Analysis: Alfie Evans, a social media frenzy and why some UK Christians swam against the tide
The tragic case of Alfie Evans has raised questions about the excesses of social media, right-wing political agendas hijacking deeply delicate human causes, nuanced differences between the approach of English Catholic bishops and that of the Vatican under the media-friendly Pope Francis, and whether there is a right time to die.
The case presented Catholic bishops in this country – as well as other Christian groups such as the Evangelical Alliance, which chose to steer clear – with an acute and painful dilemma, given their perceived simple position on the right to life.
Could they give Alfie's parents, not to mention the ferocious army of Twitter and Facebook keyboard warriors in the US, Italy and elsewhere, what they wanted, and offer more than prayer? And when it comes to the social media frenzy, do you engage with people who are not in possession of the facts?
From the start they could not, for several important and nuanced reasons. Usually, it is to be hoped that parents and the hospital in question – whether Great Ormond Street, Alder Hey or another – end up agreeing on the plight of the child. Why was this not so with Alfie? The answer is outside parties including, of course, the Christian Legal Centre which has been vociferously defending its controversial role in the case.
The Catholic bishops' position has been consistent: the call to prayer. But meanwhile the debate, if it can be called that, raged on. A public turning point came when the Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, explicitly backed Alder Hey hospital and said its staff were doing 'everything humanly possible' to help Alfie.
Archbishop McMahon told The Tablet on April 25: 'I am grateful for the medical and chaplaincy care which Alfie is receiving. I know that they are doing everything that his humanly possible. And our prayer at this difficult moment is that the Lord will give everyone the spiritual strength to face the immediate future.'
He added: 'I am very aware of the compassion which is characteristically shown by the Italian people to those in need, and in this case Alfie. But I know that our medical and legal systems in the UK are also based on compassion and the safeguarding of the rights of the individual child.'
Christian Today has learned that senior Catholics in England and Wales have received abuse from social media fanatics in their email inboxes, but they point out that given this, it must be so much worse for the medics at Alder Hey, many of whom are Catholic and some of whom have reportedly been forced to hide their medical clothing in public.
By the time McMahon backed Alder Hey, British judges had repeatedly ruled against the child's parents wish to bring Alfie to Rome to be cared for at the Holy See's Bambino Gesu hospital. Italy granted the child citizenship, but the Court of Appeal upheld an earlier ruling denying the latest legal attempt Kate James, 20, and Tom Evans, 21, to have their son transferred from Alder Hey for what could have been invasive surgery.
Against this background, on the night of April 4 Pope Francis – or, more likely, someone on his team – issued an unusually specific tweet in support of the parents that raised eyebrows among some in the Catholic hierarchy here.
The tweet said: 'It is my sincere hope that everything necessary may be done in order to continue compassionately accompanying little Alfie Evans, and that the deep suffering of his parents may be heard. I am praying for Alfie, for his family and for all who are involved.'
And then on April 18, the pope met with Thomas Evans in Rome.
The papal audience came about because of an Italian media frenzy that prompted the Italian Church to secure the meeting. A source in Rome says: 'Francis and the Holy See wanted to help Alfie but their good intentions were then exploited by those with an agenda.'
And this goes to the heart of the problem in the case. The social media hysteria has been led by American evangelicals, some of whom have accused Alder Hey and its backers of carrying out 'euthanasia' on Alfie. This is driven, at least partly, by opponents of Obamacare who have sought to paint the NHS as malign and socialist and liberal, and it is to the Evangelical Alliance's credit that they did not follow suit.
To be fair, not all evangelical support for Alfie's parents came from backers of Donald Trump. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, an evangelical Christian from a Catholic background, led the more respectable 'support' for Alfie's parents, posting a series of tweets and saying: 'I urge the UK government to grant the Evans family's request to treat their precious child in Italy. Americans strive to achieve the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all our citizens, no matter how young or old....I encourage all my fellow Americans to join me today in praying for Alfie and his family.'
And the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, of which Trump sceptic Russell Moore is president, issued a statement saying, 'England's healthcare system is acting unethically in the case of Alfie Evans. By refusing to allow Alfie to seek treatment elsewhere, the state is usurping the God-given authority of parents over children, and using such co-opted authority to deny Alfie life-sustaining measures, thereby hastening his death,' and concluding that 'the mother and father of a child ought to retain primary authority over the child'.
Even the US Catholic bishops went further than the English bishops, tweeting: 'We urge all Catholics to join the Holy Father in praying for #AlfieEvans and his family and that their desire to seek new forms of treatment may be granted. May the dignity of Alfie's life and all human life, especially those who are most vulnerable, be respected and upheld.'
But there is a further point here. The Catholics traditionally do not in fact take what is called a 'vitalist' position on life and death, and are at the opposite end of the spectrum to – say – the Jehovah's Witnesses in that Catholics believe there is a time to die. Indeed, in November 2016 the English and Welsh Catholic Church launched an acclaimed website, The Art of Dying Well, aimed at giving Catholics and non-Catholics alike a sense of what a 'good death' is like. One of its starting points was that there was a myth fuelled by the populist media that any death is a medical failure.
Very sadly, the interests of Alfie's parents, apparently influenced by outside forces, may in the end have differed from those of Alfie himself, which is where 'experts' so derided by certain politicians come in. No-one in their right mind should doubt the expertise among hospitals like Alder Hey, which in a 2017 inspection report was rated as offering 'outstanding' care and which consults all the time with other hospitals' consultants.
In the end, the Catholic bishops in this country continued to resist the temptation to intervene in what would surely have been an inflammatory, unhelpful and even un-Catholic way. They held the line. And despite the tragic and deeply emotional nature of the case, they were surely right to do so.