Cardinal Pell on Being in Awe of Life

Address Upon Receiving the “Mysterium Vitae” Grand Prix Award

SEOUL, South Korea, JAN. 23, 2008 ( Here is the Jan. 17 address delivered by Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, Australia, upon receiving the first “Mysterium Vitae” (Mystery of Life) Grand Prix award granted by the Archdiocese of Seoul.

The award, which will be annual, recognizes outstanding pro-life work. This year’s award included a prize of more than $104,000, which Cardinal Pell said will go to fund pro-life initiatives.

* * *

Ascent or Descent? Wonder or Horror?

Mystery of Life Grand Prix Award Address
Seoul, South Korea

By Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney

There is deep confusion today about the place and value of the human person in the world. Our concern for the physical ecology or the world is not always matched by a similar concern for the moral ecology of our societies.

An Associate Professor of Obstetric Medicine recently wrote a letter to the Medical Journal of Australia in which he described having children as “greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour.” He recommended that every family choosing to have more than two children should be charged a tax to fund the planting and tending of four hectares of trees to offset the carbon cost of each child. Under his proposal, parents would be charged a carbon tax, while family planning clinics and hospitals could attract carbon credits by providing “green-house friendly services” such as hormonal contra-ceptives, intrauterine devices, diaphragms, condoms and sterilization procedures.[1]

I am not sure what is more extraordinary – that an obstetrician could hold such a view or that a leading medical journal could publish such a view – but either way, this is a striking illustration of where a minority neo-pagan, anti-human mentality, wants to take us.

I am not suggesting that the size of our carbon footprint is of no significance. Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for the 2008 World Day of Peace reminds us that the earth is the home of the human family, entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom for today and tomorrow. He also points out, however, that respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than the human person.

Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow. It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.[2]

Extreme environmental proposals are often expressions of modern society’s deep confusion about the place and value of the human person in the world. They should set off warning bells for us. If we have learnt anything from the atrocities of the last century, it is that wide scale attacks upon human life and dignity both stem from and sustain reductive understandings of the human person.

As Pope John Paul II explained in his great encyclical on life issues, Evangelium vitae, the root cause of the many and varied human rights abuses which afflict our world today is contemporary man’s inability to see himself as “mysteriously different” from other earthly creatures; to grasp the “transcendent” character of his “existence as man”; and to consider life as a splendid gift of God, something “sacred” entrusted to his responsibility and thus also to his loving care and “veneration”.[3]

Like the Hebrew Psalmist, but much more aware of the boundless immensity of the universe and its unsolved mysteries (for example: are there black holes?), contemporary searchers might still exclaim: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” But too few of us hear the answer: “Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour” (Ps 8:3-5). Sadly, we are more likely to see ourselves as radically independent and self determining demi-gods, or alternatively, as purely material, herded and determined animals. And we are at our worst when we pick and choose from both of these conceptions of the human person, making god-like choices which presume we can program life and death, and enacting them like animals, with little regard for the freedom and dignity of others, where the strong take what they can.

The moral and social ecology of the earth also calls for urgent attention.


Crimes against life have of course, always been a part of human society. Like war, abortion, infanticide, homicide, suicide and euthanasia all have a long history. Two thousand years ago, for example, the exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted and widely practiced throughout the Greco-Roman world. Far more babies were born than were allowed to live and Plato and Aristotle both recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy. There was also frequent recourse to abortion, with Roman law according the male head of the family the right to order a woman in the household to abort and the weight of Greek philosophy fully supporting such views.[4]

Tragically, a similar program of attacks against human life, both in its earliest and final stages, can be found around the world today. Examples are unfortunately too easy to hand.

— Today there are approximately 45 million abortions are performed around the world each year.[5]

— The practice of aborting female fetuses because of a preference for sons is becoming more widespread in India. UNICEF reports that there an estimated 7,000 fewer girls born every day in India because of the spread of cheap, prenatal sex-determination technology and abortion.

