Changing the Hearts and Minds of Those Embracing the Culture of Death: A Suggested Strategy

William E. May
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation


At the conclusion of the presentation I made when the Culture of Life Foundation gave me the first annual award named after me in September 2008, I offered a "Suggested Strategy for Helping Adversaries Understand Culture of Life Arguments." Here I will recapitulate and develop that strategy. Before doing so, however, I think it important to point out why excellent arguments developed by those who propose the "culture of life" are not able to persuade advocates of the "culture of death" to change their minds.

Freedom of self-determination and our character1

The truth that human persons can determine themselves and their lives through their own free choices is integral to Catholic faith and sound philosophy. The power of free choice is clearly affirmed by Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and the whole Catholic tradition. In his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor Pope John Paul II emphasized the significance of human acts as self-determining. A particularly illuminating text is the following:

Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man, but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices (emphasis added], they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits." This was perceptively noted by St. Gregory of Nyssa: "All things subject to change and to becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or worse… Now, human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew… But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings…; it is the result of a free choice [emphasis added]. Thus we are, in a certain sense, our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decision " (no. 71; the internal citation, from St. Gregory of Nyssa, is from his De Vita Moysis, 2,3).

Human freedom is rightly regarded as being "not only the choice for one or another particular action," but "is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself and a setting of one's life for or against God" (n. 65). Our freely chosen deeds "do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits" (n. 71).

Free choices bear on actions that we can do. Those actions are not physical events in the material world that come and go, like the falling of rain or the turning of the leaves. They are, rather, the expression of a person's choice, the disclosure or revelation of that person's moral identity, his or her being as a moral being. At the core of an action, as human and personal, is a free, self-determining choice, which as such is something spiritual and abides within the person, determining the person's very being. The New Testament is very clear about this. Jesus taught that it is not what enters a person that defiles him or her; rather, it is what flows from the person, from his or her heart, from his or her choice (see Matt 15:10-20; Mk 7:14-23). Thus, I become an adulterer, as Jesus clearly taught (Matt 5:28), when I look at a woman with lust, i.e., when I adopt by choice the proposal to commit adultery with her or to think with satisfaction about doing so, even if I am prevented from executing this choice externally. The execution of the choice to commit adultery increases the malice of my act, but even if the choice is not for some reason executed, I have still, by my own free choice, made myself to be an adulterer.

This illustrates the self-determining character of free choice. It is in and through the actions we freely choose to do that we give to ourselves our identity as moral beings, for weal or for woe. This identity abides in us until we make other, contradictory kinds of choices. Thus, if I choose to commit adultery, I make myself to be an adulterer, and I remain an adulterer, internally disposed to commit adultery, until, by another free and self-determining choice, I have a change of heart (metanoia) and repent of my deed. I am then a repentant adulterer, one determined, through free choice and with the help of God's never-failing grace, to amend my life and to be a faithful, loving spouse.


Pope John Paul II emphasized "the importance of certain choices which 'shape' a person's entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices can be situated and allowed to develop" (Veritatis Splendor, no. 65). We can call these choice "commitments" insofar as they commit us to a way of life. Among such choices are those to be married, to be baptized and live as Christians, to become a member of the Mafia or of Planned Parenthood or NOW, etc. And some "commitments" can blind us to the truth. Although excellent moral arguments can be and have been developed to show the grave immorality of contraception or the intentional killing of innocent human beings at any stage of their lives, etc., a committed member of Planned Parenthood or the National Organization of Women will not accept those arguments because they have freely committed themselves to a way of life that closes their eyes and ears to the truth. They do not want to hear arguments not compatible with their basic commitments.

An old scholastic axiom is that whatever is received is received according to the mode of the recipient. And we make ourselves to be the kind of recipients we are in and through our free choices and in particular in and through basic life commitments, the kind of choices that "shape" our whole moral lives. If persons have made basic commitments of a kind that close their minds to the truth, arguments will be of no or little help; what is needed is a metanoia, a change of heart, a repudiation of one's fundamentally bad commitment and a conversion to a new and good one. That is the reason why today a new evangelization is necessary.

A suggested strategy for changing the hearts - and minds - of advocates of the "culture of death"

These individuals hold that not all members of the human species are persons, i.e., beings who enjoy rights that merit protection. They think that those who think that this is true are guilty of speciesism and adhere without reason to a so-called sanctity of life ethic.

Some perceptive observations by Patrick Lee, Mortimer Adler, John Macquarrie, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and Pope John Paul II are profound and may help those committed to the "the culture of death" reconsider their fundamental commitment and perhaps have a change of heart or metanoia.

1. Patrick Lee, after first presenting an argument to show that human persons are bodily and that their bodies are integral to the being as personal subjects, asks those who think that personhood requires exercisable cognitive functions, "why should higher mental functions or the capacity or active potentiality for such functions be a trait conferring value on those who have it?" The proper answer is that such functions and the capacity for them are "of ethical significance not because [these functions] are the only intrinsically valuable entities but because entities which have such potentialities are intrinsically valuable. And, if the entity itself is intrinsically valuable, then it must be intrinsically valuable from the moment that it exists."2

2. Mortimer Adler, the noted philosopher, argued in his 1967 work The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes that man, i.e., men and women, living members of the human species, differ radically in kind and not merely in degree from other kinds of animals precisely because their ability to think conceptually and to make free choices requires within the entitative makeup of human animals a power (a mind, intellect and will) nonmaterial in nature that is utterly lacking in the entitative makeup of other kinds of animals. In short, he argued that the mind is not the same as the brain, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for conceptual thought.3 Adherents of the culture of death agenda deny this, of course, and identify the mind with the brain. In the second part of this fascinating book Adler notes that if man differs only in degree from other animals (the view common to our adversaries) then a revolutionary idea, central to Western Civilization, that all men, of whatever age or race or sex or what have you, are equal in dignity as persons and hence are to be treated as persons, will be destroyed and that we will then be able to devise a scientific list of individuals from the top, the elite, to the bottom, the scum. Those at the bottom of this list are worthless and can be sacrificed for others.4 I submit that this is the kind of social organization that results from the anthropology/moral methodology of our adversaries. Do they want to go there?

