Church too passive on ethical questions

The Church must fight for its institutions or give them up, writes David Quinn

The Catholic Church in Ireland has to decide what it wants to do with its major institutions and specifically the institutions that serve not only the Catholic community, but also the wider public. Does it want to keep them or get rid of them?

If it wants to keep them what is it prepared to do to ensure they are authentically Catholic?

These questions are prompted by the decision of the Mater hospital in Dublin to comply with our new law on abortion, an extraordinary decision for a Catholic hospital to make.

The Mater is named in the new law as one of the hospitals in Ireland that must carry out ‘life-saving’ abortions. So is another Catholic hospital, St Vincent’s, which has also agreed to comply with the new law, simply because it is the law. Neither hospital has publicly raised any ethical qualms about the new law whatever.


Each hospital must now ask itself whether it will ever draw a line in the sand and tell the State, ‘thus far and no further’.

That is, whether or not there is some law the State might pass and which they as Catholic hospitals believe they could not possibly obey because it would go so strongly against their ethos.

The question of ethos is vital here. Does having a Catholic ethos in some way compromise patient safety? If so, then we are in trouble. Some, of course, insist that having a Catholic ethos is especially threatening to the welfare of pregnant women because Catholic hospitals supposedly place the interests of the baby ahead of the interests of the mother.

Is that the case? If it is, then it is hard to see why the Rotunda sends seriously ill pregnant women to the Mater to be treated.

In fact, the Mater does an excellent job saving both the mother and her unborn baby. That is, it looks after both patients. What happens in hospitals that don’t have as strong a belief that they must strive to save both the mother and her baby? In those hospitals patient safety is indeed threatened, the safety of the baby.

The fact that Irish hospitals do an excellent job saving both mother and child is proven by international statistics. We have one of the lowest rates of maternal deaths in the world. This can’t be said often enough.

So, if the Mater already does an excellent job saving both mother and baby why did it feel the need to say it would obey the new abortion law without question? The new abortion law, let’s recall, requires hospitals to carry out abortions when a woman is deemed to be suicidal. There is no way that is compatible with the ethos of a Catholic hospital.

Ethical qualms

Quite likely the Mater has told itself that in practice it will never have to perform an abortion on a suicidal woman. However, it has told the world that it will and has raised no ethical qualms about the matter. That is all the public will have heard.

We already know that the influence of Catholicism in Ireland, and of Christianity generally, is massively diminished. Pope Francis said that “a good Catholic meddles in politics”. (I wonder if ‘meddle’ is a good translation of what he really said?)

He stated:  “I have to do my best [to influence our governors] by participating in politics according to my ability. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good.” Well put.

However, getting involved in politics is one thing. Getting anyone to listen is quite another.

The best indication of how weak the Churches have become in Ireland is that not alone have they lost the ability to influence politics or public debate, but they have also lost the ability, and possibly the will, to properly protect their own institutions. What has happened at the Mater and St Vincent’s is proof positive of that.

We now live in a time when the State feels perfectly free to tell the Churches how to manage their own institutions, especially its schools and hospitals.

One reason it feels it can do this is because Church-run schools and hospitals receive public funds and he who pays the piper will always feel he can call the tune.


But of course, the ‘person’ paying the piper, namely the State, receives its money from the public. The State can then either reflect the diverse wishes of the public in terms of how it spends their money, or else it can do what it now appears to be doing, namely imposing its own view of things on everyone and everything. For its part the Church can either cave in or fight back.

This is the fateful decision it has to make. To date, it has been too passive. It is not doing enough to stand up for its schools and it is not doing enough to stand up for its hospitals.

Bit by bit the State is forcing Catholic institutions to give up their Catholic ethos. In the end they will be Catholic in name only. Some already are.

Therefore the Church has to decide whether or not it will put up a proper fight for them. Will it ever take a court case, for example? Will it mount a constitutional challenge against what the State is doing?

The Constitution protects religious freedom but the relevant articles of the Constitution have not been properly tested to date.

If the Church takes a case and loses, it will leave it precisely where it is today, namely losing control over its institutions piece by piece.

But if it wins, it wins back its autonomy. One way or the other it has to do something more than what it is doing today, or else give up the ghost on its institutions completely.