Another troubling trend is that gender-based abortion is accelerating in the more developed, richer regions of India. In the prosperous northern state of Punjab in 2001, there were 799 girls born for every thousand boys, down from 875 in 1991. In the neighbouring state of Haryana, also one of India’s richest, there were 823 girls per thousand boys, down from 879. “Normally whenever there is development, economic progress and technological progress, you expect there to be progress in other areas”, said Kul Gautam, UNICEF’s deputy executive director. “What is unusual here is that development and progress on other fronts are associated with this terrible, retrogressive phenomenon which is actually getting worse”.[6]

A study published by the British medical journal The Lancet earlier this year estimated that as many as 10 million female foetuses had been aborted in India over the past 20 years by families trying to secure a male heir.[7]

— In the Netherlands it is estimated that 10-15 cases of euthanasia of newborn infants take place yearly. The majority (68 per cent) of pediatricians in Flanders, Belgium, would be prepared to shorten the terminal suffering of a newborn by using lethal drugs. In Flanders, lethal drugs were given to actively end the life of 17 newborns in 1 year.[8]

— Since euthanasia was legalised in Belgium in 2002 the annual number of mercy killings reported by doctors has risen from 200 to almost 400. However, Wim Distelmans of the Brussels Free University says the actual number of euthanasia cases is about five times higher than official figures.[9]

— A report published in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that in the Netherlands in 2005 there were approximately 2325 euthanasia deaths (accounting for 1.7 per cent of all deaths), 100 assisted suicide deaths (0.1 per cent of all deaths) and approximately 9685 deaths by terminal sedation (that is, sedation followed by dehydration), accounting for 7.1 per cent of all deaths.

The study reported that 550 deaths (0.4 per cent) resulted from the ending of life without explicit request. These numbers were not part of the euthanasia numbers because they lacked the requirement of voluntary request and therefore were placed in a separate category.

The deaths by terminal sedation, although intentionally caused, were not considered to be part of the total euthanasia practice because the Netherlands defines euthanasia as only the voluntary active cause of death.

Overall, in 2005 there were approximately 12,660 intentionally caused deaths under medical supervision, comprising 9.3 per cent of all deaths in the Netherlands that year.[10]

— In the US state of Oregon, the Death with Dignity Act legalised assisted suicide in October 1997, allowing terminally-ill adult residents of the state to obtain prescriptions from their physicians for self-administered, lethal medication. Since the law came into operation (after a series of challenges), 292 people have died by physician assisted suicide under the law, with 46 people dying in 2006.[11]


Where anti-life practices once largely involved the taking of human life, today they may also involve the making of human life. A new concern for the pro-life movement is the development and expansion of new crimes against human life and dignity within the area of reproductive technology. In the 1960s many became better able to have sex without babies. Today a minority want babies without sex!

The new reproductive technologies have expanded the means by which we can create human life. Sexual intercourse is no longer necessary. Increasingly for some, this is an old fashioned, haphazard, even unhygienic way to conceive. Today the rich have many more options, ranging from artificial insemination from a donor, to in-vitro fertilization, and perhaps in the future, cloning to produce children (so-called reproductive cloning).

Since Louise Brown’s in vitro fertilisation conception and birth over 25 years ago, more than 3 million children have been conceived with the aid of new reproductive technologies. I know that I have confirmed one or two of these children.

But as well as engendering new human life, the new reproductive technologies also have the capacity to engender loss of respect for the meaning and value of human procreation, human life and the natural family.

Certainly, the 10-15 per cent of couples who have difficulties conceiving a child usually experience great anguish. Longing for a child of one’s own is a natural and deep-seated desire for something which is very good. In fact, the use of technology to overcome fertility problems is not wrong in itself. Reproductive medicine and technology have the potential for great good as well as harm. So too, even if the manner in which human conception is achieved can not always be approved, every child who comes into the world must be accepted as a gift and brought up with love.[12]

As well as giving life, reproductive technologies often involve a willingness to expend human life. By attempting to maximize the rates of live births, excess embryos may be produced and then frozen, discarded or experimented upon. Embryos are often screened before transfer to a woman’s womb and discarded if they do not pass certain “quality controls”. Even if they are transferred they may still be aborted if they do not pass further tests or, in the case of multiple pregnancies, if they impose a risk to the safe birth of the other babies. From the analysis of data coming out of Victoria, Australia, which hosts some of the leading IVF centres in the world, it appears that the overall survival rate for IVF embryos is around 3.5 per cent.[13]

New ways of “making life” can also fail to respect the intrinsic meaning and value of human love and procreation. When technology does not merely assist sexual intercourse to be procreative, but actually replaces the need for intercourse, children become the product of our wills and third party intervention, rather than fruit of a profoundly personal act of love between a man and a woman. However much they will be loved by their parents, these children do not come into being as an equal third party to their love, but as an object of scientific technology.[14]

Increasingly too, reproductive technology results in children who begin life with a single parent or a combination of different genetic, gestational parents or social parents, thereby risking confusion of normal family ties, roles and responsibilities and self image.

