A proposal – not a promise

A proposal – not a promise
Plans to give away the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group may need Vatican approval, writes Greg Daly

According to the Religious Sisters of Charity, their planned cessation of involvement in the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group has been in the works for two years.

For all that their plan has been widely praised as a noble, elegant and surprising solution to the conundrum of how to site a new National Maternity Hospital on St Vincent’s campus in Elm Park, the most important lines in the statement by Sr Mary Christian, the sisters’ congregational leader, may be the closing paragraph.

“This proposal has the full support of the Board of SVHG,” it reads, continuing, “it is subject to implementation of all necessary legal, financial and regulatory matters.”

Everything in the statement, in other words, is aspirational. Claims that the sisters will end their involvement in the group, that they will not be involved in the ownership or management of the new hospital, that the SVHG will replace its obligation to act in accord with the sisters’ philosophy and code of ethics, that the group will act in accord with the values of the congregation’s founder, that the sisters’ shares in the group will be transferred for a nominal ‘peppercorn’ consideration: all these are simply proposals or declarations of intent; there is no guarantee that any of these things will happen.

The legal issues surrounding such a transfer are, after all, far from simple, and need to be considered in the light both of civil and canon law; legal requirements will need to be satisfied in both areas, as well as financial and regulatory respects, before the sisters’ plan can be realised.


Readers of The Irish Catholic may remember how last month the Vatican began an investigation of a decision by a group of Belgian psychiatric care centres owned by a religious order to perform ‘euthanasia’ on mentally ill patients, in line with increasingly common practice in Belgium since the passage of euthanasia legislation in 2002.

Bro. Rene Stockman, Superior General of the Brothers of Charity, had requested that the Holy See step in when the Brothers of Charity Group rejected his request that they reverse the new policy.

Religious orders or healthcare bodies associated with them, in other words, cannot simply act in ways that are contrary to Catholic teaching, regardless of whether or not their actions are in accord with local civil law, and indeed can be held accountable for doing so.

It is, therefore, crucial to bear in mind that a key reason for the recent controversy about the ownership and running of the new National Maternity Hospital has related to 2013’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which legalises abortion in situations where there is no other way of saving a mother’s life – something pro-life doctors and campaigners have consistently said is never the case.


Might it be the case that abortions could be performed at the new hospital? If so, should the sisters really be looking to relinquish ownership and control of their hospital? Might this not constitute material cooperation with evil?

The answer, of course, is yes, but the sisters surely believe that the degree of cooperation is quite remote: they would be surrendering the healthcare group not so that abortions could be performed but so that legitimate and necessary healthcare could be provided in the best possible way.

Against this, though, is the reality that the prospect of the sisters owning the new National Maternity Hospital met with outcry largely because the sisters, it was thought, would be opposed to allowing a hospital they own perform, for example, abortions and some sterilisation operations. Nothing as things stand, after all, stops the sisters from providing legitimate and necessary healthcare in the best possible way.

One could argue, then, that it is – in effect – really only to enable procedures that Catholic teaching forbids that the sisters are handing over the group, with the likelihood of such procedures taking place in coming years being all the more likely considering current pressure to abolish Ireland’s constitutional protections for unborn children.

While the sisters claim that the new company will act in line with the values of their founder, it is hard to see that the Venerable Mary Aikenhead would have been particularly comfortable with abortions being performed. It is difficult to see how such a serious form of material cooperation will not pose a grave and even insurmountable challenge to the proposal getting canonical approval.

In addition, the Church has strict rules on what is termed the ‘alienation of temporal goods’, by which is simply meant the transfer of the ownership of property by sale or by gift from one person to another; for the purposes of canon law, the sisters would constitute a ‘public juridical person’.

Under canon law, the Church – and Church bodies, such as congregations and parishes – have a right to acquire, hold, run and alienate temporal goods in pursuit of such ‘proper objectives’ as carrying out apostolic works including education and healthcare, and the charitable care of the needy.


When alienating temporal goods – and the ownership of a healthcare group that consists of three hospitals and will include a fourth is surely such – one general principle is that goods being disposed of should be valued at market rates.

It is, of course, theoretically possible that the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group is so burdened by debt that its value is indeed a nominal or ‘peppercorn’ amount, but superficially at least this seems unlikely. There is also the fact that the land at the Elm Park campus, the site of the former St Vincent’s private hospital, is to be sold to the group on commercial terms that have yet to be agreed. Assuming, then, that the group and land together have a real and significant value, this raises the question of whether the sisters can execute their proposal or whether they might be barred from doing so.

Canons 638, 1291, 1292, 1293 and 1294 jointly map out how the alienation should take place, with a view to certain ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ values decided by the local Bishops’ Conference – in the late 1980s the Irish hierarchy decided that the two relevant figures should be st£100,000 and st£1,000,000, with a view to these figures being modified over time in line with inflation and changing living costs.

If alienation takes place of property valued below the minimum figure, equivalent to €348,460, no particular permission is needed, but things change above that, with alienations between the minimum and maximum sum needing a just reason: facilitating the building of a new maternity hospital could well constitute that, but given the issues surrounding material cooperation above, this may not pass muster.

Most strikingly, however, things change again for temporal goods valued above the maximum figure, now reckoned at €3,484,595. “The additional permission of the Holy See is required for the valid alienation of goods whose value exceeds the maximum sum,” according to the Code of Canon Law.

In other words, the question of whether the Religious Sisters of Charity can relinquish ownership of the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group may not be able to go ahead without approval from the Vatican – more particularly from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, often referred to simply as the ‘Congregation for Religious’.

The practice of the congregation, when faced with cases such as this, has been to require at the very least a nihil obstat from the diocesan bishop where the property is located – a statement that he has no objection to the deal.

It appears that the ball is in Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s court.