At the centre of the Alfie Evans controversy, which has so absorbed the world’s attention this week, is a human tragedy almost beyond words. As we go to press, the 23-month-old boy is close to death: the ventilator which keeps him alive has been switched off. His parents are making a legal appeal for further treatment, following half-a-dozen unsuccessful challenges in the courts.

The family’s story has gone round the world because, to many, it seems a major injustice. Alder Hey, the Liverpool hospital which has cared for Alfie since he fell seriously ill in December 2016, has decided that it is in Alfie’s “best interests” to switch off the ventilator. His parents argue that he should be given another chance – and a hospital in Rome, the Bambino Gesù, has offered to treat him.

Pope Francis has repeatedly signalled his support for the parents’ cause. So has the Italian state, which granted Alfie citizenship to try to secure his move to Rome. But these extraordinary gestures, and a wave of public support (the parents have 250,000 supporters on Facebook alone), have not changed the official mind.

The Catholic hierarchy has itself been divided. On Wednesday last week, a few hours after Pope Francis met Alfie’s father in Rome and offered his support, a statement from the English bishops appeared to side with the hospital.

For some observers, the desperate situation sums up much of what is wrong with modern Britain. They see a health system which is too quick to choose death as a solution, courts which treat parental rights as non-existent, and bishops too timid to take a stand. Of course, that is not how the hospital, the judges or the bishops see it. But to grasp both sides of this understandably emotive argument, we have to go back to the beginning.

Alfie Evans was born on May 9, 2016, to Tom Evans, now 21, and Kate James, 20. At the end of 2016, Alfie started having seizures, and since then he has been cared for by Alder Hey hospital. He is suffering from an undiagnosed brain condition. In a court judgment in February this year, Justice Hayden referred to the opinions of doctors not only from Alder Hey, but also from two separate experts at Great Ormond Street, from two Munich hospitals, and from the senior clinical team at Bambino Gesù hospital in Rome. “All agreed,” Justice Hayden wrote, that the “degeneration” of Alfie’s brain “is both catastrophic and untreatable”. Last Friday, the Supreme Court rejected Alfie’s parents’ appeal for further treatment, saying: “The unanimous opinion of the doctors who have examined him and the scans of his brain is that almost all of his brain has been destroyed.” No recovery is possible, according to the doctors.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection