Skulls by Paul CézanneThe term “culture of death” is frequently tossed around in Catholic conversation. It has such a striking sound to it and describes so succinctly the attitudes of secular culture, that it has been picked up and used by the general population in recent years. While we may use the term and feel confident that it conveys our thoughts, we should pause a minute and define what the term actually encompasses.

Where did the Term “Culture of Death” Originate?

The actual term “Culture of Death” first entered common use after Pope John Paul II mentioned it several times in the 1993 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. Evangelium Vitae was one of the timeliest and influential writings John Paul II produced during his pontificate. Evangelium Vitae is Latin for “the Gospel of Life”. In this encyclical, John Paul II wrote about the intrinsic value of every human life, which must be welcomed and loved from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. Here is a quote from this great encyclical:

This situation, with its lights and shadows, ought to make us all fully aware that we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the "culture of death" and the "culture of life". We find ourselves not only "faced with" but necessarily "in the midst of" this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.

John Paul II may have developed the phrases “Culture of Life” and “Culture of Death” from the Didache, a first or second century text of the Church. The Didache explains the “Way of Life” and the “Way of Death”.

What does “Culture of Death” Mean?

The Culture of Death is a very broad term, which describes evil behavior. It goes beyond the mere evil acts, however. In the deepest sense, it describes the attraction our culture has with sin, lust, and death. Our culture not only permits, but promotes abortion, euthanasia, murder, revenge, suicide (assisted or otherwise), war, capital punishment, contraception, human cloning, human sterilization, embryonic stem cell and fetal research, In Vitro Fertilization, homosexuality, promiscuity, infidelity, and divorce.

These proclivities lead to the destruction of life and its natural origins. They devalue human life, leading to an explosion of all types of sins. When we do not value human life, we do not value people. This leads us to sin by harming ourselves and others since we do not see the face of God in others. Here is what the Didache says about the “Way of Death”:

And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and full of curse: murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rapines, false witnessings, hypocrisies, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing requital, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him that is in want, afflicting him that is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.

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