Evangelium Vitae - The Gospel of Life
Encyclical of Pope John Paul II
25 March, 1995
Extracts concerning conflict between law of the state and conscience
"We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29)
68. One of the specific characteristics of
present-day attacks on human life . . . consists in
the trend to demand a legal justification for them .
. . Consequently, there is a tendency to claim that
it should be possible to exercise these rights with
the safe and free assistance of doctors and medical
personnel . . .
69. . . . in the democratic culture of our time
it is commonly held that the legal system of any
society should limit itself to taking account of and
accepting the convictions of the majority. It should
therefore be based solely upon what the majority
itself considers moral and actually practises.
Furthermore, if it is believed that an objective
truth shared by all is de facto unattainable,
then respect for the freedom of the citizens - who
in a democratic system are considered the true
rulers - would require that on the legislative level
the autonomy of individual consciences be
acknowledged. Consequently, when establishing those
norms which are absolutely necessary for social
coexistence, the only determining factor should be
the will of the majority, whatever this may be.
Hence every politician, in his or her activity,
should clearly separate the realm of private
conscience from that of public conduct.
As a result we have what appear to be two
diametrically opposed tendencies.
On the one hand, individuals claim for themselves
in the moral sphere the most complete freedom of
choice and demand that the state should not adopt or
impose any ethical position but limit itself to
guaranteeing the maximum space for the freedom of
each individual, with the sole limitation of not
infringing on the freedom and rights of any other
On the other hand, it is held that, in the
exercise of public and professional duties, respect
for other people's freedom of choice requires that
each one should set aside his or her own convictions
in order to satisfy every demand of the citizens
which is recognized and guaranteed by law; in
carrying out one's duties, the only moral criterion
should be what is laid down by the law itself.
Individual responsibility is thus turned over to
the civil law, with a renouncing of personal
conscience, at least in the public sphere. . .
70. . . . Everyone's conscience rightly rejects
those crimes against humanity of which our century
has had such sad experience. But would these crimes
cease to be crimes, if, instead of being committed
by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by
Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of
making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for
immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a "system"
and as such is a means and not an end. Its "moral"
value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to
the moral law to which it, like every other form of
human behaviour, must be subject: In other words,
its morality depends on the morality of the ends
which it pursues and of the means which it employs.
If today we see an almost universal consensus
with regard to the value of democracy, this is to be
considered a positive "sign of the times," as the
Church's magisterium has frequently noted.(88)
But the value of democracy stands or falls with the
values which it embodies and promotes . . .
The basis of these values cannot be provisional
and changeable "majority" opinion, but only the
acknowledgement of an objective moral law which, as
the "natural law" written in the human heart, is the
obligatory point of reference for civil law itself.
If, as a result of a tragic obscuring of the
collective conscience, an attitude of scepticism
were to succeed in bringing into question even the
fundamental principles of the moral law, the
democratic system itself would be shaken in its
foundations and would be reduced to a mere mechanism
for regulating different and opposing interests on a
purely empirical basis
(89) . . .
Even in participatory systems of government, the
regulation of interests often occurs to the
advantage of the most powerful, since they are the
ones most capable not only of manoeuvring the levers
of power but also of shaping the formation of
consensus. In such a situation, democracy easily
becomes an empty word.
71. . . . Certainly the purpose of civil law is
different and more limited in scope than that of the
moral law. But "in no sphere of life can the civil
law take the place of conscience or dictate norms
concerning things which are outside its
(90) which is that of
ensuring the common good of people through the
recognition and defence of their fundamental rights,
and the promotion of peace and of public
(91) . . .
72. The doctrine on the necessary conformity of
civil law with the moral law is in continuity with
the whole tradition of the Church. This clear once
more from John XIII's encyclical: "Authority is a
postulate of the moral order and derives from God.
