On Saturday 7 May 2022, an editorial, “Irish Times view on new National Maternity Hospital” said, “concerns were raised over possible Catholic influence on the maternity hospital after it moved to a religious-owned campus. Given the history of church interference in health, these concerns were understandable.”
In the light of the recent controversy over the move of the National Maternity Hospital to the site of St Vincent’s Hospital at Elm Park, perhaps the impression is widespread that the any Catholic influence is malign, and that the Church has no business whatever being involved with healthcare.
Our gospel reading for 3 July 2022, 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, shows how utterly mistaken that view would be. Luke 10:9 says of the mission Jesus gave to his 70 (or 72) disciples on entering a town: “Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Healthcare, care for the sick, goes back to the very roots of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Whether in the home or in a hospital, it has been an integral part of the commission of Jesus to his disciples and a sign of the kingdom of God. Being a Christian cannot be a purely spiritual way of life, but always involves care for human beings in their full bodily and spiritual dimensions. The Corporal Works of Mercy express this. In Ireland, it goes back to medieval times. A leper hospital (among many), St Stephen’s in Dublin, from which St Stephen’s Green gets its name, is mentioned in 1230AD in the records of Dublin Corporation. The curve in Stephen Street Upper and Lower may indicate the line of the boundary.
From hearing what many have said about the National Maternity Hospital, one might conclude that the Church has attempted to force its influence on a State institution. There is no truth whatever in such an idea.
The history of the hospital by Tony Farmar published for its centenary in 1994, commissioned by the Master, Dr Peter Boylan, paints a different picture.
When a small lying-in hospital in Holles Street collapsed for lack of funds, “various Catholic interests filled the gap.” In the Introduction, Farmar wrote: “The founding members were determined to create a Catholic maternity facility for a largely Catholic population. Neither the Rotunda nor the Coombe was regarded as such … They declared that the management of the Hospital be exclusively Catholic, though the benefits were to be given without question of creed. This rule echoed faithfully, though probably unconsciously, the original Rotunda rule ‘that None but Protestants shall be permitted to attend the said Hospital as Officers, Assistants, Nurse-Keepers or Servants.’”
The Rotunda and the Coombe hospitals were founded at a time when Penal Laws were still in force against Catholics, so it is understandable that when those laws were mostly lifted, Catholics would want a maternity hospital with their own ethos. Thankfully, our hospitals have become more inclusive.
Sadly, government policy is reviving the kind of religious discrimination we hoped was long gone. Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, addressed the Dáil in a debate on the National Maternity Hospital on 12 May 2022. He said:
“It is also being demanded, quite rightly, that there be no religious influence in this new hospital. Ireland has a dark history when it comes to the church and women’s reproductive health.”
Then, nine more times, he said that there would be no religious influence/ethos in the new hospital. Presumably reflecting accurately the decision of the government, he spoke after the Cabinet decision on 17 May 2022 to proceed with the existing plan for the new National Maternity Hospital. He said, as reported that day on RTÉ News at One:
“There will not be, there cannot be, and there never will be any religious ethos or influence in the provision of services in the new hospital.”
The then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, welcoming Pope Francis on 24 August 2018, gave voice to a different narrative when he said:
“People of profound Christian faith … founded our oldest hospitals, staffed them, and provided welfare for so many of our people… It is easy to forget that the Irish State, founded in 1922, did not set up a Department of Health or a Department of Social Welfare until 1947… Providing healthcare, education and welfare is now considered a core function of our State. When the state was founded, it was not. The Catholic Church filled that gap to the benefit of many generations of our people. We remain profoundly grateful for that contribution.”
The enormous contribution to healthcare in Ireland (and around the world) by religious organisations both in the past and in the present day, whether working independently or in partnership with statutory authorities, must not be blown away by ignorance of the truth.
We not only pray “Thy kingdom come”; we witness to it and help make it real when we as a Church work to bring health care to the world.