Christianity basically invented the idea of what we now call separation of Church and State. Taking up Christ’s words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”, the idea of an appropriate separation emerged as healthy for both Church and State.
A mature understanding of the separation of Church and State does not prevent tension – nor does it prevent the Church criticising the State or vice versas nor each acting within the legitimate sphere. Take, for example, when the Church appeared unwilling or unable to face the scourge of clerical sexual abuse. The State ordered public inquiries and effectively forced much more stringent oversight of the Church.
Likewise, the Church has a right – and indeed a responsibility – to stand up to the State for the poor and the powerless. This is why Church representatives are constantly (and correctly) speaking up for concrete action on climate change, the right for a family to earn a decent living and have a place to call home, the right of the unborn to be born and the right for people living with a disability not to be euthanised.
Irish politics has long had an almost bipolar approach to the separation of Church and State. In his speech to Pope Francis three years ago in Dublin Castle, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar thanked the Pontiff for the Church’s huge contribution to building up the Irish State. His subsequent comments could be summed up simply with the phrase: we’ll take it from here. Mr Varadkar then proposed the idea of a covenant between Church and State to deal with contentious issues.
One such contentious issues which has caused no end of hyperventilating from politicians in the last couple of years is the issue of the proposed new national maternity hospital and the role, if any, of the Religious Sisters of Charity in owning the land.
From the Taoiseach Micheál Martin down, politicians have been solemnly proclaiming that the era of Church involvement in healthcare must be at an end. The Church taking responsibility for what should be the State’s job, we are constantly told, is of a different era.
Imagine my surprise then, to see that the Republic’s Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has written to Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin asking if the Church could provide land to build public housing in a bid to alleviate the very housing crisis that the present coalition came to power promising to fix.
So, is the current Government thinking that that the Catholic influence should move from healthcare to housing? I doubt it. It seems more likely that Government advisers are increasingly annoyed that senior Church people are becoming more and more vocal about the housing crisis and the devastating effects on families and individuals.
Mr O’Brien said he was hopeful the Church would provide land for the State to build homes in the future – thankfully he also acknowledged that it is, in fact, the responsibility of the State to provide housing.
The intervention is all the more curious when one considers that the State is not exactly short of access to taxpayer-owned land. A 2019 investigation found that local authorities were ‘sitting’ on land that could provide 114,000 dwellings across the State.
There is also the fact that it’s not exactly as if the Church and religious congregations are not already doing some serious heavy lifting. Whether it is Focus Ireland founded by Sr Stanislaus Kennedy RSC, the Fr Peter McVerry Trust or Sophia Housing, faith-inspired organisations have been to the fore. Religious congregations have also gifted valuable land to provide housing for members of the travelling community and worked closely with local authorities to make land available for housing where this will enhance the dignity of vulnerable people.
The Church will, of course, continue to do so and it must also continue speaking out when the State is failing citizens. Social housing is only one part of the jigsaw: vast swathes of people earning what would be considered a decent salary are also effectively locked out because there is a lack of affordable or cost-rental property.
Let’s hope the minister’s intervention is not a stunt and that officials in his department will now identify lands it wishes to purchase and should then offer the Church the fair market value for those properties.
The State cannot have it both ways. The Church should be open to a collaborative relationship with the State, but the State should not be allowed merely to benefit from this when it suits.
It’s also time for a serious discussion about that covenant.