Monday, 7 May 2018

The Catholic Jacobins: thoughts on the Alfie Evans reaction

There was a time, not very long ago, when one of the battle cries of Anglo-American conservative Catholicism was that “Truth is not determined by majority vote!” The phrase is usually attributed to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, though it appears to be a paraphrase rather than a direct quotation (I am open to correction here if anyone has a direct citation). It’s a good line, one which I have used myself. The underlying point – that the eternal verities of Catholic doctrine and ethical teaching cannot and should not be overthrown because they fall foul of contemporary pieties – is a vital one.

Delving a bit deeper, you might say that the aphorism supports a certain elitism; implicit in it is a respect for learning, devotion and expertise, an admiration for those who accept the discipline of “thinking with the Church” and have the humility to structure their lives not according to their own ideas and whims but to the well-worn patterns laid down by the great tradition.

I rather fancy that we don’t hear that slogan quite as much as we used to. A great many conservative Catholics seem to have become caught up in what has been called the “populist moment”, the supposed “revolt against the elites”. We certainly didn’t hear much about the truth not being determined by majority vote from those Catholic Brexiteers rejoicing over the extremely narrow EU referendum result and claiming that “the people had spoken” etc.

One of the dominant themes of populism is a strong suspicion of, and hostility to, the liberal metropolitan elite, the Mainstream Media and so on. I understand and, to some extent, share such suspicions, but it is important not to let this one frame, of Malevolent Distant Elites vs Decent Ordinary People, dominate our thinking about every single issue. For one thing these aren’t Christian categories. There is no warrant in Christian teaching for identifying The People as the special guardians and possessors of moral purity. Not every issue of concern to conservative Christians can be shoehorned into an anti-elite narrative. Traditional Christians rightly object when liberal Christians put the faith at the service of a liberationist ideology. They should be equally wary of conflating genuinely Christian concerns with the preoccupations of libertarian-ish populists.

For another, British Christians are nurturing a delusion if they think there is some silent majority out there that secretly supports socially conservative Christian beliefs on sex, marriage and life. There isn’t, and hasn’t been for at least thirty or forty years, and probably rather longer. Most importantly, you will never be able to think clearly if you have to slot every controversy in a pre-existing ideologically determined template. A hallmark of the ideological mind is that it has trouble disentangling the particular from the general.


All of which brings me round to the Alfie Evans case, or more specifically to some thoughts on the nature of the ferocious commentary on that case from online Catholics. I am not going to relitigate the controversy itself. My own view - shared, apparently, by most of the British pro-life Christian medical doctors whom I follow on Twitter - is that the clinical and legal decision-making in the case seems to have been broadly correct, and in line with traditional Church teaching.

I should add, not by way of boasting but simply as a relevant statement of fact, that I have studied and reflected on the ethics of life quite deeply, both in a formal academic setting and in my professional life. I have a post-graduate qualification in Bioethics, and spent the best part of a decade doing public policy, media and education work for a pro-life organisation.

Others obviously took a different view, as, I'm sure, did some people reading this. I do not seek to establish that those people are wicked or stupid, or that they are not proper Christians. I was struck however, by several general characteristics of the criticism of the staff and management of Alder Hey, the police and the judges.

The first of these was its vituperative and / or close-minded spirit. As with Charlie Gard, the typical reaction was not “this is a complex issue where reasonable people can disagree”, but "this is a piece of intentional and callous wickedness by the organs of the British state and anyone who disagrees is a prisoner of the culture of death". I will not list specific examples, but if you are even a casual follower of Catholic Twitter you will know what I mean. Even those that were not contemptuous in tone were often dismissive in substance. One piece by a canon lawyer, while calm and level-headed, claimed implausibly that the treatment decision was not a complicated issue - a contention which he appeared to contradict elsewhere in the same article - and suggested that those supporting the courts and medics were snobs (a recurrent theme among critics of Alder Hey and the judges). Another prominent US commentator tweeted that the decision about the best clinical options for a dying child with a severe undiagnosable illness was "not a medical issue", which is a point of view, I suppose.

There was also a noticeable lack of serious reference to the thought of the Church, and a (consequent) reliance on a combination of soundbite versions of Catholic teaching and tropes about freedom, the illiberal state, the unreliableness of the “Establishment” and so on, that are ultimately political and not theological. Part and parcel of this was a refusal to engage with the actual content of the various legal judgments in the case. Some simply repeated the line that parents must always be allowed to decide on their children's best interests without any attempt to unpack the difficulties and contradictions of that approach, or the context to the Church's teaching on parental primacy.

As one commentator noted,

Catholic moral theology and medical ethics is more complex than declaring yourself "pro-life" and against the "culture of death".

This is true. US pundits and social media bloviators in particular seemed very keen not so much to discern the truth amid the complexities of the case, as to slot it neatly into their ready-made stereotypes of socialist secularist freedom-hating Britain, with its collapsing public health care system full of dead-eyed incompetents just itching for the chance to starve a child to death. Some became obsessed with spinning it into an attack on the British police, deliberately misconstruing the role of the officers at Alder Hey (who were there to protect staff and patients from the mob outside, not to keep Alfie Evans prisoner).