The new reproductive technologies have the capacity to radically alter our understanding and experience of child-bearing and child-rearing, loving and nurturing, marriage and family. Some academics and ordinary people are already clamouring for the right to a “custom made child.” For example, on bioethicist has argued that:

The right to a ‘custom-made child’ is merely the natural extension of our current discourse of reproductive rights. [There is] no virtue in the role of chance in conception, and great virtue in expanding choice. [. . .] embryos and fetuses are biological property and parents should be allowed to modify or terminate them as they see fit, within broad social constraints. If women are to be allowed the ‘reproductive right’ or ‘choice’ to choose the father of their child, with his attendant characteristics, then they should be allowed the right to choose the characteristics from a catalog.[15]


Not content to control and master human life at its origin and end, we are now tempted to take and remake human life.

As scientific and medical prospects for enhancement of human physical and intellectual powers increase, some people are proposing and advocating a new phase of technologically driven human evolution, dubbed post-humanism.

Keeping human life human could be the next struggle for the pro-life movement.

As Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics in the United States has observed: “In our lifetime, the natural relations between sex and procreation, personal identity and embodiment, and human agency and human achievement have all been profoundly altered by new biomedical technologies. The Pill. In vitro fertilisation. Surrogate wombs. Cloning. Genetic engineering. Organ swapping. Mechanical spare parts. Performance enhancing drugs. Computer implants into brains. Ritalin for the young, Viagra for the old, Prozac for everyone. Virtually unnoticed, the train to Huxley’s dehumanized Brave New World has already left the station”.[16]


How can we convince others to promote and defend the intrinsic value of every human life?
Earlier, I mentioned the high rates of state-sanctioned abortion and infanticide in the ancient Greco-Roman world. I did not mention the small grouping of people who, from the moment that they formed, refused to participate in these practices. Indeed, the historian Rodney Stark records how by the end of the second century, these people who were by now know as “Christians” were not only proclaiming their rejection of abortion and infanticide, but had begun to confront pagans and pagan religions for sustaining these crimes. Stark argues that the relatively superior fertility of the Christian population was one of the reasons for the rise of Christianity within a society that was otherwise intent on contracepting and killing itself and its future.[17] As we know, after hundred of years of struggle, the sanctity of life ethic embraced by Christianity had became one of the foundations of western civilization.

Can this sanctity of life ethic be widely embraced once again? Could groupings of pro-life people- “creative minorities”, in the language Pope Benedict (following Arnold Toynbee) has suggested to us [18] — once again advance sound principled arguments about the value and inviolability of human life within the academy, the legal and political arena, and society more generally?

It can be tempting to think that this is too hard, especially in the face of the many “isms”, which pervade contemporary ethical discourse and practice. Lacking a common philosophical framework and sometimes even any coherent framework, it seems as though it is becoming increasingly difficult for educated westerners to perceive truth and accept it.

The flight from truth takes many forms and young people can find the search for it among the competing alternatives too difficult, especially when they are not equipped religiously or conceptually even to begin.

The important value of tolerance can degenerate into indifferentism, where “anything goes” in an individual’s private life provided it is freely chosen; to be counter-balanced in the public sphere by hostility towards any irreverence or questioning of the fashionable standards of political correctness.

In Catholic circles in Australia, one form of the escape from truth in activities touching on sexuality and life is the appeal to the primacy of conscience.

At a broader and deeper level we have the hostility to the concept of truth among the deconstructionists, the post-modernists.

In the 1930s in Weimar Germany, and in the 1940s in Nazi-occupied Europe, many intellectuals such as the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt, and the literary theorist Paul de Man supported pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic policies.

The German novelist Bernhard Schlink has used de Man, who introduced the theory of deconstruction to the United States, as the model for the intellectual figure in his new novel Homecomings, where the central theme is: “What we take for reality is merely a text, what we take for texts merely interpretations. Reality and texts are therefore what we make of them”.

The origins of deconstruction are compromised and tainted, with one writer claiming in 1988 that de Man’s life story is “grounds for viewing the whole of deconstruction as a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during World War II.[19]

Fundamental to our struggle for life is the recognition of truth with its constraints and disciplines, which are essential to human flourishing. We should recommit ourselves confidently to this defence of truth. As Pope Benedict wrote in his New Year message of peace:
Knowledge of the natural moral norm is not inaccessible to those who, in reflecting on themselves and their destiny, strive to understand the inner logic of the deepest inclinations present in their being. Albeit not without hesitation and doubt, they are capable of discovering, at least in its essential lines, this common moral law which, over and above cultural differences, enables human beings to come to a common understanding regarding the most important aspects of good and evil, justice and injustice.

