Cultural trends and hardened hearts can obscure the value of human life. But true virtues, compassion and beauty are the way for Christians to overcome this, Pope Francis in a recent talk at the Vatican.

“In our time, some cultural orientations no longer acknowledge the imprint of divine wisdom either in the created reality, or in mankind,” the Pope said March 3.

“Human nature is thus reduced to mere matter that may be molded according to any design. Our humanity, however, is unique and so precious in God’s eyes. For this reason, the first nature to protect, so that it may bear fruit, is our human nature itself.”

The Pope spoke with participants in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The academy was founded in 1994 by St. John Paul II to defend human life from the perspective of Christian morals and Catholic teaching.

The defense of human life is done most effectively when we show the beauty of life, he said according to Vatican Radio.

“By displaying a genuine compassion and the other virtues, you will be precious witnesses of the mercy of the God of life,” he said.

“Virtue is the most authentic expression of the good that man, with God's help, is able to achieve…It is not merely a habit, but the constantly renewed decision to choose good.”

It's also “the highest expression of human freedom” and “the best that the human heart offers,” the Pope said.

“When the heart drifts away from the good and the truth contained in the Word of God, it runs many risks. It is without direction and risks mistaking good for bad and bad for good,” he continued. “Those who embark on this slippery slope fall into the trap of moral error and are oppressed by growing existential anguish.”

Pope Francis said that contemporary culture still has the principles to affirm that man is to be protected. However, this value is often threatened by “moral uncertainties that do not allow life to be defended in an effective way.”

“Not infrequently it can happen that 'splendid vices' are disguised under the mask of virtue,” he said. He stressed the necessity to cultivate virtues through continual discernment. Virtues must be rooted in God, the source of all virtue.

“The good that man does is not the result of calculations or strategies, or even the product of genetic programming or social conditioning. It is rather the fruit of a well-disposed heart and of the free choice that tends to true goodness.”

The virtues are not a “beautiful fa√ßade.” Rather, they help root out dishonest desires from our hearts and help us seek good.

The Pope reflected on how Scripture depicts the hardened heart.

“(T)he more the heart tends towards selfishness and evil, the more difficult it is to change,” he said. “As Jesus affirms, ‘Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ And when the heart is corrupt, there are grave consequences for social life, as the prophet Jeremiah reminds us.”

“This condition cannot change either through theories, or by the effect of social or political reforms. Only the work of the Holy Spirit may change our hearts, if we collaborate: God himself, in fact, assures his effective grace to all those who seek it and those who convert with all their heart.”

Pope Francis praised the many institutions that serve life. He also warned of many other institutions that are more interested in economic interests than in working for the common good.

The Pope echoed his previous warnings against “a new ideological colonization” that takes over human and Christian thought “in the form of virtue, modernity, and new attitudes.” These “take away freedom” and are “afraid of reality as God created it.”

The Pope closed his remarks with a prayer. “We ask the help of the Holy Spirit, who draws us out of selfishness and ignorance,” he said. “Renewed by him, we can think and act according to God’s heart and show his mercy to those who suffer in body and spirit.”