Echoes of church teachings resonate loudly

Wed, Jun 6, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:SOME OF it we hardly notice: the Angelus bells, the hospital wards named after saintly figures, the crucifixes in the classrooms. They are so much a part of Irish life that they seem to fade into the background. But apart from religious names and iconography, what real and meaningful influence does the Catholic Church have on society today?

On one level, the church is undergoing hard times. Numbers attending Mass are falling, with fewer than one in five Catholics in Dublin attending. The number of vocations has slowed to a trickle. The institution’s reputation as a moral guardian has been battered relentlessly by revelations of clerical child sex abuse and cover-ups.

But on another level, despite several decades of social and moral upheaval, the church retains a great deal of residual power and influence in society. Nine out of 10 of the 3,129 primary schools are controlled by the church under a patronage system introduced 180 years ago. Many of the State’s largest publicly funded hospitals are owned or controlled by Catholic religious orders such as the Sisters of Mercy or the Religious Sisters of Charity.

Even in sport, the basic unit of the GAA’s administrative culture – the club – is still defined by Catholic parish boundaries.

Whether the Catholic Church can maintain this influence in the face of blurry social change and a sometimes hostile political environment is another matter.

Take the education system. The church’s dominance of primary schools has left little or no choice for many parents of different faiths or those who want to bring their children up in a secular environment. It’s a situation that has drawn criticism from groups such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe, Europe’s human rights watchdog.

There had been hints of a big bang approach to loosening the grip of the church on primary-school management. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said as much when he anticipated as many as 50 per cent of the 3,000-plus Catholic schools could be transferred to other forms of patronage before long. Senior Catholic figures baulked at the notion, indicating a figure close to 10 per cent would be more appropriate.

The first phase of the road-map for the transfer of patronage proved relatively modest. An advisory group has recommended identifying 50 schools in Dublin and 43 Irish towns for changing patronage where demand for multi-denominational education is greatest. The report also advocates extensive parental consultation and co-ordination with patrons of primary schools: a process that most commentators agree will take years.

In any case, divesting many schools of their Catholic patronage will not be easy. In recent years, religious orders have transferred hundreds of schools into trusts, making it difficult to transfer them into State ownership.

These include the Loreto Trust Board in Ireland (which oversees 30 schools), the Edmund Rice Schools Trust (responsible for 97 schools) and Ceist Catholic Education (which oversees 112 secondary schools, formerly under the care of the Sisters of Mercy and five other orders).

Most groups – including the church itself – accept there is a mismatch between school patronage and the rights of citizens in an increasingly secular and religiously diverse society.

The church’s pragmatic stance seems to be that it’s better for it to have greater control over slightly fewer schools in order to keep the Catholic ethos intact.

“I see very little point in being the patron of Catholic schools which are not truly Catholic,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said recently. “Catholic does not mean sectarian. But a Catholic school is more than just an ethos; it is more than just a school where attractive First Communion and Confirmation services are celebrated.”

While less of a political issue, the church’s influence in healthcare is also significant. Many of the State’s largest hospitals are run by Catholic religious institutes. St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin is owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity; the Mater Misericordiae is run by the Sisters of Mercy, and the Mercy University Hospital in Cork was established by the Sisters of Mercy.

While they are publicly funded, they are very much run according to a Catholic ethos. Take the Mater hospital. Its ethics committee states it “recognises the vision, mission and ethos of the hospital as enunciated by the Sisters of Mercy and [is] consistent with the ethical code for Hospitals issued from time to time by the archdiocese of Dublin”. These issues can sometimes impact on the kind of healthcare provided.

In 2005, for example, the Mater suspended its trial of a potentially life-saving cancer drug on the basis that it necessitated the use of birth control.

The hospital’s ethics committee – which included a priest and a nun – said it ran contrary to the hospital’s ethos. A resulting outcry, however, forced the hospital into a U-turn, and the trials were resumed.

In the political field, the relationship between church and State has historically been one of peaceful coexistence, with each maintaining the power of the other. Those days are over.

Relations between the Government and the church sank to an all-time low last year when Eamon Gilmore closed the State’s embassy to the Vatican. This followed unprecedented criticism of the Vatican by Taoiseach Enda Kenny over the church’s record on hindering clerical child sex abuse investigations.

Despite these changes, the echoes of the church’s social teachings still resonate loudly. Ireland’s low divorce rate and prohibition on abortion stand in contrast to most of Europe. Rites of religious passage such as christenings and church marriage are still very popular.

Catholic marriage continues to account for the bulk of weddings – 70 per cent during 2009, though down from 90 per cent in 1996. In fact, Ireland remains an overwhelmingly Catholic country, statistically speaking at least. Some 84 per cent of 3.86 million people described themselves as Roman Catholic in last year’s census.

In many ways, the Catholic Church’s influence is best summed up in those two brief, definitive words: the church. What other church – the phrase seems to say to many – could there possibly be?

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