John Paul II, Abortion, and Democracy


Pope John Paul II–who will be canonized this Sunday–is well known as a strong critic of abortion.  Less well known, although still worthy of our attention, is his argument about the relationship between abortion and democracy.

That argument is noteworthy in the first place just because it was made at all.  John Paul II understood himself as a son of the Second Vatican Council.  He was accordingly committed throughout his life and his papacy to the project of trying to engage the modern world with a view to improving it and drawing it to Christianity.  Such a project required that he address the modern world in terms it could understand and invoke concerns that it already cared about.  If he had not been committed to this undertaking, he would have just reaffirmed as a matter of Church teaching that abortion is a sin and leave it at that.


But John Paul II did not do that, as anyone can see who reads his now famous encyclical Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life.  In that document, the pope’s condemnation of the taking of innocent human life, and the accompanying condemnations of abortion and euthanasia, take only a few sentences.  The rest of the rather lengthy argument is dedicated to an examination of “the culture of death,” or of the popular modes of thinking that seem to have legitimized the taking of innocent life.  And an important part of that examination is the pope’s account of abortion and democracy–in which he relates an important Catholic (and human) principle, the sanctity of human life, to a concern that almost all modern people share, the health of democracy.

John Paul II conceded that many democracies in the western world have embraced liberal abortion policies.  He insisted, however, that the fact that a democracy has democratically authorized abortion could not in fact make abortion right.  The fact that a majority positively decides something, or perhaps passively acquiesces in it (which is more the case in the United States, where the main driver of abortion liberalism has been the Supreme Court), cannot make the thing right, because, the pope claimed, there is an objective standard of right and wrong, good and evil, that all human beings must respect.  No human being, and no group of human beings, not even the ruling majority in a sovereign nation, has a right to invent its own fundamental standards of good and evil.

This understanding, the pope reminded us, is essential to a democracy remaining a just democracy.  Without it, the majority is authorized to do anything, and the result of that will be tyranny, more specifically, majority tyranny.  Without the claim that there is an objective standard of right by which even the majority must be judged, the distinction between tyranny and just government disappears in theory.  And its disappearance in theory is an invitation to the actual appearance of tyranny in practice, since a people that does not believe in tyranny will find no objection to doing things that are actually tyrannical (just as an individual who believes the prohibition on murder is just an artificial construct will be more likely to murder than someone who thinks it is truly wrong according to an objective standard).

For John Paul II, then, the modern, western, democratic world needed to recognize that the widespread abortion it has embraced is a threat to the just democratic self-government that the western world says it cherishes.  Most of the defenders of abortion would probably not admit that they were, by defending it, openly claiming for themselves or the majority a right to invent the rules of morality.  Yet John Paul II thought that this dangerous claim was inseparable from the defense of abortion, whether or not any of its defenders wanted to openly own these consequences.  And the inevitability of these consequences arose not from any point of Catholic doctrine that it would take faith to recognize, but from an elementary fact that any reasonable person should be able to see.

That key fact is the humanity of the unborn baby.  That being cannot be anything other than a human being.  In that case, it must have some basic moral standing such as is held by all human beings.  It certainly has no right to vote or to choose a profession, but it must have a right to be free from any violent attacks on its life.  The only way to deny it that right it to claim that the rights of human beings are to be determined by the ruling majority, or to claim that the ruling majority gets to decide who is and who is not a human being.  Either claim, the pope reminded us, is a short route to tyranny and to the overthrowing of all the hopes for just and humane government with which the modern world began. is celebrating Pope John Paul II and his contributions to solving problems facing the world over the last 50 years. Here are other published commentaries at CV this week:

April 21: ‘As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out peace in the name of God’ by Tom Hoopes

April 21: 34 ways to have an epic life — the greatness of John Paul the Great by John White

April 22: John Paul II, Abortion, and Democracy by Carson Holloway

April 23: JP2 on the New Feminism: Be Not Afraid by Pia de Solenni


Categories:Abortion Culture Politics Pro-Life

  • Jess

    I pray that one day the pro-choice people open their eyes and hearts. For the record a fetus is not part of a women’s body, it has a separate DNA. Please read your science book.

  • Jess

    My newborn totally depends on me too. Can I just have a change of heart and have a doctor inject poison because it’s inconvenient? What about a 1 yr old or 2 yr old that I don’t want to take care of? What is the difference between them and a child in the womb?

  • Bonnie Kuntz

    Our Holy Father was very wise and expressed a powerful message of Life. God gave us free will and reason to decide which path to take. To nurture our soul we have to immerse ourselves in the will of our Lord, which means following his path of creation and eternity with him. I chose life and freedom comes from following his path not ours.

