Talk about mixed messages. Earlier today, the Vatican’s official media offered a statement on the EU court’s rejection of Charlie Gard’s parents’ wishes raised eyebrows and questions about the Holy See’s understanding of the case. Rather than make the case for the parents to defend life, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life instead appeared to castigate those who came to the parents’ defense, emphases mine:
The matter of the English baby Charlie Gard and his parents has meant both pain and hope for all of us. We feel close to him, to his mother, his father, and all those who have cared for him and struggled together with him until now. For them, and for those who are called to decide their future, we raise to the Lord of Life our prayers, knowing that “in the Lord our labor will not be in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58)
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales issued a statement today that recognizes above all the complexity of the situation, the heartrending pain of the parents, and the efforts of so many to determine what is best for Charlie. The Bishops’ statement also reaffirms that “we should never act with the deliberate intention to end a human life, including the removal of nutrition and hydration, so that death might be achieved” but that “we do, sometimes, however, have to recognize the limitations of what can be done, while always acting humanely in the service of the sick person until the time of natural death occurs.”
The proper question to be raised in this and in any other unfortunately similar case is this: what are the best interests of the patient? We must do what advances the health of the patient, but we must also accept the limits of medicine and, as stated in paragraph 65 of the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, avoid aggressive medical procedures that are disproportionate to any expected results or excessively burdensome to the patient or the family. Likewise, the wishes of parents must heard and respected, but they too must be helped to understand the unique difficulty of their situation and not be left to face their painful decisions alone. If the relationship between doctor and patient (or parents as in Charlie’s case) is interfered with, everything becomes more difficult and legal action becomes a last resort, with the accompanying risk of ideological or political manipulation, which is always to be avoided, or of media sensationalism, which can be sadly superficial.
Bear in mind that Gards’ parents did not demand the use of public resources for continued treatment, but merely sought to transport the baby to the US to make sure that “the time for natural death” had actually arrived. The UK’s National Health Service had concluded that Charlie was in a so-called “vegetative state,” which would hardly mean that there was enough suffering going on to suggest that an attempt at alternative methods would be “excessively burdensome.” The interference in this case began with the NHS overruling the parents because they wanted another opinion, and fought them in court to keep them from escaping the NHS to get it.
Needless to say, the suggestion that the state had the best position to determine when to let people die came as a surprise to many observers. Ross Douthat offered a pithy response to the statement on Twitter:
To be quite clear: The British state is not refusing to pay for an experimental treatment. It is refusing *to allow the parents* to do it.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) June 30, 2017
In fact, the parents raised over £1.4 million pounds for that effort. It wouldn’t have cost the NHS anything except control over the case. As Douthat notes, the effort would likely have been unsuccessful, but isn’t that the parents’ choice? And shouldn’t the defense of life also include an effort to save it where possible, even if unlikely?
And since when has the Vatican Pontifical Academy For Life suddenly put its trust in the abortion- and euthanasia-supporting secular medical consensus of the EU?
They're killing the disabled just across the English Channel. But sure, let's nod along to the erasure of parental rights against the state.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) June 30, 2017
At The Federalist, Daniel Payne slams the Academy’s interpretation of Evangelium Vitae, as well as its “unjust and immoral” refusal to defend parental rights against the state:
The situation is not at all “complex”: Charlie’s parents want to attempt to save his life, and the courts have made it illegal for them to do so, in direct contravention of their parental authority. The “heartrending pain of the parents” is now primarily a feature not of their dying child (whom they are trying to save) but of the soft-tyrannical decision of the British courts (which are preventing them from doing so). As for “what is best for Charlie,” the obvious fact is clear: his parents have decided that for him.
It is not up to some guys in robes somewhere to determine whether two parents can take their child to another country in a last-ditch attempt to help him survive. It is also an essay in comical cowardice for the Catholic Church to tacitly defer to such expropriated authority.
The academy claims that “we must…accept the limits of medicine,” and as evidence they point to paragraph 65 of Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae.” But this is a smokescreen: in that particular passage, the Holy Father merely allows that “one can in conscience” refuse treatment which “no longer corresponds to the real situation of the patient” (emphasis added).
Allowing that one can choose something does not, in any sane world, in any language, in any context, allow that one must choose it, much less that one must be forced to choose it by a court system acting in loco parentis as a passive executioner. Either the academy has not read the passage in quotes in its entirety (in which case it should be ashamed of itself) or else it is deliberately misrepresenting it (in which case something beyond shame seems necessary).