3. John Macquarrie, the late Scottish philosopher/theologian, distinguished different levels of conscience. He identified the third and deepest level with a "special and very fundamental mode of self-awareness - the awareness of how it is with oneself." As a special mode of self-awareness conscience's basic function is the disclosure of ourselves to ourselves as moral beings. Macquarrie put it this way: "Specifically, conscience discloses the gap between our actual selves and that image of ourselves that we have already in virtue of the 'natural inclination' toward the fulfillment of man's end. Thus conscience is a call….to that full humanity of which we already have some idea of image because of the fact that we are human at all, and that our nature is to exist, to go out beyond where we are at any given moment….the fundamental command of conscience is to be."5

4. Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.

A. John Paul II In Veritatis Splendor, no. 64, John Paul wrote: "Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As the Council affirms: 'In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself' (Dignitatis Humanae, 14); It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom 'from' the truth but always and only freedom 'in' the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith (emphasis added). The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it."

In the words emphasized in this text John Paul II is referring to conscience as essentially a kind of "rememoring," what Plato called anamnesis. Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, had written magnificently on this central meaning of conscience. I will summarize his thought and then relate it to the teaching of John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor.

B. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI In a remarkable address, called "Conscience and Truth,"6 Ratzinger declared: "the first so-called ontological level of the phenomenon conscience consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and the true (they are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the image and likeness of God, toward the divine….This anamnesis of the origin, which results from the god-like constitution of our being, is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents. It is…as inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself, hears its echo from within. The possibility for and right to mission rest on this anamnesis of the Creator, which is identical to the ground of our existence. The gospel…must be proclaimed to the pagans, because they themselves are yearning for it in the hidden recesses of their souls."7

Because here we are dealing with the faith and the Church Ratzinger says we must take into account another dimension treated particularly in Johannine writings. "John is familiar with the anamnesis of the new 'we,' which is granted to us in the incorporation into Christ (one body, that is, one 'I' with him). In remembering, they knew him…. The original encounter with Jesus gave the disciples what all generations thereafter receive in their foundational encounter with the Lord in baptism and the Eucharist, namely, the new anamnesis of faith, which unfolds, like the anamnesis of creation, in constant dialogue between within and without…. It does signify the sureness of the Christian memory… One can comprehend the primacy of the pope and its correlation to Christian conscience only in this connection. The true sense of the teaching authority of the pope consists in its being the advocate of the Christian memory. The pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it…. All the power that the papacy has is the power of conscience. It is service to the double memory on which the faith is based [creation/redemption] and which again and again must be purified, expanded, and defended against the destruction of memory…"8

It is precisely to this memory or anamnesis to which John Paul II refers in the text from Veritatis Splendor.

Conclusion: God's Will -- that all men may be saved

We must remember that God wills all men to be saved and that he will give them the grace necessary so long as they put no obstacles in the way. Thus it seems to me that an analogous kind of "remembering" or of "anamnesis" can take place in the consciences of those who may not as yet explicitly believe in God's revelation or even in God but whose minds and hearts are open to the truth and earnestly seeking it. And this, I think, applies to persons deeply committed to the self-understanding that I have identified as that operative in our "adversaries," the advocates of the culture of death. They remind me in many ways of a statement by St. Thomas in Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, a.1 ad 1: "to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching." They may recognize that man is not the measure of all things - the sophistic view so marvelously demolished by the Platonic Socrates - and grant that there is some more-than-human source of meaning and value, but they do not know as yet that this is the living God.

I believe that the considerations set forth by Lee, Adler, Macquarrie, Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and Pope John Paul II can help persons think more deeply about who they are and about their identity as persons, and "jog" memories and evoke an "anamnesis" in the minds of some of our contemporaries who disagree with us so greatly on issues regarding the rights of all human beings, born or unborn.

1 On this see my "Free Choice, Baptism, and the Christian Moral Life," in Camminare nella luce: Prospettive della Teologia Morale a 10 Anni da Veritatis Splendor, ed. Livio Melina (Rome: Pontificia Universitá Lateranense, 2004, 455-59. [Back]

2 Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995, pp. 26-27; emphasis added. [Back]

3 Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes. New York: Doubleday, 1967, pp. 157 ff. [Back]

4 Ibid, p. 202. [Back]

5 Macquarrie, Three Issues in Ethics, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, p. 111. [Back]

6 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Conscience and Truth," given at a conference on Catholic Conscience: Foundation and Formation (Proceedings of the Tenth Bishops' Workshop 1991) and originally published as edited by Rev. Russell Smith by the Pope John XXIII Medical Moral Center, Braintree, MA (now the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Philadelphia, PA) and reprinted in On Conscience: Two Essays by Cardinal Ratzinger. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007 Ratzinger develops what he regards as the central anthropological and ontological meaning of conscience as anamnesis. See On Conscience: Two Essays by Cardinal Ratzinger. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007. [Back]

7 Ibid, p. 32, emphasis added. [Back]

8 Ibid., p. 36. [Back]