It’s a good second thought, although it comes well after many people wondered why it wasn’t the first thought. After the Pontifical Academy for Life stunned observers by implying that Charlie Gard’s parents should give up the fight to seek private care for a last shot at saving their son’s life, the Vatican released a statement today from Pope Francis that contradicts his own advisory panel. The pontiff stated that authorities should respect their desire to seek treatment, Crux’s Ines San Martin reports:
Wading directly into a charged moral and political debate in the UK, and also appearing to recalibrate an earlier statement from the head of his own Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope Francis on Sunday expressed hope that the desire of 10-month-old Charlie Gard’s parents “to accompany and care for their own child to the end” will be respected.
“The Holy Father follows with affection and commotion the situation of Charlie Gard, and expresses his own closeness to his parents,” reads a statement issued by Greg Burke, the pope’s spokesperson.
“He prays for them, wishing that their desire to accompany and care for their own child to the end will be respected.”
The pope’s message is aligned with his frequent denunciation of what he calls a “throw-away culture,” a term he uses to describe ways in which those society deems to lack value are discarded, such as unborn children, the disabled and the elderly.
Veteran Vatican reporter Francis X. Rocca translates it into a more explicit reference to “treat” the baby from the official Italian-language statement:
Italian text of pope's statement in support of Charlie Gard's parents and their "desire to accompany and treat their baby till the end" pic.twitter.com/fEjXOqs14E
— Francis X. Rocca (@FrancisXRocca) July 2, 2017
According to Collins’ online Italian dictionary, the first definition of curare is “to treat or to cure.” The usage for “care” is listed as curarsi di, a form of curare but a separate use. Given the care (pardon the pun) that the Vatican takes with precision of language, it seems much more likely that Francis intends to offer explicit support for continuing of care.
That creates a real conflict between Francis with the Academy. Three days ago, they issued a statement in which they emphasized that the parents would be well advised to “avoid aggressive medical procedures that are disproportionate to any expected results or excessively burdensome to the patient or the family.” The statement noted that the family’s wishes “must be heard and respected,” but that they needed to “understand the unique difficulty of their situation[.]” They included an implicit criticism of those supporting the family by warning of “accompanying risk of ideological or political manipulation, which is always to be avoided, or of media sensationalism, which can be sadly superficial.”
Sadly superficial sums up the criticisms of the Academy’s statement, and now it appears that the pontiff might agree with those. The first hints that something was afoot came on Friday, when the Pope issued an unusual late-day tweet that seemed to contradict the Vatican statement from the day before. When the director of the Vatican Press Office retweeted it with the hashtag #CharlieGard from both the English and Italian language accounts for Francis, it became clear that a change of direction was coming:
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
— Greg Burke (@GregBurkeRome) July 1, 2017
Unfortunately for the Holy Father, this will appear to be a problem of his own making. He recently shook up the Pontifical Academy for Life and added new scholars to it, including an abortion-supporting Anglican in a move that had critics warning that Francis was undermining the church’s position on life. It didn’t take long for those predictions to become reality (and on another life issue altogether), and now Francis has delivered a very public rebuke to an advisory board of his own choosing.
The ball is in the Academy’s court now. Do they try to square their statement with the Pope’s, or do they withdraw their first position and come up with something more consistent with the church’s usual positions on the defense of the family? If not, what is the Pope’s next move?