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Culture of life

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A culture of life describes a way of life based on the belief that human life begins at conception, and is sacred at all stages from conception through natural death.[1] It opposes abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment (also known as the death penalty),[note 1] studies and medicines involving embryonic stem cells, and contraception, because they are seen as destroying life.[5][6][7] It also promotes policies that "lift up the human spirit with compassion and love."[8] The term originated in moral theology, especially that of the Catholic Church, and was popularly championed by Pope John Paul II;[9][10] it has been widely used by religious leaders in evangelical Christianity as well.[11][12] The philosophy of such a culture is a consistent life ethic.[13]

In the United States, secular politicians such as George W. Bush and Kanye West have also used the phrase.[14][15][8] In 2004, the Republican Party included a plank in their platform for "Promoting a Culture of Life".[16]

Catholic Church[edit]

Issues included in a Culture of Life
Promotion of Opposition to
Agape love and charity[17][18] Abortion[5]
Unjust wars[19][20]
Capital punishment[21][22]
Murder and suicide[23][24][25]
Motherhood, fatherhood,

Matrimony, chastity, fidelity



Human sterilization[27][28][29][30][5]

Organ donation[31][26] Euthanasia[6][25]
Human cloning[32][33]
Adult stem cell research[34][33] Embryonic stem cell and fetal research

The expression "culture of life" entered popular parlance from Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.[9][10] He used the term in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus,[35] and then more fully expanded upon it in the 1995 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.[36]

In the encyclical, the pope noted that even those who were not Catholic "can appreciate the intrinsic value of human life."[37] He also issued "a pressing appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: Respect, protect, love, and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!"[37][38]

John Paul linked this to Catholic teaching, which believes every person is created in the image and likeness of God and is intimately loved by God.[39][40] The Church, then, must build a culture of life that values each person as a person, not for what they own, do, or produce.[41][40] It must also protect every human life, especially those that are threatened or weak.[42][40] The doctrine had foundations in earlier church teaching such as Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae,[43] which articulated the Church's position defending life from conception to natural death, disapproving medical procedures harming an unborn fetus, which the Church holds to be a person with an inviolable right to life. Catholic hospitals and medical institutions will not perform such procedures.[citation needed]

Following the promulgation of Evangelium vitae, advocates of a culture of life founded the Culture of Life Foundation in the United States to promote the concepts behind the Pope's encyclical.[44] Pope John Paul II recognized and blessed the foundation in 1997.[45][44]

United States politics[edit]

George W. Bush signing the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, surrounded by members of Congress

Evangelium vitae has been described as the Catholic academic Christopher Kaczor as the "magna carta for the pro-life movement."[37] Evangelicals and others have also adopted the phrase.[46]


On October 3, during the 2000 U.S. presidential election campaign, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, a Methodist, cited the term during a televised debate against then Vice President Al Gore. Bush expressed concerns that Mifepristone, then newly approved as an abortifacient pill, would encourage more women to terminate their pregnancies; whereas his goal was to make such terminations rarer:

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.[47]

Leonard Mary of The Boston Globe said that Bush had directly borrowed his language from John Paul II, viewing this as a deliberate strategic attempt to gain political support from "moderate" Catholics voters (while not coming out so strongly against abortion rights that it would alienate pro-choice voters).[37][8] Some voters believed that only the Republican Party would build a culture of life in the United States, and this helped Bush win.[48] Some Catholics,[who?] criticized Bush for apparent inconsistency between his support of a culture of life and his strong support for the death penalty, which Catholic doctrine permits where there is no other means for society to protect itself. As Governor of Texas, Bush repeatedly authorized executions of convicted murderers.

Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America, says that "achieving a culture of life cannot be done by simply voting Republican." Day says that "to be truly pro-life, we must support a broad spectrum of issues including worker's compensation, minimum wage, and education assistance for displaced workers",[49] as well as addressing poverty, including a livable wage and health care.[50] Day says that Republicans should broaden their definition of a culture of life beyond simple opposition to abortion, and that to achieve a true culture of life that members of both parties will be needed.[51]

The 2004 Republican National Convention adopted a platform with a plank titled "Promoting a Culture of Life."[52][16] The platform's anti-abortion stance included positions on abortion; access to healthcare despite disability, age, or infirmity; euthanasia; assisted suicide; and promoted research and resources to alleviate the pain of the terminally ill.[16]

Other issues[edit]

The phrase "culture of life" was also invoked during the Terri Schiavo case of March 2005 when the phrase was used in support of legislative and legal efforts to prolong the life of a woman in an persistent vegetative state.[53][46] It has also been used to promote providing inexpensive medical care for people in impoverished countries.[54]

Following the Boston Marathon bombing, the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts opposed the death penalty for terrorist bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, citing the need to build a culture of life.[55] In their statement, they cited a 2005 document by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, which said "no matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so."[55]

A growing culture of life in the United States, one that took the protection of life more seriously, led to the rapid adoption of infant safe-haven laws in the early 2000s.[56] Under these laws, mothers can leave their newborn children in places such as hospitals, police stations and fire stations, without being criminally charged with child abandonment.

