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Tosatti: Reflections on the Church’s Role in the Alfie Evans Case

Editor’s note: we received word over the past weekend that little Alfie Evans had lost his fight for life, when he died in the early hours of Saturday, April 28. There is much to consider as we evaluate how this case progressed, and what precedent it sets for the future. Today, we present the thoughts of veteran Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti, who has watched the story closely from Italy, and has paid particular attention to the interventions made by various Catholic clerics, including the pope. 

I have tried to follow closely the developments in recent weeks of the dramatic story of Alfie Evans, and particularly from the point of view of the Church. As my readers know, I am often critical of the reigning Pontiff. I hope they will believe me now when I say that I think that the Pope has not done badly with the Alfie Evans case; he did what he could. His reception of Tom Evans, his promise of support, his push through the Secretariat of State and the Bambino Gesù Hospital to get some kind of action both from the Italian government and the hospital, his effort to free the child from the prison hospital where he died, are all actions that should be recognized, even more so when we consider that the local bishops in England and the Pontifical Academy for Life have all seemed very lukewarm and uncertain in this affair.

In an interview with an Italian newspaper on March 9, 2018,the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Msgr. Paglia, spoke of therapeutic obstinacy:

Above all the drama of the parents should be held in high esteem and I wish to express my complete closeness, also in prayer, for them and for Alfie. For this we need to pay close attention to the terms we use. They need to be correct and respectful: talk about “suppression” is neither fair nor respectful. In fact, if the repeated medical consultations truly showed that there is not a valid treatment in a situation where the little patient is located, the decision was not meant to shorten his life, but to suspend a situation of overzealous treatment.

Paglia changed his position after the Pope’s words of 15 April in defense of Alfie in his Angelus reflection:

The case of little Alfie Evans of Liverpool, his young parents Tom and Kate and all the people who, in these long and painful months of illness have worked in different ways for the good of this child, has been shown these days in all its terrible tragedy.

I pray for him and for the people involved, and I invite everyone to unite with this intention before the Lord of life. I strongly hope that dialogue and cooperation can be reopened between the parents, understandably upset by the pain, and the authorities of the hospital where Alfie has been treated until now, so that together they may seek the integral good of Alfie, and that the care of his life is not reduced to a legal dispute. Alfie cannot be abandoned, Alfie must be loved and so also his parents, to the fullest extent.

A subsequent statement on April 22 seemed equally ambiguous:

The dramatic story of Alfie Evans continues to arouse deep emotional resonance. Considering the developments which we are witnessing we cannot escape feeling a strong discomfort, mainly due to the sense that we are at an impasse where we all risk to be defeated. Given the still-problematic solutions that lie ahead in the evolution of the circumstances, we consider it important that we work together as collaboratively as possible. Only in the search for an agreement between all – an alliance of love between parents, family members and health care providers – can we find the best solution to help baby Alfie now in this dramatic moment of his life.

It is noteworthy that at the same time other bishops and Catholic specialists criticized the behavior of the hospital and were decidedly on the family’s side.

The Pope has spoken on several occasions. A first tweet by the Pope, on April 4, seemed to be in line with Msgr. Paglia:

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.”

But on April 15, at the Angelus, he said,

I entrust to your prayer people such as Vincent Lambert, in France, little Alfie Evans in England, and others in different countries, who live, sometimes for a long time, in a state of serious infirmity, assisted medically for basic needs. These are delicate, very painful and complex situations. We pray that every patient is always respected in his dignity and treated in a way that is appropriate to his condition, and with the agreement of family members, doctors and other health professionals, with great respect for life.

Then there was the trip by Tom Evans in Rome, and the promise of help, and the Pope’s Blessing, and the Secretary of State and the Bambino Gesù Hospital began to work together. The Pope, on April 23, the day on which Alder Hey Hospital suspended Alfie’s life support at 10:17 P.M., wrote in a new tweet:

Moved by the prayers and the wide solidarity in favor of the little Alfie Evans, I renew my appeal that his parents suffering will be heard and that they will be granted their wish to try new treatment.

It was a clear request to allow Alfie to come to Italy.

Finally, the last tweet was after the child’s death:

I am deeply moved by the death of little Alfie. Today I pray especially for his parents, as God the Father receives him in his tender embrace.

The Diocese of Liverpool and the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales behaved in the most disconcerting away about this whole matter. I think it would be interesting to know what links may exist between the Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, and the Alder Hey Hospital. In all the official statements, including that after death, McMahon’s main concern seems to be to defend the hospital. I hope some English colleague could delve into this track.

