Diocesan News

The Catholic Way: The Right to Life Starts With Conception, Ends Only With Natural Death

Pope John Paul II is shown here in 1995 celebrating Mass in Newark. The late pontiff may not have coined the phrase “from conception to natural death,” but he used it in his writings, particularly “Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life)” also in 1995. (Photo: CNS)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Respect for human life — in all forms, and at all stages — underpins Catholic Church teachings regarding some of the world’s most polarizing issues: abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia.

Still, opinions vary on the definition of “human life,” frequently aligning with opposing political ideologies.

Does it begin at birth or at the instant sperm connects with ovum? And when can life reasonably end? When someone seeks an exit from an agonizing illness, or just when vital organs cease to function?

To achieve clarity on these positions, the Church defines human life as being “from conception to natural death.”

But who came up with that phrase, and when? The answer to that question is something of a moving target.

“You know, I’m not sure exactly where it originates,” Bishop Robert Brennan said recently. “But I can tell you what it stands for.”

“Our teachings on respecting life,” he said in a Currents News report, “means to respect the dignity of every human person created in the image of God at every moment of life’s journey — at every moment.”

Msgr. Sean Ogle, the Diocese of Brooklyn’s vicar for clergy and consecrated life, said most priests and religious probably don’t know the exact person who coined the phrase “from conception to natural death.”

Still, the assembling of these words reflects Catholic values that are as old as the Church itself, Msgr. Ogle said.

“The phrase is new,” he explained, “but the teaching is not.”

For example, Msgr. Ogle pointed to a fact sheet from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops titled, “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching.”

It states that knowledge of human embryology was “very limited until recent times.” The human ovum was discovered in 1827, according to the bishops’ fact sheet. 

“However,” the fact sheet continued, “such mistaken biological theories never changed the Church’s common conviction that abortion is gravely wrong at every stage.

“At the very least, early abortion was seen as attacking a being with a human destiny, being prepared by God to receive an immortal soul.”

And that concept is backed up in the Old Testament verse, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” (Jeremiah 1:5).

The fact sheet, produced by the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, also noted that early Church leaders agreed with ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s assumption that the human soul was not present in the first few weeks of pregnancy.

But that alarmed St. Augustine who, in the fifth century, concluded that too much was unknown then about the human embryo. He, therefore, warned that terminating a pregnancy might risk committing homicide.

Some 800 years later, St. Thomas Aquinas wrestled further with the issue. He ultimately deemed abortion to be a wrong move at every stage.

He added that rejecting God’s gift of new life was a sin “against nature,” the USCCB said.

Pope John Paul II in 1992 promulgated Church doctrine into the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) — a comprehensive reference on all positions. Article 5 of Chapter 2 explores Respect for Human Life.

The catechism refers to the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and Letter of Barnabas, which both condemned abortion and infanticide practiced by ancient cultures.

“Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion,” the catechism states. “This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable” (2271).

The catechism argues respect for human life should prevail against suicide, murder, and even — in a remarkable step in consistency — capital punishment.

According to the catechism, the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. Also, “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”

Thus, “in the light of the Gospel,” the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” according to the catechism.

Likewise, the CCC does not support euthanasia (assisted suicide), even to end a person’s tragic suffering. Such an act negates “natural death.” Meanwhile, the CCC makes clear that palliative care — the easing of pain with medicine — is legitimate.

“Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons,” says the CCC. “It is morally unacceptable.” 

Bishop Brennan, during his Currents News appearance, noted that euthanasia is an unresolved issue in New York state. The legislature is considering a Medical Aid in Dying bill for the ninth year in a row.

“That’s gaining ground and we really need to be concerned about that,” Bishop Brennan said.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II reinforced respect for human life in his encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (Gospel of Life). The letter discusses the value of life, and twice uses the phrase “from conception to natural death.”

One mention is a reference to trying to achieve the “common good” in society.

The pope wrote that “Serving the Gospel of life” works to “ensure that the laws and institutions of the state in no way violate the right to life, from conception to natural death, but rather protect and promote it.”

Thus, he added, “the right to life of every innocent person — from conception to natural death — is one of the pillars on which every civil society stands.”

Doing so, he wrote, promotes “a state that recognizes the defense of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially of the weakest, as its primary duty.”

Still, Catholics can’t cherry-pick which “life” issues to promote.

For example, Church teachings show that it is inconsistent for a Catholic to oppose abortion while favoring capital punishment.

Bishop Brennan concluded, “The right to live — that is the fundamental one that all the other rights are built upon.”

One thought on “The Catholic Way: The Right to Life Starts With Conception, Ends Only With Natural Death

  1. Thank you Bill Miller for a comprehensive discussion of the right to life from conception to natural death. Our society has become too complacent to end life before it starts in abortion and end life before death in euthanasia. Where do you draw the line? Only God decides who lives and who dies. We know not the day nor hour!