life, or that they devalue it themselves, or that by emphasizing quantity of life they devalue quality of life. Two examples commonly raised are that politicians who say they endorse the culture of life are often supportive of capital punishment and war. Even the tenets of opposition to abortion and euthanasia as part of the culture of life are not undisputed. For example, Leonard Peikoff argues that "Sentencing a woman to sacrifice her life to an embryo is not upholding the 'right-to-life'."[7] Another example is Andrew Sullivan, a self-professed Catholic who opposed the religious right on the issue of euthanasia for Terri Schiavo.[citation needed]

Culture of liberty

In 2005, NARAL Pro-Choice America responded to the "culture of life" arguments with its own "culture of freedom" campaign that championed abortion rights on the basis of personal liberty.[8] Bioethicist Jacob Appel has taken this argument one step further, advancing a comprehensive "culture of liberty" that embraces "the acceptance of abortion-on-demand, physician-assisted suicide, gay marriage and diversity in sexual practices". In rejecting a "culture of life," which he compares to the Inquisition and the Crusades, Appel wrote, "In matters as intimate as reproduction and death, history favors freedom over the power of church and state."[9]


  • "Pope ends visit with frank talk", State Journal Register, Springfield, Illinois (August 16, 1993)
  • "Bush Woos Catholics On Abortion Nominee, Echoes Pope's 'Culture Of Life' Phrase", Boston Globe (October 9, 2000)

See also

External links

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