Alfie Evans and the Secular Hauntings of Reformation Politics

By Ryan Hunter
April 26, 2018


The ongoing case of Alfie Evans has awoken me from my self-imposed exile from public writing. This 23-month-old terminally ill English boy has been the subject of several court cases in Britain, and most recently a decision by the European Union’s Court of Human Rights. Alfie is unable to speak or walk, suffering from an as yet-undiagnosed degenerative neurological disorder.

The British government has defended its supposed right to order Alfie removed from life support, despite that this removal goes against his parents' wishes. Pope Francis successfully persuaded the Italian government to grant him Italian citizenship and to allow the boy’s parents to bring him to Rome for treatment. British courts have insisted that the government should uphold British doctors' ordering of the cessation of continuing medical care.

As I was reading various BBC news articles, petitions, and press releases from the Vatican, Italian government, and Alfie’s parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, I could not help but notice several shocking parallels between their plight today with their son’s case, and that of a very different one from almost exactly 500 years ago in England.

The world knows the infamous case of an English King fighting against his erstwhile, longsuffering wife in 1518, but now the story of a British Court fighting against all attempts to prolong a toddler's life in 2018 dominates headlines. Ironically, both times, Rome and her pope stood between the parties, ultimately seeking to preserve either marriage or life.

There were, in both cases, attempts to first deal with the issue locally, as it were, and then nationally, before, finally, an urgent appeal to the preeminent "international" or regional transnational body of the age. Both sides, in both cases, made public and private appeals to morality and ethics.

While in 1517-1533, both sides in the English debate—Henry VIII's "Great Matter" of his attempt to annul his marriage to Queen Catherine—appealed to God, the Church, the Bible, and Tradition, in 2018 only one side did so with Alfie Evans. This side—his parents—just lost this week what should, naturally, or perhaps wistfully, unnaturally in today’s world, have been one of their advocates, the EU Court of Human Rights.

Ironically, on St George's Day (a feast Henry VIII devotedly observed and celebrated as a young king before his rather-confused, hopscotch, bipolar attempt at a Reformation), the Brussels final court of appeal rejected Alfie's parents’ anguished petition to review the British Supreme Court's rejection of their earlier appeals to prolong their son's life support.

The King’s "Great Matter," which led to executions, martyrdoms, and an ecclesiastical revolution

After first trying unsuccessfully to gently persuade Queen Catherine to agree to the annulment—offering for her, a deeply religious woman, to retire to a comfortable convent or to her dower lands in Wales—Henry and his chief minister, Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, turned to set up a national tribunal, under his allies' control, nominally under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Campeggio, the papal legate appointed from Rome to hear the annulment suit. No doubt, the king's men reasoned, the court would render a friendly verdict.

When Catherine dramatically addressed and then left the legatine court, refusing to acknowledge its authority and submitting her case directly to the mediation of the pope himself, she shifted the jurisdictional bounds from the Thames to the Tiber, shocking Europe. This was a brilliant attempt to appeal to the papacy—a supranational authority above and beyond England—to save her marriage despite her husband’s equal determination to end it.

The furious Henry turned, as he would increasingly, to brute force to have his way.  From 1532 to 1534, Henry bribed, threatened, and cajoled Parliament—both the bishops and nobles of the House of Lords and the merchants and upstanding men of the Commons—into recognizing him as "the only Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England" with the infamous Acts of Supremacy.

Disturbing signs of a totalitarian statist mentality from London to Brussels

In our day, what is supposed to be the highest appellate legal body in Europe devoted, nominally, to the protection of human rights, has declared that is does not have the authority or jurisdiction to hear the appeal of two young British parents who simply want to find any legal pretext to prevent the British government from enforcing its legal rulings ordering the removal of their toddler son's life support.

In other words, in Brussels and London today, these two secular governments have declared that the ultimate power of life and death lies not with God, the Church, or, in cases of terminal illness, the decision of the parents or legal caregivers, but with a panel of state doctors who have determined, in their inscrutable wisdom, that a two-year-old's life support simply must be removed.

In Britain today, your right to life is the privilege and prerogative of a barely-disguised totalitarian State to either protect or take away on its own impersonal directive. An anonymous panel of doctors, rather than the pope or the boy's own parents, is today, in Britain specifically and the EU more broadly, in charge of dispensing with human life.

To reduce an appealer's line or scope of appeal on major ethical issues to his family, his locality, or even his nation, strikes me as a kind of creeping, insidious totalitarianism, an overt, brutal infringement on liberty sloppily done and asserted in the name of protecting the familial, local, or national liberty from 'creeping' or 'malicious' influence beyond.

In other words, just as 500 years ago, the king's men argued that it was necessary to make the king supreme over the Church in England in order to secure and free it from the supposed foreign dictatorship of the pope, today, the British government has embraced a similarly fascinating, disturbing approach with Alfie Evans:
"Our doctors (rather than the king and his ministers) know best, don't involve EU doctors (or Roman Catholic priests, or the pope) in this court case! It is British doctors who should decide the bounds and limits of when British lives must be protected or ended. So away, Brussels, away, Rome and Pope Francis, we have no need of your mediation here!"
Alfie and his parents have, similarly, "won" their appeal to Rome, but will Pope Francis' words and the Italian government's beautiful gesture be enough to keep the little boy alive from the British doctors who have such a perverse interest in seeing him dead?

In the name of a perverse new form of national sovereignty—sovereignty not over the national Church but over human life itself—the British government is today ardently asserting, with Brussels' full support, that neither a human rights overseer court in Brussels nor the pope in Rome should dare to presume to let a British child's parents keep him alive when a team of British doctors have decreed that the child must die.