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Catholic ‘ethos’ was about faith and practice - and land, property, control and power

NMH controversy is a legacy of the historic relationship between the Church and state

This summer 50 years ago it was becoming clear that demands for access to contraception could no longer be contained or suppressed. As a member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement on the Belfast-Dublin “Contraceptive Train” in May 1971, June Levine pleaded for decorum as her sister crusader Mary Kenny blew up condoms to balloon size and then collapsed with laughter “as she let go of the end and the thing went shooting round the carriage”. Amidst the novelty and humorous defiance there was a seriousness about the political pressure building because of the activism and the taoiseach Jack Lynch said in relation to legislative reform, “I would not like to leave contraception on the long finger too long”.

But that is what happened, and the legislative long finger was paralleled by unyielding comments from the Catholic hierarchy; legalising contraceptives, insisted Catholic Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, “would be an insult to our Faith and a curse upon our country”. In another statement, the Catholic Bishops expressed “confident hope” that legislators would honour “the important principle” that “the civil law on these matters should respect the wishes of the people who elected the legislators”.

The Catholic 'ethos' was not just about faith and practice; it was also about land, property, control and the wielding of power

Those statements were born of a recognition that unquestioning obedience was under strain; there were, in tandem, increasing demands for lay involvement in the management of education. A key issue was negotiating the parameters of the church-state relationship in relation to these areas; as Dominican sister and historian Margaret Mac Curtain characterised it, issues traditionally deemed to be bound up with religious faith were now, for some, thought to lie in “the domain of justice”. There was also something of an identity crisis for priests, highlighted in a range of publications aimed at an educated Catholic audience, religious and lay: a Jesuit contributor to that identity debate in June 1971 asked his peers to imagine a suburb in the early 21st century “where the number of Mass goers has dropped from 100 per cent to 25 per cent”.

That came to pass, of course, but the Catholic “ethos” that had been built over the previous century was never going to dissipate quickly. That was not just about faith and practice; it was also about land, property, control and the wielding of power, which is why we are still discussing, this time in the context of the new National Maternity Hospital, the contours of the relationship between the state and the Catholic ethos.


There has been much talk in recent years about the sisters 'gifting' this land 'to the Irish people', but the reality is muddier

Born in 1977, journalist Derek Scally, author of the recent book The Best Catholics in the World, grew up in Dublin, as “a member of the last generation to have a full Irish Catholic childhood”. One of the things that struck him most when he began his exploration of the evolution of Irish Catholicism was the historic wealth and power alliances involved and the bogus holy tapestry woven around these decidedly material matters. He describes sitting in the Dublin Diocesan Archives looking at documentation regarding the financing of new parish churches in the 1950s and 1960s; how the Church sourced land at cost from local authorities, bought it with borrowed money, built their magnificent edifices then transferred the overdraft to the parish and lent on the parishioners to pay it off. The fundraising was brazen and “non-participating families” were pressurised: “no gift can be worthy unless it costs us an effort – it must be something we will miss”.

Building and controlling hospitals had long been another preoccupation. As founder of the Sisters of Charity, Mother Mary Aikenhead established the original St Vincent’s Hospital in 1834 and responded piously to concerns about funding by insisting her resource was the “Bank of Divine Providence”. It was no such thing of course; Aikenhead was gifted large sums and successfully appealed for public subscriptions from “many good Samaritans”. The Sisters of Charity were also major beneficiaries of the hospital sweepstakes funds in order to build their hospital on the Elm Park site while the Order insisted at the same time it was only accountable to itself.

There has been much talk in recent years about the sisters “gifting” this land “to the Irish people”, but the reality is muddier. Last year, as Minister for Health, Simon Harris rightly thanked the sisters for their relentless work through the years to provide healthcare to those in need and suggested the transfer of the lands to St Vincent’s Holdings CLG “will remove any remaining concerns that a religious influence might be brought to bear on the governance of the new National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park”. St Vincent’s Holdings, however, is not “the people of Ireland” but, in Peter Boylan’s words, “the successor to the Sisters of Charity with the same, Catholic, core values”. As protesting women will make clear this weekend, like their feminist predecessors did 50 years ago, this issue cannot remain “on the long finger too long”.