“God be good to him -- we sure weren’t,” was the prayer that came to mind when I saw the news that Vincent Lambert had died. He died nine days after being taken off food and water following a long legal battle.
Lambert, from France, had been in a traffic accident in that country in 2008. He was in what most media reports called a “vegetative state" since the accident. The debate over whether he should be kept alive or allowed to die escalated from a family dispute to a pitched legal battle, eventually roping in the French president and even the United Nations.
In the days before his death, the archbishop of Paris had asked all priests in his archdiocese to pray for mercy on his soul and for his family.
A perplexed priest on Twitter expressed some frustration that Lambert’s case had become a such a firestorm. I understand his feelings. Sometimes you do have to stop and wonder: What made this particular story, out of all the bad and tragic news in the world -- much of which goes ignored or only briefly noticed -- such a big deal? People live, die and starve and suffer daily, after all.
It, is of course, because the Lambert case was about a person at his most vulnerable -- and the state not protecting him in the end -- that we must pay attention to it. When it comes to end-of-life debates, extraordinary care is the question -- would the patient want doctors to do anything to keep him alive -- under what circumstances do you fight and under what circumstances to you decide to patiently wait for life’s natural end? But the Lambert case stood out because it involved removing basic nutrition from his daily care. That’s nothing extraordinary. This, like making sure people at the border have water and clean clothes, is a fundamental question about our humanity and dignity. We talk about mercy in ending a life, but there can be no mercy if there is no reverence for life, whatever state it is in.
Back on Twitter, I noticed a consistency in tweets from Pope Francis. While Lambert was still alive, he wrote: “We pray for the sick who are abandoned and left to die. A society is human if it protects life, every life, from its beginning to its natural end, without choosing who is worthy to live or who is not. Doctors should serve life, not take it away.”
After Lambert had died, he wrote: “May God the Father welcome Vincent Lambert in His arms. Let us not build a civilization that discards persons those whose lives we no longer consider to be worthy of living: every life is valuable, always.”
The following day, Pope Francis tweeted: “Faith is a gift that keeps alive a profound and beautiful certainty: that we are God’s beloved children.”
Faith helps us make sense of this life and see it as the gift that it is. It also helps draw us out of ourselves to protect life and protect others, especially when they have no voice. We all have free will and live in a broken world, but I couldn’t help but wonder, as Lambert died, that maybe if we were all a little more conscious of the vulnerability of the people around us and our common need for friendship, nourishment and acceptance, we wouldn’t have such bitter, news-making divides.