The Rector writes…
A mother gives birth to a son. The child is seriously damaged and put on life support. It is a personal tragedy for the boy’s parents, but eleven months later the life of this one small child has attracted huge international interest and has been the focus for all sorts of polarisation of view about the right to life – legal, ethical and practical. The child’s name is now in the public domain – Charlie Gard – and his future has aroused concern not just here in Britain but has engaged the interest of both the White House and the Vatican. We can only hope and pray that the right decisions are made, primarily for Charlie’s welfare, but also for the pastoral care of his parents: to have such personal and sensitive matters debated so openly must make it almost impossible for any of those involved to make clear judgements.
Catholic social teaching has as one of its pillars the notion of subsidiarity: any decision, when it has to be made, should be taken by those most likely to bear its consequences. One of the areas which raises the most heart-searching in the case of Charlie Gard is the legal limits which have been put on his parents’ freedom of action. There will be cases where other agencies have to act “in loco parentis” for vulnerable children, but there should be a dialogue between all those involved in a child’s care from which its parents should not be left feeling they have been excluded. The Catholic tradition is utterly consistent in its defence of the integrity of every life, but this does not mean that extraordinary lengths have to be employed to maintain a particular life. Although medical science can keep a body functioning and technically alive, there are real questions about the quality and meaning of that life. There does come a point when continuing existence is no longer viable and it is morally wrong to try to sustain what should be allowed to return to God. We do, after all, believe in a continuum by which each individual, created first in the imagination of God, is sustained by his loving Spirit throughout the human journey, and is destined to find fulfilment in the eternal embrace of the Creator.
Pope Francis has been criticised by some commentators for expressing a view about Charlie (which perhaps reveals more about the prejudices of those commentators rather than the Pope who has a personal and catechetical responsibility to express his mind) but he has reminded us of the worth of every human being, even the most apparently limited, and the intrinsic right of the most vulnerable to receive care and protection from the societies in which they have a legitimate place. In his “Commentary on the Song of Songs”, Saint Gregory of Nyssa (336-395), gives expression to the Catholic belief in the dignity and value of every one of us: “you alone were made an image of the Being that transcends all reason, a likeness of the imperishable Beauty, a model of the true Godhead, a vessel of the blissful Life, a reflection of the true Light”.
If Saint Gregory’s sentiments are an authentic description of Pope Francis and Donald Trump, as they are of you and of me, they cannot be any less true of Charlie Gard. This little life, apparently minimal in its responses, and utterly dependant in its weakness, invites respect and love, and in its own unique way (and this is true for each one of us) mirrors something of the Divine into this world. In assuming the human condition in the Incarnation, and in subsequently raising our condition to a new level of significance in the Ascension, Jesus has established solidarity with Charlie and his family, and all those who have the child’s best interests at heart. “There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven” (Frederick Faber). If anything positive can come from such a sad set of circumstances perhaps it is an acceptance of the profound mystery that lies at the heart of every person and, in the words of Pope Francis: “we must not forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development”.