The case has divided Catholics. Is there any common ground left?
For Alfie Evans’s parents, his death is a tragedy which they will have to endure for the rest of their lives. For many of Britain’s institutions, it has been a challenge to which they are struggling to respond. The NHS has been criticised – especially by Americans – as a heartless state-run behemoth. English courts have been seen as brutally indifferent to Alfie’s parents’ request to take their son to Rome’s Bambino Gesù hospital, which offered to care for the child. And the English and Welsh bishops, who backed Alder Hey hospital and the courts, have also come under pressure.
Earlier this week, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that “the court must decide”, that Alder Hey could be trusted, and that some had “used the situation for political ends”. Here the English bishops’ public statements have sharply differed from the Vatican’s.
Pope Francis led international calls for Alfie to be taken to Italy; the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said he was mystified by the hospital’s refusal to allow the trip to Bambino Gesù.
The bishops’ position is difficult. The episode has sometimes shown the pro-life movement at its best – a network of prayer, activism and practical solidarity, which stood up on behalf of a tiny vulnerable individual. But the last two weeks showed some less attractive things, too. The vicious personal attacks on judges and doctors; the spreading of unconfirmed rumours on social media; the lazy conflation of care withdrawal and “killing”; the dubious rhetoric about “socialised medicine”; the messiness of the court case – all this has made it harder for the bishops simply to say: “We stand with Alfie’s parents and with the Pope.”
The bishops’ conference is internally split on the matter, reflecting divisions within the Church. But there are still several areas where Catholics may be able to speak with one voice. First, given the speculation about Alder Hey’s treatment of Alfie in his last days, Catholics are likely to want a full, impartial report which aims at maximum transparency. What treatment was Alfie given? Was the hospital proved wrong in its earlier assessment of his condition?
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