  • eric

    Our democracy doesn’t embrace abortion and our democracy will never do so. We, as individual citizens of our great nation, embrace a woman’s right of choice and we consider it a form of slavery to take that right away. We believe every human being has 100% ownership of their own body. You have a right to believe otherwise and you have a right to vote for whomever you wish. You do not have the right to force your religious beliefs on others, ever. Those days are gone and our founding fathers created a country upon that principal, among others. I, as a pro-choice advocate, will never suggest that any woman get an abortion and I will never take that option away from any woman. That, in my opinion, is the nature of true freedom for women everywhere.

    • Mary

      How about the baby having 100% ownership of his/her body?

      Sorry, but when you’re carrying another life inside you, it ceases to be about YOUR body. There are two lives, two bodies. (How was Scott Petersen convicted of two murders if this is not the case?)

      Yes, everyone has a right to make a decision about anything. That’s “free will”. Doesn’t mean that decision is “right” or without consequences.

      “Those days are gone”? You really don’t understand faith at all.

      • eric

        Mary, I understand faith completely. Faith is believing in something without any data to support the belief.
        I prefer data. The data about a fetus is that it is a part of a woman’s body and is completely dependent upon the woman for its continued growth. It is not a human being because it has not separated from the woman’s body and is completely dependent on the woman. That’s data. The fetus is part of a woman’s body. Period. That can not be denied no matter how much faith you have in believing otherwise.

    • Joan

      True freedom means the freedom to do what is right. No one has the right to do what is wrong. Valid choices are only ever between good and good. Choosing abortion has nothing to do with “100% ownership of their own body”, since the unborn baby has a separate body from the woman and she has no rights over the baby’s body.

      True choice must choose what is right. Otherwise we are slaves to sin and the devil.

    • Bill Monteith

      “We believe every human being has 100% ownership of their own body”. That “ownership” ends where another body(baby) begins. Abortion has never been and never will be a religious or political issue. At it’s core, abortion is a moral issue. I suggest Eric, that you get off the fence, look into what an abortion truly entails, what it does to the baby and the parents, and then decide what you are really defending. What “choice” are you supporting. Your idea of “true freedom” is actually a gross perversion of freedom and this nation has “freely” allowed the violent slaughter of millions of innocent lives. That, Eric, is not true freedom, rather it is true evil.

    • Back in the real world

      Right on Eric. Pro-choice is definitely not pro-abortion, as in it does not encourage abortion. It just recognizes that the woman carrying the baby is the only one who can make the decision to continue or end it.

      Seriously, Pope John Paul II’s views have no relevance in the real world. Against euthanasia? Seriously? If I am terminally ill and in pain, or in a coma with no chance of revival, PLEASE PLEASE, pull the plug! I want to leave this world gracefully and smiling.

      • eric

        Back in the real world, I agree completely. Those who don’t support a woman’s right of choice are good people who mis-understand the true nature of human rights. The same applies to euthanasia.

    • morganB

      Eric, the current definitions do not fit the real world. The extreme right would force “back alley” abortions by “outlawing” all abortions.

      Most Pro-Choice advocates hesitate when an abortion decision faces their family. They may be considered selective Pro-Choice.

      To many Pro-Life is a wild ride. Evangelical Protestants profess to be the purest of all. They make no exceptions for abortion even when the life of the mother is at risk. I can attest to this when I encountered a golf “partner’s” Evangelical wrath.

      I believe that one may group Pro-lifers at three levels. Evangelists – Outlaw abortion completely.

      Most mainstream Catholics and Protestants ala GW Bush support the accepted exceptions of rape, incest and to save the mother. And lastly, Catholics ala Rudy Giuliani who say “abortion should be safe, legal and rare. I have never heard a Pro-Life advocate mention the “safety” of the mother, e.g., ectopic pregnancy.

    • Suzan

      A nation that condones killing the most defenseless among us is not great, it is doomed.

      • eric

        A nation or religion that enslaves pregnant women is doomed.

    • http://none carol

      You ave just state dthat every human being has a 100 percent right to their body. Does that not include the child in the womb? That is a human life yet you claim this one has no rights, only the carrier of that life which is adifferent human being from hers.

  • danny

    Great thoughts by the Holy Father. His reasoning can extend to any other form of publicly accepted sin. Take gay marriage. The acceptance of this sin by our culture is another example of the majority trying to rewrite the rules of right and wrong, a sin that directly undermines Christianity.

    • Rich

      Danny, is “gay sin” truly to be the sin that undermines Christianity? How about the “sin of denial, secrecy and hiding” that is/was the culture of John Paul ll, Benedict and Cardinal Bernard Law and countless others in the CC hierarchy through the abomination of child sexual abuse? It is simply demonic to choose the love and marriage of gay couples over the
      filth and hiding of a whole Church’s black stain as the worst of sins.



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