It is essential to go back to this fundamental law, committing our finest intellectual energies to this quest, and not letting ourselves be discouraged by mistakes and misunderstandings. Values grounded in the natural law are indeed present, albeit in a fragmentary and not always consistent way, in international accords, in universally recognized forms of authority, in the principles of humanitarian law incorporated in the legislation of individual States or the statutes of international bodies. Mankind is not “lawless”. All the same, there is an urgent need to persevere in dialogue about these issues and to encourage the legislation of individual States to converge towards a recognition of fundamental human rights. The growth of a global juridic culture depends, for that matter, on a constant commitment to strengthen the profound human content of international norms, lest they be reduced to mere procedures, easily subject to manipulation for selfish or ideological reasons.[20]


Well-founded principles contribute to the adoption of healthy social norms. Consider the traditionally understood meaning of marriage and why it has been accorded an important place in all healthy societies. Until relatively recently marriage and family as a social norm has been understood as one man and one woman committed for life to the exclusion of all other partners, along with any children of their union. This has not meant that single parents cannot form a family or that the adoption of children is not a good thing for both their adoptive parents and the children concerned. All social groups have traditionally accepted the value of having two parents who are biologically connected to their child and who are committed to one another.

But when we attempt to socially engineer new social norms in a misguided attempt to be non-discriminatory, we profoundly alter society for all concerned. A case in point involves the so-called “socially infertile”; that is those who are unable to conceive because they are single or choose only to engage in sexual acts with a person of the same sex. In a growing number of cases new biotechnologies are enlisted to give these same sex couples or individuals what they want — a child. This changes the nature of the relationship between parents and children for everyone. Children are no longer seen principally as gifts in their own right, but primarily as commodities to satisfy adult wants.

Social norms concerning marriage and family have traditionally accepted the premise that children warrant protection and that society has an obligation to act in their interests. But giving the social equivalence of marriage to same sex relationships dramatically challenges several social norms. It says that there is no right of a child to be known and raised by their biological mother and father. Rejecting the traditional understanding of marriage and family says that intergenerational biological connectivity does not matter for children. In the case of “socially infertile” women, it says that having a father is an unnecessary duplication. Allowing two men to adopt a child rejects timeless wisdom and says that “fathers” can mother just as well as women. When a child becomes a project to satisfy adult wants, the fundamental right of a child to know their biological siblings can be ignored. When social norms change, their effects are felt by everybody.

This is not to say that our efforts to encourage good moral reflection about life issues should focus exclusively on the presentation of principled moral arguments and always begin with the consideration of objective moral principles and norms. We should remember that people are often moved more by their heart-strings than by their head.


This fact is certainly not lost on proponents of destructive embryo research who continue to advance their case through the mouths of young children with insulin dependent diabetes or former high profile athletes who have been tragically struck down by paraplegia. A five-day old human embryo in a Petri dish usually has little chance of evoking the same degree of sympathy as people with incurable illnesses or disabilities.

But these sorts of emotive arguments can also work in our favour. There are other deep emotions and intuitions such as wonder and awe which can draw people towards a pro-life perspective.

I am encouraged by the work of the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, which involves the reprogramming of human skin cells back to pluripotent stem cells. These cells have all the therapeutic and research potential of pluripotent stem cells derived from human embryos, without any of the ethical problems associated with the cloning and killing of human embryos.

But what interested me most about Dr Yamanaka was the revelation that it was ethical qualms about destructive embryo research that moved him to work on reprogramming, and how these developed in the first place. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr Yamanaka, a father of two, recalled a day eight years ago when he peered through a microscope at a friend’s IVF clinic.

‘When I saw the embryo’, he said, ‘I suddenly realised there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. . . I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way’.[21]

There were of course, many differences between this several day old human embryo and Yamanaka’s daughters in terms of its maturity, size, appearance and capacities. Yet his knowledge and awe of the embryo’s intrinsic potential for human growth and development allowed him to recognise the essential similarity between them — their common humanity and shared dignity. Yamanaka’s breakthrough is, amongst other things, the fruit of the virtue of reverence.