A few hours later, well after the pontiff’s usual daily Twitter homiletic, a rare second tweet suddenly appeared:
To defend human life, above all when it is wounded by illness, is a duty of love that God entrusts to all.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 30, 2017
Our Townhall colleague Christine Rousselle initially noticed that this only went out on the Pope’s English-language account at first, but it did also appear shortly afterward on the Italian account:
Difendere la vita umana, soprattutto quando é ferita dalla malattia, é un impegno d'amore che Dio affida ad ogni uomo.
— Papa Francesco (@Pontifex_it) June 30, 2017
That description of “a duty of love” appears to directly contradict the statement earlier from the PAL. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence, especially given the more-or-less usual pattern of one papal tweet per day, although it’s possible that Francis had something else in mind. If so, it’s a real mess for the Vatican, as Francis has just recently revamped the Academy, a move which resulted in the controversial appointment of a pro-abortion Anglican theologian (via GadsdenJazz):
The head of the Vatican’s bioethics panel is defending the decision to name as a member an Anglican moral theologian who has said that abortion could be condoned up until the 18th week of gestation.
spoke out Saturday after conservative commentators criticized the inclusion of Oxford University professor Nigel Biggar as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Biggar, a noted Christian ethicist, was quoted as saying in 2011 that he would draw the line for abortion at 18 weeks, since that is “roughly about the earliest time when there is some evidence of brain activity, and therefore of consciousness.” Catholic Church teaching holds that life begins at conception and must be defended until natural death.
Just a few days ago, Crux featured a blistering editorial from Fr. Shenan Boquet warning that Biggar’s appointment would undermine the Church’s position on abortion and the defense of life:
Those defending Biggar’s appointment have observed that he is better known for his work opposing the legalization of euthanasia, and that it is important for the Catholic Church to be in “dialogue” with thinkers with whom it doesn’t completely see eye-to-eye.
It is good, of course, that Biggar opposes killing the vulnerable when it occurs at the end of life. The Church now asks that he extend the same protection to our brothers and sisters at the beginning of their lives.
It is also good that the Vatican is seeking dialogue with a thinker like Biggar, who by all accounts takes his Christian faith seriously, even if his conclusions about abortion are erroneous. No one has said that such engagement should not occur, only that the terms and setting of such engagement matter.
There are several perfectly acceptable ways to dialogue with those who do not share the Catholic Church’s absolute defense of all human life. Honoring them with membership in the Pontifical Academy dedicated to upholding that teaching is not one of them.
Ironically, it appears that the Academy has moved off of the defense of life in other areas first.
Hopefully, the tweet from the Holy Father signals a recognition of a problem with the new direction of the Academy, and a return to more rigorous defense of church teachings. It will take more than a tweet or two to restore confidence after today’s shocking statement.
Addendum: In other news, the NHS has deigned to delay disconnecting Charlie from the ventilator:
A terminally ill British baby will be given “more time” before life support is withdrawn, the 10-month-old boy’s parents and a London children’s hospital said Friday, days after the family lost a legal battle to take him to the U.S. for trial therapy.
Charlie Gard, who suffers from a rare genetic condition and brain damage, is unable to breathe unaided. Earlier in the day, parents Chris Gard and Connie Yates said they had expected Great Ormond Street Hospital to end life support for Charlie on Friday.
But hours later, the hospital said in a statement that “together with Charlie’s parents we are putting plans in place for his care and to give them more time together as a family.”
Hospital officials also asked that the family and hospital staff be given “space and privacy at this distressing time.” It’s not clear how long life support will be continued for Charlie.
How gracious of them to let the parents keep their child alive a little while longer. So far, though, it does not appear that they will allow the parents to take Charlie home for the last moments of his life, denying them a final opportunity to have any say at all in his fate.
Update: Kevin Jones reported last week that a leading Catholic medical ethicist saw the fight against the parents as a product of the pro-euthanasia culture in Europe:
Legal efforts to bar the parents of a British baby born with a disabling medical condition from seeking treatment overseas are based on deep ethical errors, a Catholic expert in medical ethics has warned.
“It seems to me completely wrongheaded that the state should be stepping in here when the decision that the parents are making is really aimed at the best interests of the child,” Dr. Melissa Moschella, a Catholic University of America philosophy professor, told CNA. …
These decisions represent a “quality of life” ethic and an ideology that say human life is valuable only if it meets certain capacities.
“It’s the same ideology that underlies allowing euthanasia or physician assisted suicide,” she said. “That’s completely opposed to the Catholic view in which every human life has intrinsic value regardless of the quality of that life.”
Well, it used to be, anyway.
Update, 7/1 1 pm ET: This tweet from the director of the Vatican press office makes it more clear that the pontiff meant this as a response to the Academy:
— Greg Burke (@GregBurkeRome) July 1, 2017
Will the Academy “clarify” their viewpoint soon? Worth noting — Burke also added the hashtag to the Italian-language version of the tweet.