Church property: the mystery of the nuns and the maternity hospital

Church property: the mystery of the nuns and the maternity hospital Papal Nuncio Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo

Confusion continues to surround the actions of the Religious Sisters of Charity around the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group and plans to build a new National Maternity Hospital, apparently without a religious ethos and all set to perform abortions on the grounds of St Vincent’s Hospital in south Dublin.

A year and a half ago the sisters announced plans to end involvement in the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group in which they hold shares, and declared that they would have no involvement in the National Maternity Hospital to be built on the St Vincent’s campus.

Given how this statement came against the background of public opposition to the notion that abortions and other actions contrary to Catholic teaching might be barred from a maternity hospital owned by religious sisters, the question of whether Church law would allow the sisters to offload Church property in such a situation seemed an obvious one, such that this paper reported on the subject in June 2017, identifying the sisters’ plan as ‘A proposal – not a promise’.


Canons 638, 1291, 1291, 1293 and 1294 of the Church’s code of Canon Law outline how such disposals – termed ‘alienations’ – should take place in line with certain ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ valued set by the Irish hierarchy in the late 1980s as being st£100,000 and st£1,000,000, these figures varying over time in line with inflation and being rated last year as worth €348,460 and €3,484,595.

Loosely speaking, alienations between these values need local episcopal approval – episcopal does mean ‘oversight’, after all – and alienations above the maximum value need approval from Rome, generally with local input.

With outgoing NMH master Rhona Mahony decreeing of late that the sisters have been very obliging and will have no role whatsoever in the new hospital, The Irish Catholic returned to the Archdiocese of Dublin to ask about the alienation’s current canonical status, and establish whether the sisters have the right to sell, lease, give away, or in any sense relinquish control of the hospital and its grounds.

After being assured by the diocese that the sisters have not been in touch to seek permission, The Irish Catholic turned to the sisters, pointing out that a Vatican refusal to allow the planned alienation could prevent any deal from going ahead, and asking “whether the order has considered the canonical implications of the alienation, what arrangements have been made for permissions, and who is advising the order on canon law around these matters?”

Over a week later, and against the background of the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group claiming it is governed by company law not canon law, the sisters replied this week, refusing to engage with these questions in any sense, and instead simply reiterating their statement of May 2017 that they were ending involvement in the healthcare group they currently own.


Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has since stated that it is for the sisters to seek permission in this area from the Vatican, and that if this happens, while the decision would be between the sisters and the Holy See, he would be asked for his opinion.

Attempting to shed light on the situation, a high-ranking Vatican source told this paper: “Essentially, the Holy See would want to ensure that any property being alienated was done so in a way that was in accordance with the purposes the charitable institution was established for.

“Rome would be heavily guided by the voice of the local ordinary and indeed the nuncio.

“If the nuncio brought any concerns to the Holy See, the Congregation (for Religious) would certainly seek clarity from the sisters. Certainly, the Congregation would take seriously any concerns expressed about the alienation,” the source continued.

It looks as though it will be for the papal nuncio, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, to deal with this.