The next Synod would do well to emulate his style, at once clear and deeply moving
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Pope Saint John Paul II was a prophet – as Tom Hoopes reminded us in his column yesterday – evidenced by the Pope’s writings on the indispensable role of marriage and families in building and preserving a civilization worthy of the human person.
Saint John Paul II was no less a poet. Today, in honor of his first feast day as our beloved saint and intercessor, I want to call to mind his gift of poetry – not his actual poems (profound and lyrical as they are) – but his unmatched ability to explain doctrine with both clarity and poetic images and language. It is the poetry that breathes immediacy and life – sometimes tender, sometimes powerful – and, really, the presence of God, into the teaching. John Paul marries catechesis and evangelization, truth and beauty, law and mercy, engaging both mind and heart as only a poet can. Let me give just a few examples.
Saint John Paul lucidly affirms doctrine: “The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder” (Evangelium Vitae [EV], 58), and “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being” (EV, 62).
Yet he touches our hearts by speaking of unborn children in words like these:
Expressions of awe and wonder at God’s intervention in the life of a child in its mother’s womb occur again and again in the Psalms. How can anyone think that even a single moment of this marvellous process of the unfolding of life could be separated from the wise and loving work of the Creator, and left prey to human caprice?
No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears (EV, 58).
He also shows tender compassion and encouragement for the mothers who have aborted a child:
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. … With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life” (EV, 99).
He states the doctrine simply: “I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person” (EV, 65).
And he gets to the heart of what euthanasia is here:
“euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing “perversion” of mercy. True “compassion” leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kil the person whose suffering we cannot bear” (EV, 66).
Saint John Paul communicated the gravity of euthanasia both from the doctrinal perspective and from God’s perspective in his landmark March 20, 2004 allocution, “Address to the International Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and the Vegetative State
I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly that the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her life. A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a "vegetable" or an "animal."
Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a "vegetative state" retain their human dignity in all its fullness. The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help. (Address, 3)
On Capital Punishment
Saint John Paul II articulates the doctrine this way:
Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (EV, 56).
And imbues the doctrine with an explanation of its origin in God’s merciful punishment of Cain:
God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, "put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him" (Gen 4:15). He thus gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel’s death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. And it is pre- cisely here that the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God is shown forth. As Saint Ambrose writes: "Once the crime is admitted at the very inception of this sinful act of parricide, then the divine law of God’s mercy should be immediately extended. If punishment is forthwith inflicted on the accused, then men in the exercise of justice would in no way observe patience and moderation, but would straightaway condemn the defendant to punishment. … God drove Cain out of his presence and sent him into exile far away from his native land, so that he passed from a life of human kindness to one which was more akin to the rude existence of a wild beast. God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide" (EV, 9).
John Paul never failed to present doctrine in direct, uncompromising language. At the same time, he presented us with poetic images of unborn children at risk of abortion, of women wounded by abortion, of vulnerable persons lacking cognitive ability who are at risk of euthanasia, and of murderers spared by God’s mercy. It is these words and images that put flesh on the bones of doctrine and open a window for us to the heart of Christ.
The Fathers of the 2015 Ordinary Synod would do well to adopt the clear catechetical AND poetic evangelical style seen in Saint John Paul’s writings, Familiaris Consortio, Evangelium Vitae, and the Letter to Families, along with his teaching on the theology of the body.
Susan E. Willsis spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English language edition.