In short, important distinctions were not made and important facts not recorded. But in the euthanasia debate perhaps more than any other, detail and context and precision of language matter. Distinctions matter.

The vital importance of clarity in discussions around end-of-life ethics brings me to another characteristic of the sound and fury that accompanied this case, and that is the lack of strategic thinking about the wider debate. A key part of most pro-euthanasia arguments is the conflation of the withdrawal of futile and burdensome treatment with intentional killing. This is a commonplace of pro-euthanasia argumentation. It has occurred in the Q&A of almost every talk I have ever given on euthanasia (probably thirty or forty all told), and in all of the half dozen or so euthanasia debates in which I have ever participated. The pro-life position on euthanasia is often caricatured as a crude vitalism, as a demand for over-treatment in all cases, and it seems that confusion about the current ethical-legal situation, and individuals' resulting fear of being kept alive at all costs, is one of the drivers for popular support for euthanasia.

And yet here we are in the Gard and Evans cases, with legions of pro-lifers, including priests who should know better, flinging around words like "murder" and "killing" to describe the withdrawal of extraordinary means of treatment. The general impression to the average observer is that to be pro-life is essentially to be vitalist. There seems to me to be very little advantage in playing into our opponents' hands in this way.


The case has been grist to a culture war mill. Now I am not one of those people who retires to the fainting couch when someone mentions culture war. Culture war is inevitable in any free modern society, and a robust culture war is in some ways a sign of a healthy political order. The kind of questions that typically preoccupy culture warriors – about education, the family, sex, entertainment, and the arts – are massively important, and are legitimate matters for public debate.

But culture war need not be total war, absorbing everything into the hostilities and leaving no institution or social convention standing. The classic exchange between Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law Will Roper from Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons is instructive here:

Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down — and you're just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

Contrary to More's advice here about the importance of the rule of law and trust in the procedures and precedents of civilisation, there has been a disturbingly nihilistic and cynical streak in the social media clamour over the Evans case. The Catholic bishops of England & Wales? Contemptible heretics and cowards. Doctors and nurses? Death-dealing callous brutes. Judges? Arrogant elitists – and probably family-hating gays to boot. Hospital administrators? Heartless beancounters – and by the way, remember the retained organs scandal, nudge nudge wink wink. Expertise counted for nothing, authority counted for nothing, there was no presumption of trust or competence in any established institution. It was a sort of Jacobinism.

A gleeful delight was taken in putting the worst possible spin on any rumour or report that made any of the above look bad - a practice contrary to the teaching of the Church, condemned under the Eighth Commandment (sections 2477-2479 are of particular interest in this connection). The whole tragic situation was turned into a drama, with heroes and villains and twists and turns. Plenty of people on social media managed to make it into a psychodrama focused on their own issues with the Catholic bishops or modern Britain.

Merely to raise the undoubtedly relevant, albeit sensitive and delicate, question of whether Alfie’s parents were best-placed to make a very difficult decision requiring empirical assessment and technical and probablistic judgments was to be accused of snobbery and class bias.

It is dangerous and wrong to take this approach, to allow the debate about a specific set of circumstances to be subsumed into a ready-made post-Brexit narrative of utterly untrustworthy and discredited elites doing down Ordinary Decent People for nefarious purposes. In the last few weeks I have not once heard anyone explain, for example, why they think that medical professionals who have chosen to specialise in paediatric critical care, and spent years and years training to do so, would be so casually cruel as to deprive a dying child of artificial nutrition and hydration. And of course very few of those who so eagerly spread the rumours about the supposed ill-treatment of Alfie ever mentioned, or considered, the fact that the attending clinicians were unable to give their own side of the story due to confidentiality rules.

All in all, rather a poor show. I hope that we can all learn from this in time for the next high-profile case.

May the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.


1 comment:

  1. For conservative Catholics I fear this may be our “Death of Princess Diana” moment; one where mass hysteria has displaced rational thought. A couple of reasons for this suggest themselves. Catholics unhappy with the direction of travel of this papacy are spoiling for a fight with the modernist culture; most inconveniently, Pope Francis has chosen this moment to play a straight bat - and so the spineless local bishops, for defending the doctors’ integrity, have copped the flak instead. Secondly, a lot of heat has come from Americans, who don’t understand the NHS. Speak to any Brit, anyone, and you will hear of the same experience: there aren’t enough resources, my operation was cancelled three times, I had to wait 4 hours for my appointment… but the doctors and nurses were absolutely wonderful, when my mother/father/husband/wife etc was ill with cancer, etc. Yes, as a country we are, increasingly, cosying up to the culture of death. But our medics aren’t cold-hearted murderers. The suggestion that someone crept into little Alfie’s room the night before he died to administer the proverbial “lethal cocktail of drugs” is particularly risible, at various procedural and personal levels.