For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. —Eph 6:12
“Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels …. Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” —Matthew 25:41, 45
When European courts sentenced Charlie Gard to death against his parents’ will, the Pontifical Academy for Life responded with a statement that was deferential to worldly powers at the expense of human dignity, and downplayed the wishes of the child’s parents, Connie Yates and Chris Gard.
After a backlash against the statement, Pope Francis broke with the Pontifical Academy for Life and defended the parents against the state. It was heartening to see that when Christians “wrestle” against evils in the Church, their efforts won’t necessarily be in vain.
But there is much more “wrestling” ahead. Some leading Catholics remain at odds with Charlie’s parents, and continue to write as though doctors and state bureaucrats should have the final say in life issues like Charlie’s.
The Church should play a prophetic role against states that favor barbaric violations of human dignity. It is alarming that many prominent Catholics are instead spending their energy in defense of the state against a sick child and his parents.
This is a red alert moment in the Catholic Church.
As it stands, thanks to Charlie’s doctors and several decisions by European courts, Charlie may now be removed from life-sustaining care, despite his parents having raised enough funds for an experimental treatment in the U.S.
The Pontifical Academy for Life No Longer Is
The initial statement authored by President of the Pontifical Academy for Life Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia referred to the “complexity” of the situation “above all,” which served no purpose but to muddy the moral waters.
Paglia gave perfunctory nods to Charlie’s parents, but endorsed the doctors and judges who “are called to decide” Charlie’s fate.
The heart of the Archbishop’s statement was this: That the patient’s “best interests” (as already determined by the courts) are paramount. Paglia repeated the exact words—“best interests of”—used by the judge who originally ruled against the parents’ right to obtain further treatment for Charlie.
Here, Ian Tuttle’s piece at the National Review Online got right what Paglia got wrong. The question “is not what would Charlie Gard want — a question no one can answer,” wrote Tuttle, but “what do we owe to people such as Charlie, who cannot speak for themselves? What duty of care do we owe them simply on account of their being human beings…?”
And finally, “under what circumstances should the tightest bonds of affection — those between parent and child — be subordinated to the judgment of the state?”
Austen Ivereigh’s Contemptible Disregard for Human Dignity
On July 2nd, Catholic commentator Caroline Farrow tweeted that Charlie Gard is “not the property of the state and if his parents have the money and feel that the treatment might help him without causing him to suffer unduly, then that should be their right.”
A fan enthusiastically agreed, “You have nailed it!”
“The only thing nailed here,” replied Crux columnist Austen Ivereigh abruptly, “is a claim, incompatible with church teaching, that a human has absolute sovereignty over another. No.” This sneering comment was only the beginning.
Austen Ivereigh is a Catholic of considerable stature. He is the co-founder of Catholic Voices, and the author of the definitive biography of Pope Francis.
In Ivereigh’s next column, titled “Doctors, Courts not the Enemy in Charlie Gard Case,” he reflected on how “almost indecent” it was to “weigh in” on Charlie’s case, as so many pro-life Catholics did.
The “really appropriate response,” he wrote, “is respectful silence, and prayer”—not only for Charlie’s parents, but for the doctors and government bureaucrats who “had to make agonizing moral decisions about his fate.”
The Catholic Church teaches that in terminal cases like Charlie’s, a family may decide against further treatment if they judge it would be unduly burdensome. In his column, Ivereigh makes the claim (with no supporting argument) that this Catholic teaching leads to the conclusion that doctors and government officials have the right to make that decision for a family, and to enforce it against the family’s will if they resist.
Ivereigh cited “European law,” which holds that “parents are not entitled to insist upon treatment that is not in their child’s best interests.” It was entirely appropriate for those “best interests” to be determined by the state, and not the parents. What the parents call parental rights, Ivereigh caricatured as the “notion of any human being having absolute sovereignty over another.”
It is “grotesquely insulting” to suggest that the doctors and judges involved want Charlie to die at all, Ivereigh wrote. The state’s decision against Charlie’s parents was “firmly within the boundaries of Catholic life ethics.”
What Ivereigh called “grotesquely insulting” is not only the position of Charlie’s advocates, but the explicit opinion of Charlie’s own parents. They call their son’s doctors “heartless.” Ivereigh calls them “one of the world’s finest and most caring children’s treatment centers.”
What IS grotesquely insulting is that Ivereigh backhandedly praised Connie Yates and Chris Gard as “magnificent parents” in the same article that called their position “grotesquely insulting,” and weighing in on their behalf “almost indecent.”
Ivereigh once claimed that the pro-life movement had become “disreputable” due to its “lack of civility.” If he were not so influential and therefore dangerous to victims like Charlie Gard, his craven justifications of the secular state would almost be comical.
Austen Ivereigh Is Not Alone
America Magazine published an article that argued against the pro-lifers who “reflexively leapt to the defense of the Gard family.” It is the “proper role of the state” to “protect the best interests of children,” wrote medical ethicist Michael Redinger, even if that means “resolving” disputes between parents and their doctors—or between parents and the state itself.
Charlie’s advocates “failed to recognize the nuances of Catholic teaching on end-of-life care. When life is valued so highly relative to other goods, its pursuit becomes detrimental.”
America editor Fr. James Martin tweeted this article to his large following on social media. One wonders if he agrees with it.
All the Vatican’s Men: “Spiritual Wickedness in High Places”
These Catholics are not insignificant. They are some of the most prominent voices in Catholic public witness. They cannot be ignored.
Austen Ivereigh is a papal biographer, and writes for Crux, a Catholic magazine funded by the Knights of Columbus. America editor Fr. James Martin was recently appointed to have a hand in Vatican communications. And, of course, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which was founded specifically to hold sway in cases like Charlie’s.
None of these Catholic men have stood against the worldly powers that deemed Charlie’s life not worth living. But there is one purpose his Life has already served.
Charlie Gard has shined a light “against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph 6:12)
Catholics must learn to wrestle the “spiritual wickedness” that has taken a strong foothold in the “high places” of the Church Herself. It will take courage. But as Catholics, we would be wise to fear The Lord more than we fear men.
At the very least, we should fear for Charlie Gard and his parents. And we should fear for future victims like them, who may cry out for help, only to be turned away by the gatekeepers of the last best hope against a culture of death: The Church.