‘God be good to him — we sure weren’t” was the prayer that came to heart and mind when I saw the news that Vincent Lambert, a French man in a hospital bed, had died. He died nine days after being taken off food and water, following a long legal battle.
Lambert was in a traffic accident in 2008, and life since then had never been the same, to say the least. He was in what, in most media mentions, was called that awful phrase — a “vegetative state.” His case was not only heart-wrenching, as such suffering always is, but brought a family to court and even to the United Nations Human Rights Council — specifically, to its Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — in Geneva.
In the days before Lambert’s death, Michel Aupetit, the archbishop of Paris, asked all priests in his archdiocese to pray for mercy on his soul and for his family. “Today there is a very clear choice facing civilization,” Aupetit added. “Either we consider human beings as functional robots that can be eliminated or scrapped when they are no longer useful, or we consider that the essence of humanity is based not on the utility of a life but on the quality of relationships between people who witness to love.”
A perplexed priest on Twitter expressed some frustration that Lambert’s case had become a cause among some and that we tend to see these things pop up in the news now and again — painful family stories that wind up as legal battles. Of course, the coming-and-going nature of it is somewhat inevitable, as the patient does tend to die. But how? And what does the how say about us and our priorities when it comes to human life? Still, I understand his frustration. A name and grave situation make the news for a few days, even a few weeks or months. Sometimes it has a somewhat niche following. Other times there is a full-scale media frenzy. And sometimes you do have to stop and wonder: Where’s the consistency? It may be there for some of the activists who show up for the vigils, but where are the rest of us? Where’s the daily urgency? People live and 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 about the state not protecting him in the end — that we do absolutely need to pay attention. When it comes to end-of-life debates, extraordinary care is the question — would the person want doctors to do anything to keep him alive — under what circumstances do you fight and under what circumstances do you decide to patiently wait for life’s natural end? But the Lambert case stood out, and has to, for the sake of our humanity, because it involved removing basic nutrition from his daily care. Basic nutrition is nothing extraordinary. This, like making sure people at the border have water and clean clothes — and are being protected from sex traffickers and other evils — whatever the circumstances that brought them there, are fundamental questions about our humanity and dignity. We talk about mercy in ending a life, but there can be no mercy if there is not reverence for life, as a creation we are called to be good stewards of, 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 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, 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 has to 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 — the hunger around us, and the thirst, for food and drink and human companionship, too —we wouldn’t have such bitter divides hit the news now and again. Because we’d all be drawn to do no harm and to comfort the sick and feed the hungry and make the Beatitudinal way overwhelmingly known and loved and nothing extraordinary, because it is so common, because it’s simply the way we live our lives.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.