An Object of Detestation

Published April 30, 2018

The Catholic Thing

It was always likely that young Alfie Evans would die in a hospital with his parents at his bedside. All the court battles and papal tweets and prayer vigils and armies of support for the British toddler were never likely to change that. Miracles do happen, but then, there’s a reason we call them miracles. It was never likely that doctors in Italy (or anywhere else) could have done more for Alfie than the doctors in Liverpool. Possible perhaps, but not likely.

When Alfie’s doctors had exhausted their expertise, when nothing more could be done, Alfie’s poor body would fail him and he would die. Life is sacred, but death is not the worst thing. It comes for us all.

What began as a dispute between a child’s parents and his doctors, however, over a course of treatment, became a legal dispute about who could speak for Alfie’s best interest. The doctors and judges were so sure that they knew what was best for him. Perhaps the doctors were right that nothing more could be done for the patient they couldn’t even diagnose. The judge may well have been right that the law affords Alfie’s doctors prerogatives that by rights ought to belong to his parents. If ever there was a bond that proclaimed the truth of natural right and authority, it is that of parents to their children.

It’s an interesting mental exercise to contrast reactions to Alfie’s case with another controversy about the limits of civil authorities and parental rights: the notorious Mortara case in the 19thcentury. A Jewish child, who had been baptized by a well-meaning servant, was taken away from his parents in conformity with Vatican law. It’s taken for granted today that it was unjust to usurp the natural rights of Edgardo Mortara’s parents. Yet many people who believe that also believe it was manifestly just for the U.K. to usurp the natural rights of parents in order to ensure that Alfie Evans died in hospital.

None of that really matters now. The doctors, the judges – they knew the boy’s interests, were dispassionate, you see. Not like Alfie’s parents, who are not doctors. Or barristers. Or university graduates. Parents are nice enough, in their own way, but they’re amateurs. The law looks to experts, and they knew what the boy needed. Further attempts at diagnosis were out of the question. Alfie must, under no condition, be moved from a hospital that refused any further treatment, except palliative care. If his parents tried to move him, they should face arrest.

All the Queen’s doctors and all the Queen’s judges never did figure out what was wrong with Alfie. They were quite certain he wouldn’t be able to breathe on his own. They removed his ventilator, but he breathed on his own. For five days. Did this shake the certitude of the mandarins? No. The doctors thought it was possible that Alfie might suffer a seizure if he was moved to Rome. They worried he might not survive the journey. Better the boy die in Liverpool.

In his best interests, of course.

Though they were perturbed by the increasingly desperate pleas from Alfie’s parents and the clamor of his supporters around the globe – Pope Francis supported Alfie’s parents’ pleas, even provided a helicopter to take Alfie to Rome – the mandarins still refused to yield. Expertise in medicine and law gave them the power to determine what was best for Alfie and so, as if to prove the point, Alfie Evans died in a hospital in Liverpool in order to avoid the risk that he might die in a hospital in Rome.

Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” That was always a rather anemic view of social life, but the way the Alfie Evans case played out, one wonders if she may have overstated the case. Are there just individuals and their interests – and the state employing experts to instruct the former in regard to the latter?

Catholics know better, or we ought to. Pope Francis grasped what was at stake in the Alfie Evans case – meeting Alfie’s father, Tom, and tweeting his steadfast support. Statements from the bishops of England and Wales were mostly of the pastoral-by-way-of-not-taking-sides; in other words, flaccid and perfunctory. Some Catholics – British writer and papal biographer, Austen Ivereigh, for example – were indignant, insisting that protests against the abrogation of parental rights were somehow evidence of libertarian contagion coming from the American Church.

“The contention,” wrote Pope Leo XIII in Rerum novarum, “that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error.” Pope Leo, it should be noted, was neither American nor libertarian.

When the ministers of the law, purporting to act in the interest of an individual, isolate that individual from the bonds of family, which are the very foundation of human society and which the law exists primarily to protect, they do violence to the individual, to the family, and to society. Again, Pope Leo put it well, “If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.”

Alfie Evans was treated – not as a person in full, the son of a father and mother – but as a naked individual whose dignity consists in his “interests,” and who was subject to the ministrations of impersonal forces of the state. The state made itself an object of detestation.

An adopted son of the Father through baptism, Alfie is safe now from the violence done to him; the violence done to his family, his parents, his nation, is perhaps an even greater sin.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington

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