Decision by nuns a major turning point in healthcare in the State

Other church institutions likely to follow example of Sisters of Charity

The story behind the Sisters of Charity decision to end their involvement with St Vincent's Hospital.

The announcement by the Sisters of Charity that they are ending their involvement with St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin after 183 years is a major turning point in the history of religious involvement in Irish healthcare.

It also represents a huge victory for “people power”, much of it expressed online after controversy erupted last month over the fact that the nuns would, through their ownership of St Vincent’s, would also take control of the new national maternity hospital to be built there.

The “people” who made the running on the issue were unhappy at the extent of religious involvement in health, and absolutely incensed at the notion that this involvement might be increased further though the “gifting” of ownership of the maternity hospital to the Sisters of Charity.

In Dr Peter Boylan, former master of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH), this viewpoint found a somewhat unlikely yet hugely articulate and determined hero. Now in retirement, Dr Boylan spoke out against the interests of his alma mater, which had already signed up to the deal mediated last November that would give the nuns ultimately ownership of the site.


For his efforts, he was effectively forced to resign from the board of Holles Street. In the court of public opinion, however, he emerged as a clear victor in the debate. Repeatedly he asked why the State was gifting a €300 million project to a religious order, yet his questions went unanswered.

It is true, as the NMH tried to point out, that the ownership issue would have little sway over the vast majority of work carried out in the new facility. Last November’s agreement also contained guarantees of clinical independence for the maternity hospital, though a closer examination of the document unpicked these to some extent.

Catholic ethos

The nub of the issue lay in the seeming conflict between the Catholic ethos prevailing in St Vincent’s, and which could then also apply to the new maternity hospital, and procedures which are incompatible with that ethos.

Would it be possible to provide abortions in the new hospital as permitted by law, which seems likely to change in the coming years? This was the central question underlying the debate.

As Dr Boylan pointed out, no Catholic hospital in the world permits such procedures to be carried out within its walls.

While the internet thinks in seconds, the Catholic church thinks in the context of generations and even centuries. This faultline led to speculation, much of its exaggerated and unfair, about the nuns’ intentions. The Sisters of Charity are no longer actively involved in providing healthcare and their numbers are dwindling.

They may have been looking already at other way to structure their affairs but given the opaque nature of their communications we don’t know. What is clear is that the past month’s controversy has accelerated a process that may otherwise have taken years or even decades.

This is a sudden, even ignominious, end to decades of provision of care for the sick and the needy.

For the Catholic church, it may not end there. It seems likely that other church institutions involved in health and education may beat a hasty retreat in the face of deep-seat public antipathy to their continuing involvement in these areas of society.