The Virgin Mary and the Culture of Life

When The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) was released in 1995, John Paul’s repeated references to the emergence of a “Culture of Death” received a great deal of attention. The Media, in particular, given its propensity for regarding “bad news” as “good news,” assigned the “Culture of Death” a prominence that all but overshadowed the Holy Father’s deeper and more important references to developing a “Culture of Life.” It is not enough, said the Pope, to refrain from abortion, euthanasia, and other “crimes against life.” We must work together in various spheres—including the political sphere (1)—as witnesses to the sanctity of life. “To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good.” (2)

The Media, as is well known, is fond of presenting the Church as always being against something, and therefore casting her in a negative light. Yet, the main theme of The Gospel of Life, as is sufficiently evident in its title, is not “The Culture of Death,” but “The Gospel of Life.” Accordingly, John Paul reminds us, on the encyclical’s very first page, of the redemptive implications contained in Jesus’ words: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).

The essential message of The Gospel of Life, because of its broad, humanitarian basis, is presented to all citizens of the world. And the Pope is unsparing of the “tyrant state, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the unborn child to the elderly.” (3) The State, however, does not take kindly to such stinging criticism. Nor do certain critics of the left who believe the Pope to be more tyrannical than any State that consigns its children in the womb and its elderly to premature death. Hans Küng, for example, stated at a press conference that The Gospel of Life demonstrated the Holy Father’s “dogmatic coldness and unrelenting rigorism,” and that “the voice in the document is not that of a good shepherd but of a spiritual dictator.” (4) Nonetheless, as political philosopher Robert P. George of Princeton University states: “People of good will—of whatever religious faith—who are prepared to consider seriously the Pope’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae cannot now avoid asking themselves, soberly and unblinkingly, whether our regime is becoming the democratic ‘tyrant state’ about which he warns.” (5)

Newsweek’s religion editor, Kenneth Woodward, was in greater agreement with Professor George in his evaluation of the document than he was with Father Küng. He praised The Gospel of Life as “the clearest, most impassioned and most commanding encyclical” of John Paul II’s pontificate, one that would be the Pontiff’s “signature statement” in history. (6)

The Theology of the Body

Delivering the Church’s “Culture of Life” message so that it is received in an undiluted and undistorted manner to a skeptical and cynical society is problematic. One way, which has always been close to the Church’s heart as well as to the hearts of her people, is by means of an appeal to the dignity and value of motherhood, especially through the woman who embodies its perfection, Mary. For Mary, as Coventry Patmore reminds, in his simple but eloquent phrase, is “Our only Saviour from an abstract Christ.” (7) Christ is bodily because He was conceived, carried to term, and given birth through a woman’s body. And even after birth, she continued to be a mother in all its bodily significance, for, as St. Augustine has pointed out, “she gave milk to our Bread.” (8) Motherhood has a moral immediacy and palpable reality that people of good will are not likely to turn aside. Motherhood is a compelling moral witness to the primacy of loving unselfishness.

The great American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, though not formally a Catholic, reflected this bodily significance of Mary’s motherhood when he wrote: “I have always envied the Catholics that sweet, sacred Virgin Mother who stands between them and the Deity, intercepting somewhat His awful splendor, but permitting His love to stream on the worshipper more intelligibly to human comprehension through the medium of a woman’s tenderness.” (9)

Mary’s fiat, her consent to be the Mother of God, embraces her bodily as well as spiritual realities. Indeed, bodily and spiritual realities that conver