Alfie Evans was born in Liverpool 23 months ago, the son of Tom Evans and Kate James. In his first year he had symptoms which reminded his parents of seizures. NHS personnel ignored these warnings and insisted that the boy was fine. Then last December after suffering from an infection in his chest he entered a coma from which he has not returned; it appears that he is suffering from a so-far-undiagnosed brain condition. It has since been determined that despite offers of assistance from hospitals around the world, Alfie must remain in this U.K. hospital until he dies. On Tuesday they removed his supply of oxygen and water. His doctors insisted that he would perish within minutes.

Thirteen hours later, Alfie was still breathing, albeit with difficulty, and the tubes were restored. Meanwhile the boy has been granted Italian citizenship at the behest of Pope Francis and received the support of everyone from the president of Poland to the head of the European Parliament; as I write this an Italian military plane is waiting on standby to deliver Alfie to the Vatican's Bambino Gesù hospital against the wishes of Queen Elizabeth and her ministers.

The NHS's fideistic obsession with its own powers seems to explain why the case has proceeded along the present lines. At no point has it been asserted by the doctors and the courts that their decision to deny Alfie care was justified due to the scarcity of resources. Rather, they seemed to insist, it is simply time for the child to die. It was a crude pronouncement made for its own sake, one worthy of tyrants in all ages and all climes.

It is impossible to imagine the anguish that Alfie's parents must be experiencing. It has been reported that the unmarried couple are now being represented by separate barristers, which may simply be a cunning legal strategy but may also suggest that they are now at odds with one another about the best course of action for their son. Certainly Tom's decision to bring a private prosecution for conspiracy to murder against three NHS doctors is reckless. But does that mean it is unjustifiable? It is in many ways a mercy to them and to us that their misery is still largely private.

But there is another part of this affair into which we have a window, the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church to save Alfie. Let us have a glimpse of the boy's spiritual father.

The Holy Father's intervention in this case has presented us with a scene that seems scarcely credible in the 21st century. The solemn voice, utterly unmistakable and possessed of a terrible authority, issues forth from a tower in the Holy City saying, The boy must live. Immediately one hears the sound of shuffling papers, the loud cries to action from footmen in red silk livery; one almost imagines the thunder of hooves and the voices of coachmen in place of the very real whirl of rotors and the hum of jet engines amid the shouts of camouflaged pilots. It was an act of monarchical fiat worthy of the pontificate of Blessed Pius IX, the last sovereign of the Papal States.

Pope Francis has done something remarkable: He has reminded us that he is not the head of some sort of well-heeled NGO, an international charity and occasional social destination for boomer retirees on Sunday mornings, or even a popular religious "sect," but the direct successor of St. Peter himself and a monarch with temporal as well as spiritual authority. When he spoke the princes of the Earth fell into an uneasy, if unfamiliar submission.

What Francis is saying now is in a sense even more radical than the powers and duties articulated by any of his 19th-century predecessors. He is not the last king of a doomed peninsular confederacy but a universal spiritual ruler whose authority is the Securus judicat orbis terrarum, "the secure judgement of the whole world," to employ the phrase that rang in the ears of John Henry Newman during his last agonized years in the Church of England. Meanwhile English judges mutter that Alfie's counsel has been "infilitrated" by popish plotters.

In the span of three days the religious atmosphere of the 16th and 17th centuries has been revived, much to the surprise of an unbelieving continent that thought it had done away with this sort of meddlesome priestcraft long ago. Francis has reminded us that ultimate authority over life and death does not belong to a supposed Lord Justice in London or a gang of feckless Eurocrats in Brussels but to the King of Kings whose vicar on Earth he is. Whatever becomes of Alfie — and like the pope, we must all pray for him — this much has been made clear.