A first statement of the Bishops of England and Wales, inspired by McMahon, said:

Our hearts go out to the parents of Alfie Evans and our prayers are for him and them trying to do everything they can for the care of their son. We affirm our belief that everyone who took harrowing decisions regarding the care of Alfie Evans acted with integrity and for the sake of Alfie, as they see it. The professionalism and care for seriously ill children demonstrated at Alder Hey Hospital should be recognized and affirmed. We know that public criticisms recently posted about their work are unfounded. The attention of our staff and Chaplaincy was provided to the family in a consistent manner. Bishop Tom Williams, Auxiliary Bishop of Liverpool, who worked as a hospital chaplain for many years, was involved with the chaplaincy team at Alder Hey, offering support to physicians and staff. He did not meet with the parents, who, of course, are not Catholics.

Tom and Alfie were baptized Catholics. The family said they never saw the  chaplains. Not only that: from the news reports of La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana one can see there was great difficulty in finding a local priest who would deal with Alfie. So much so that it was necessary to find an Italian priest who lived in London to come to Liverpool. And so in the last days of life of Alfie was rejected by the bishops, leaving the family without spiritual support.

Therefore, this statement of Bishop Williams contains two untrue things: that the Evans are not Catholics, and that chaplains have assisted them. Archbishop McMahon repeated the second thing – which was not true – to the Pope, when he made a lightning visit to Rome, between Tuesday and Wednesday [April 24 and 25], to meet the Pope briefly after the general audience. So writes the Tablet:

The Archbishop of Liverpool has told Pope Francis that Catholics in Liverpool are “heartbroken” by the Alfie Evans affair while telling The Tablet that the medical and chaplaincy team at Alder Hey hospital have been doing everything that is “possible” to help the seriously ill toddler. “I saw the Holy Father after the Wednesday General audience and we talked about Alfie. I was struck by his compassionate attitude to both Alfie and his parents, and he promised me he is continuing to pray for them,” the archbishop said.

And finally on 28 April, following the death of Alfie Evans, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, made the following statement on behalf of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales:

I would like to express my deepest sympathy at this moment of loss to Tom and Kate as we hold little Alfie in our prayers. All who have been touched by the story of this little boy’s heroic struggle for life will feel this loss deeply. But as a Christian Alfie has the promises of God, who is love, to welcome him into his heavenly home. [Editor’s note: Alfie was finally recognized as a Christian, and maybe as a Catholic, after all…] Although the past few weeks have been difficult with much activity on social media, we must recognize that all who have played a part in Alfie’s life have wanted to act for his good as they see it. Above all, we must thank Tom and Kate for their unstinting love of their son, and the staff at Alder Hey Hospital for their professional care of Alfie. Now it is time for us to give Tom and Kate space to grieve their son’s death and offer our prayers for him and consolation for all.

And lastly, there was an interview given to Vatican Insider by the Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. It was mainly on the Korea situation, but the last two questions were about Alfie. They show clearly a difference of sensibility between Parolin and Paglia, and the English and Welsh Bishops:

Vatican Insider: One last question: what do you think about little Alfie Evans’s case?

Parolin: It caused me an enormous sadness: in the face of a willingness, so openly expressed, so many times, and with such great commitment of means – the doctors of our Bambino Gesù Hospital went three times to Liverpool – there was a refusal to allow Alfie to be taken to Italy. That is incomprehensible. This was what struck me the most, it upset me. I cannot understand why. Or perhaps there is a reason, and it follows a terrible logic. The Pope and the Holy See have tried to do everything possible to help the family and to ensure that the child would be cared for during the course of his illness, despite the unfortunate prognosis.

Vatican Insider: The case sparked a heated debate.

Parolin: In these situations, everyone shouts, trying to pull water towards their mill. Now that the case is closed, and the media will forget about it quickly, we need to reflect quietly. These cases will happen again. All together, from different points of view, but also with the contribution of believers, we should try to give a truly human response to these situations, based on love for the person, respect for their dignity and unrepeatable uniqueness. We hope that it will be possible to do so, and that the discussion will not end without giving it some further thought, ready to be applied again once the next case occurs.

My personal opinion is that the behavior of the Archbishop of Liverpool in the case of Alfie Evans helped those who wanted to prevent the baby from receiving help elsewhere, and assisted in his murder, that the archbishop’s behavior was lacking and negligent, that his defense at all costs of Alder Hey Hospital is something that needs to be explained, and that perhaps an Apostolic visitation would be appropriate.

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