This example reminds us that while morally upright principles are indispensable, it is impossible to apply them in a vacuum. As the Lutheran bioethicist Gilbert Meilander writes: “How we understand such principles, and how we understand the situations we encounter, will depend on background beliefs that we bring to moral reflection — beliefs about the meaning of human life, the significance of suffering and dying, and the ultimate context in which we understand our being and doing.[22] These views, he says, are commonly acquired not so much by reasoned argument and reflection, but imbibed from the surrounding culture.

Sadly, the modern discipline of bioethics usually has very little to say about these deeper questions. Leon Kass points out that while bioethics has become overly rational, abstract, procedural and ideological, with regard to the “deeper matters and ultimate human concerns that lie just below the surface of everyday life – the significance of human finitude or the moral worth of suffering or the meaning of sexuality and procreation – it has virtually nothing to say”.[23]

But the role of the great religious traditions is very important here, especially in helping others to develop what John Paul II described as a “contemplative outlook”.

We need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook. Such an outlook arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a ‘wonder’. It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image. This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity.[24]

Therefore a primary task for the pro-life movement is to draw society into deeper reflection about the mystery, wonder and value of human life. We need to promote an alternative to the technological outlook which seeks to control and manipulate birth and death, to reduce nature to “matter”, to elevate having over being, to depersonalise the body and sexuality, and to replace the criterion of personal dignity with the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness.[25]

Our task is to call our brothers and sisters’ hearts and minds to wonder and awe.

* * *

[1] Barry N.J. Walters, “Personal carbon trading: a potential “stealth
intervention” for obesity reduction?” Letter to the Editor, Medical Journal of Australia, 187: 11-12 (3-17 December 2007) 668.[2] Benedict XVI, “The Human Family, A Community Of Peace” (Message for the Celebration of the World Day Of Peace), 1 January 2008.[3] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae (1995) §22.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 118-21.[5] Stanley K. Henshaw, Susheela Singh & Taylor Haas, “The Incidence of Abortion Worldwide”, International Family Planning Perspectives, 1999, 25 (Supplement): S30-S38.[6] UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children 2007: Women and Children – the Double Dividend of Gender Equality. See also “Abortion of baby girls in India”, International Herald Tribune, 12 December 2006.

[7] Prabhat Jha, Rajesh Kumar et al, The Lancet, published online 9 January 2006.[8] A.E. Verhagen and J.D. & P.J.J. Sauer, “End-of-Life Decisions in Newborns: An Approach From the Netherlands”, Pediatrics, 116:3 (September 2005) 736-39.[9] “Euthanasia cases double since legalization”, Expatica News, 7 February 2006.

[10] Agnes van der Heide et al, “End of Life Practices in the Netherlands under the Euthanasia Act”, New England Journal of Medicine, 356:19 (10 May 2007) 1957-65.[11] Department of Human Services, Eighth Annual Report on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act (9 March 2007). [12] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae, Introduction 2 & II, B 5.

[13] Based on data provided for 2004 by the Infertility Treatment Authority of Victoria.[14] Donum vitae, II, B, 4, c.[15] J. Hughes, “Embracing Change with All Four Arms: A Post-Humanist Defense of Genetic Engineering”, Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6:4 (June 1996) 94-101. Republished in Thomas A. Easton (ed.), Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Science, Technology, and Society (4th ed.), (Guilford, CT: McGraw Hill-Dushkin, 2000).

[16] Leon Kass, “Keeping Life Human: Science, Religion and the Soul,” 2007 Wriston Lecture, delivered to the Manhattan Institute, New York, 19 October 2007.[17] Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 125-28.[18] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Europe: Its Spiritual Foundations Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”, Address to the Senate of the Republic of Italy, 13 May 2004.

[19] Quoted by Daniel Stacey, “Brilliant Minds, Immoral Lives”, Weekend Australian Review, 29-30 December 2007, 8-9. [20] Benedict XVI, “The Human Family: A Community Of Peace”, §13.[21] New York Times, 11 December 2007.

[22] Gilbert Meilander, Bioethics: A Primer for Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1996).[23] Leon Kass, Life Liberty and the Defence of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002), 65.[24] John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, §83.[25] Ibid. §§22-23.

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Subscribe to the ZENIT Daily Email Newsletter

Receive the latest news of the Church and the world in your inbox every day. 

Thank you for subscribing! We will confirm your subscription via email. Please check your spam folder if you do not receive it soon.