Consequently, laws and decrees enacted in
contravention of the moral order, and hence of the
divine will, can have no binding force in conscience
. . .; indeed, the passing of such laws undermines
the very nature of authority and results in shameful
This is clear from the teaching of St. Thomas
Aquinas, who writes that "human law is law inasmuch
as it is in conformity with right reason, and thus
derives from the eternal law. But when a law is
contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but
in this case it ceases to be a law and becomes
instead and act of violence."
And again: "Every law made by man can be called a
law insofar as it derives from the natural law. But
if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it
is not really a law but rather a corruption of the
. . .
73. Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which
no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no
obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead
there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them
by conscientious objection.
From the very beginning of the Church, the
apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their
duty to obey legitimately constituted public
authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-14), but at
the same time it firmly warned that "we must obey
God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to
threats against life, we find a significant example
of resistance to the unjust command of those in
authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all
newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. "They
did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but
let the male children live" (Ex. 1:17). But the
ultimate reason for their action should be noted:
"the midwives feared God" (ibid).
It is precisely from obedience to God - to Whom
alone is due that fear which is acknowledgement of
His absolute sovereignity - that the strength and
the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It
is the strength and courage of those prepared even
to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the
certainty that this is what makes for "the endurance
and faith of the saints" (R v 13:10).
In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such
as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is
therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part
in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or
vote for it."
(98) . . .
74. the passing of unjust laws often raises
difficult problems of conscience for morally upright
people with regard to the issue of cooperation,
since they have a right to demand not to be forced
to take part in morally evil actions.
Sometimes the choices which have to be made are
difficult: they may require the sacrifice of
prestigious professional positions or the
relinquishing of reasonable hopes of career
advancement. In other cases it can happen that
carrying out certain actions, which are provided for
by legislation that overall is unjust but which in
themselves are indifferent or even positive, can
serve to protect human lives under threat. There may
be reason to fear, however, that willingness to
carry out such actions will not only cause scandal
and weaken the necessary opposition to attacks on
life, but will gradually lead to further
capitulation to a mentality of permissiveness.
In order to shed light on this difficult
question, it is necessary to recall the general
principles concerning co-operation in evil actions.
Christians, like all people of good will, are
called upon under grave obligation of conscience not
to cooperate formally in practices which, even if
permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to
God's law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is
never licit to cooperate formally in evil.
Such cooperation occurs when an action, either by
its very nature or by the form it takes in a
concrete situation, can be defined as a direct
participation in an act against innocent human life
or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person
This cooperation can never be justified either by
invoking respect for the freedom of others or by
appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or
requires it. Each individual in fact has moral
responsibility for the acts which her personally
performs; no one can be exempted from this
responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will
be judged by God Himself (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12).
To refuse to take part in committing an injustice
is not only a moral duty; it is also a basic human
right. Were this not so, the human person would be
forced to perform an action intrinsically
incompatible with human dignity, and in this way
human freedom itself, the authentic meaning and
purpose of which are found in its orientation to the
true and the good, would be radically compromised.
What is at stake, therefore, is an essential
right which, precisely as such, should be
acknowledged and protected by civil law. In this
sense, the opportunity to refuse to take part in the
phases of consultation, preparation and execution of
these acts against life should be guaranteed to
physicians, health care personnel and directors of
hospitals, clinics and convalescent facilities.
Those who have recourse to conscientious objection
must be protected not only from legal penalties, but
also from any negative effects on the legal,
disicplinary, financial and professional plane. . .
* Civil law, in this
context, refers to the law of the state (as opposed
to canon or church law). (-Administrator-)
88. Cf. Centesimus Annus,
46; Pius XII, Christmas radio message (Dec. 24,
1944); AAS 37 (1945), 10-20.
89. Veritatis Splendor,
97 and 99.
90. Donum Vitae, III.
91. Vatican Council II,
Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis
95. Pacem in Terris, II.
96. Summa Theologiae,
I-II, q. 93, a.3, ad 2um.
97. Ibid., I-II, q. 95, a 2.
Aquinas quotes St. Augustine: "Non videtur esse lex,
quae justa non ferit," De Libero Arbitrio,
I.5, 11: PL 32, 1227.
98. Declaration on Procured