In his most sweeping defense yet of life, Pope John Paul II today presented a major encyclical strongly reaffirming the church's opposition to contraception, abortion and euthanasia and, for the first time, all but declaring capital punishment to be morally unacceptable.
While the Roman Catholic Church has spoken out repeatedly against abortion, euthanasia and what John Paul often has called "the culture of death," the new encyclical, titled "Evangelium Vitae" (The Gospel of Life), for the first time sets out an overarching moral rationale by which Catholics and "all people of good will" should judge a wide range of decisions involving human life.
Many of those decisions involve unprecedented scientific and medical developments such as experiments with human embryos, prenatal diagnostic techniques and "in vitro" fertilization that have put traditional moral doctrines to the test.
"It is this century's Magna Carta proclaiming and defending human life," said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who speaks for U.S. Catholic bishops on life issues. Cardinal Mahony chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Carl A. Anderson, dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, added, "The pope is setting JTC the strategy for what I consider to be a dramatic new encounter by the church of the world in the next millennium." He added that while the church's teachings have always been clear, the underlying rationale has not.
In the works since the world's Roman Catholic cardinals urged the pope in 1991 to address troubling moral issues involving human life, the encyclical puts the full force of the church behind its previous pronouncements, including those on human genetics. Encyclicals are reserved for the pontiff's most important teachings and are expected to be faithfully followed by the world's 960 million Roman Catholics.
Originally scheduled to be released last year but put off because of delays in translation into various languages from the original Latin, the encyclical was hailed yesterday by Cardinal Mahony as "timeless" in its moral relevance, even in the face of unforeseen scientific and medical developments.
At the heart of the encyclical is the Biblical injunction found in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures to "choose life."
The 194-page document, signed by the pope Saturday after four years of consultation with the world's Roman Catholic bishops, speaks out against the use of human embryos or fetuses for scientific experiments, and declares that when there is a conflict between civil and moral law -- as in the case of abortions -- Catholics "and all people of good will" have no obligation to obey civil law. It again restates the church's opposition to suicide.
At the same time, John Paul acknowledged the good that can come from prenatal diagnostic techniques provided they are used to make early therapy possible "or even to favor a serene and informed acceptance of the child not yet born . . . "
But the pope declared that selective abortion to prevent the birth of children with genetic defects "is shameful and utterly reprehensible." He said experiments with human embryos "constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person."
In the United States, the federal government has so far refused to fund human embryo research, but it routinely takes place in private laboratories under self-imposed guidelines.
For the first time in an encyclical, the pope also declared the church's near total opposition to the death penalty. The only time capital punishment could possibly be justified, the pope said, was when society could not otherwise defend itself. But, the pope stressed, "such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
Even as the encyclical spells out what is unacceptable, the pope proposed no sanctions against those who act differently.
Instead, the pope at times sounded like a patient parish priest urging parishioners to consider the consequences of their choices.
To women who have had an abortion, for example, John Paul said the church was aware that many factors may have influenced their decision to seek an abortion.
"Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong," the pope wrote. "But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation [Confession] . . . "
But he also reaffirmed the church's teaching that abortion is always a grave moral disorder.
For the first time, the pope also mentions AIDS in an encyclical and declares that those with AIDS -- just as those who suffer other problems -- should be as much the recipients of the church's charity and love as others.
Two Catholic authorities, Mr. Anderson and Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, said they believed the encyclical would appeal as much to Protestants as to Catholics because of the pope's frequent citation of Scripture.