Culture of death[edit]

Pope John Paul II also used the opposing term "culture of death" in Evangelium vitae (April 1995):

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.[57]

He argued that there was "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."[57] Those who are ill, handicapped, or just simply threaten the well being or lifestyle of the more powerful thus become enemies to be eliminated.[57] John Paul said he saw this as applying both between individuals and between peoples and states.[57]

He added his belief that every time an "innocent life" is taken (dating back to the time of Cain and Abel) that it was "a violation of the ‘spiritual’ kinship uniting mankind in one great family, in which all share the same fundamental good: equal personal dignity."[37][58] Any threat to the human person, including wars, class conflict, civil unrest, ecological recklessness, and sexual irresponsibility, should therefore be regarded in his opinion as part of the "culture of death."[37]

Without morals, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said, "it is the strong who decide the fate of the weak," and "human beings therefore become instruments of other human beings... We are already on that road: for what else is the termination of millions of lives in the womb since the Abortion Act was introduced, and embryo selection on the basis of gender and genes?"[59]

Wider usage[edit]

Advocates of a culture of life argue that a culture of death results in political, economic, or eugenic murder. They point to historical events like the USSR's Great Purges, the Nazi Holocaust, China's Great Leap Forward and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge as examples of devaluation of human life taken to an extreme conclusion. The term is used by those in the consistent life ethic movement to refer to supporters of embryonic stem cell research, legalized abortion, and euthanasia.[60][61][62][63][64][65] Some in the anti-abortion movement, such as those from the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, have compared those in the abortion-rights movement to the perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust.[66] They say that their opponents share the same disregard for human life.[67][68][69]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In 1969, Paul VI removed the death penalty from Vatican Fundamental Law. In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued his Evangelium vitae doctrine, where he urged members of the Catholic Church to oppose executions unless they were necessary to defend others. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI launched efforts to eliminate capital punishment completely. In 2018, Pope Francis declared capital punishment inadmissible, ending any church support for executions.[2][3][4]


  1. ^ Evangelium vitae.
  2. ^ "The Church's Anti-Death Penalty Position | USCCB". Archived from the original on October 16, 2011.
  3. ^ "Op-Ed: The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty began with previous popes". Los Angeles Times. August 8, 2018.
  4. ^ "Pope Francis declares death penalty inadmissible in all cases". BBC News. August 2, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d Evangelium vitae, p. 16.
  6. ^ a b Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraphs 2276–2279.
  7. ^ a b Humanae vitae, pp. 15–18.
  8. ^ a b c Leonard, Mary (October 9, 2000). "Bush woos Catholics on abortion". The Boston Globe. p. 1.
  9. ^ a b Grondelski, John (June 30, 2018). "Thoughts on a Culture of Life". Retrieved October 1, 2018.
  10. ^ a b Barry, Vincent (2011). Bioethics in a Cultural Context. Cengage Learning. p. 192. ISBN 9780495814085.
  11. ^ George, Timothy; Guarino, Thomas G. (2015). Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics. Brazos Press. ISBN 978-1-4934-0237-3.
  12. ^ Goodstein, Laurie (March 24, 2005). "Schiavo Case Highlights Catholic-Evangelical Alliance". The New York Times. Retrieved August 20, 2020. ... is testament to growing alliance of conservative Roman Catholics and evangelicals who have found common cause in 'culture of life' agenda ...
  13. ^ Rozell, M.; Whitney, G. (2007). Religion and the Bush Presidency. Springer. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-230-60735-4.
  14. ^ Kornhaber, Spencer (August 14, 2020). "Kanye West, Political Pawn". The Atlantic. Retrieved August 20, 2020.
  15. ^ David Masci (April 11, 2007). "The Culture War and the Coming Election". Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
  16. ^ a b c "2004 Republican Party Platform: A Safer World and a More Hopeful America" (PDF). The American Presidency Project. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 24, 2015. Retrieved October 3, 2018.
  17. ^ Kaczor, Christopher. "Build the Culture of Life". Catholic Answers. Archived from the original on November 29, 2016. Retrieved November 28, 2016.
  18. ^ Tonti-Filippini, Nichols. "The Culture of Life". John Paul II Institute. Archived from the original on November 29, 2016. Retrieved November 28, 2016.
  19. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraphs 2307–2317.
  20. ^ Evangelium vitae, p. 27.
  21. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraph 2267.
  22. ^ Evangelium vitae, p. 56.
  23. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraphs 2268–2269.
  24. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraphs 2280–2283.
  25. ^ a b Evangelium vitae, p. 3.
  26. ^ a b Evangelium vitae, p. 86.
  27. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraph 2399.
  28. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraph 2379.
  29. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraphs 2374–2375.
  30. ^ Humanae vitae, p. 14.
  31. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraph 2296.
  32. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraph 2378.
  33. ^ a b "Culture of Life". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved October 1, 2018.
  34. ^ United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2008). United States Catechism for Adults. USCCB Publishing. pp. 392–393. ISBN 978-1-57455-450-2.
  35. ^ John Paul II, Centesimus annus, paragraph 39, published 1 May 1991, accessed 13 May 2024
  36. ^ John Paul II. "Evangelium vitae". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Archived from the original on February 12, 2015.
  37. ^ a b c d e f Kaczor, Christopher (October 1, 2006). "Build the Culture of Life". Catholic Answers. Retrieved September 18, 2018.
  38. ^ Evangelium vitae, p. 5.
  39. ^ Evangelium vitae, p. 2.
  40. ^ a b c "What is the Culture of Life?". Archdiocese of Hobart. Retrieved September 18, 2018.
  41. ^ Evangelium vitae, p. 23.
  42. ^ Evangelium vitae, p. 77.
  43. ^ "HUMANAE VITAE OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF". Archived from the original on March 3, 2011.
  44. ^ a b "History". Culture of Life Fondation. Retrieved September 18, 2018.
  45. ^ Fox, Renée Claire; Swazey, Judith P. (2008). Observing Bioethics. Oxford University Press. p. 319. ISBN 9780195365559.
  46. ^ a b Goodstein, Laurie (March 24, 2005). "Schiavo Case Highlights Catholic-Evangelical Alliance". New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
  47. ^ "Presidential Candidates Debates: "Presidential Debate in Boston"". The American Presidency Project. Archived from the original on November 28, 2016. Retrieved November 28, 2016.
  48. ^ Day 2006, p. 386.
  49. ^ Day 2006, p. 385.
  50. ^ Day 2006, p. 395.
  51. ^ Day 2006, p. 387.
  52. ^ Kirkpatrick, David D. (August 25, 2004). "THE 2004 CAMPAIGN: THE REPUBLICAN AGENDA; Draft G.O.P. Platform Backs Bush on Security, Gay Marriage and Immigration". New York Times. Retrieved October 3, 2018.
  53. ^ Hanson, Mark J. "Culture of Life, Culture of Death" (PDF). University of Montana.
  54. ^ Rajkumar, Rahul (May 26, 2005). "CAFTA will hurt people with HIV". The Boston Globe. Retrieved October 3, 2018.
  55. ^ a b Ransom, Jan; Tempera, Jacqueline (May 18, 2015). "Religious leaders conflicted on death penalty". Boston Globe. Retrieved October 5, 2018.
  56. ^ Sanger, Carol (May 2006). "Infant Safe Haven Laws: Legislating in the Culture of Life". Columbia Law Review. 106 (4).
  57. ^ a b c d Evangelium vitae, p. 12.
  58. ^ Evangelium vitae, pp. 7–8.
  59. ^ Pook, Sally (March 28, 2005). "Cardinal attacked over abortion link to Nazi eugenics". The Telegraph.
  60. ^ Dennehy, Raymond. "Liberal Democracy as a Culture of Death: Why John Paul II Was Right" (PDF). IgnatiusInsight.com. Archived from the original (PDF) on May 17, 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2016.
  61. ^ Blanke, Hermann-Josef; Villalón, Pedro Cruz; Klein, Tonio; Ziller, Jacques (2015). Common European Legal Thinking. Springer. pp. 391–402. ISBN 9783319193007.
  62. ^ Smith, Wesley J. (2000). Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America. Encounter Books. ISBN 9781893554061.
  63. ^ Watson, Bradley C. S. (2002). Courts and the Culture Wars. Lexington Books. pp. 45–62. ISBN 9780739104156.
  64. ^ Pasquini, John J. (2003). Pro-Life: Defending the Culture of Life Against the Culture of Death. iUniverse. ISBN 9780595297795.
  65. ^ Dietrich, David R. (2014). Rebellious Conservatives: Social Movements in Defense of Privilege. Springer. pp. 155–165. ISBN 9781137429186.
  66. ^ "College Campus Outreach". Archived from the original on January 4, 2007.
  67. ^ Dowbiggin, Ian (2003). A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America. Oxford University Press. p. i-xix. ISBN 9780198035152.
  68. ^ Hartman, Andrew (2015). A War for the Soul of America. University of Chicago Press. p. 155. ISBN 9780226254647.
  69. ^ Slane, Andrea (2001). A Not So Foreign Affair. Duke University Press. p. 80. ISBN 9780822380849.


Further reading[edit]

  • "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)

External links[edit]

  • White House statement on Terri Schiavo "It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected..."
  • USCCB – The United States Council of Catholic Bishops Pro-Life site including many articles on the Catholic Church's varied aspects on the Culture of Life.
  • Bush Hails Progress Towards "Culture of Life" "President Bush told thousands of antiabortion marchers yesterday that his administration is making progress toward fostering a culture of life by enacting measures that limit abortion and stem cell research while expanding the legal definition of life."