Sisters’ surprise maternity hospital move recognises modern Ireland

St Vincent’s order was not blind to clash of Catholic values with more liberal laws

Maternity hospital protests: the Sisters of Charity’s decision to quit healthcare was hastened by the public reaction to reports that the order would have owned the new National Maternity Hospital. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Maternity hospital protests: the Sisters of Charity’s decision to quit healthcare was hastened by the public reaction to reports that the order would have owned the new National Maternity Hospital. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw


Well, that was a surprise. Not that the Religious Sisters of Charity have withdrawn from healthcare. But that they have done so now.

The agreement reached last November between St Vincent’s Healthcare Group and the National Maternity Hospital was clear that when the maternity hospital moved from Holles Street, in central Dublin, to the Elm Park campus it would be owned by a new subsidiary of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group.

That group, comprising St Vincent’s University Hospital and St Vincent’s Private Hospital, at Elm Park, and St Michael’s Hospital, in Dún Laoghaire, was owned by the Sisters of Charity.

Under the November agreement ownership of the new maternity hospital would also rest with St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, which is to say the sisters, a fact that nobody remarked on at the time.

It was further agreed that four of the nine directors at the new hospital would be nominated by St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, and four by the National Maternity Hospital.

Significantly, the remaining director would be an independent expert selected by a subcommittee of three, two of whom would represent St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. So in fact the Sisters of Charity would control the new maternity hospital, too.

As ownership was already agreed this structure assured compliance with “the requirement set out in the SVHG Constitution, to conduct and maintain the SVHG facilities in accordance with The Religious Sisters of Charity Health Service Philosophy and Ethical Code”, as it was described in yesterday’s statement.

This was the sisters’ right – and, indeed, their duty as a Catholic religious congregation. As owners of the new hospital they had no choice.

But they were not blind to the situation this placed them in when it came to compliance with the increasingly liberal laws of the State surrounding reproductive health in a publicly funded context.

It presented them with another ethical issue: the legitimacy of denying legal treatments at a publicly funded hospital. It was expected that, to remove themselves from this dilemma, they would agree a long-term lease with the State for the site of the new maternity hospital at Elm Park. Over recent weeks it emerged they could not sell the site, as it is collateral for money borrowed to build St Vincent’s Private Hospital. A lease seemed the only option available.

Now they have gone a radical step further. Their complete withdrawal from St Vincent’s Healthcare Group is recognition of a more diverse Ireland but also an acknowledgment of their own critical situation.

With just over 200 members and an average age of 76, they are today most acutely concerned, like other religious congregations, with the care of elderly colleagues. It has also been the case for some time, as they pointed out yesterday, that they “no longer have any direct involvement in the provision of healthcare services”. It was also why “for the last two years we have been actively working to find the best way to relinquish our shareholding of the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group”.

There can be little doubt this decision was hastened by the strongly negative public reaction to reports last month that the order would own the new National Maternity Hospital.

It should be made clear, though, that most clergy and religious accept, as it was put by the Association of Catholic Priests, “the principle that a National Maternity Hospital must be in full compliance with the laws of the land, and that no particular group or religious affiliation can dictate what is or is not permissible therein”.

It was also difficult not to agree with the association when it said “some of the language and expressions” used about the sisters, and nuns in general, during the controversy were “both distasteful and unfair”. The Religious Sisters of Charity “contributed greatly to our society over the past 200 years, especially in the areas of education and healthcare”, and “the vast majority of them served church and country selflessly”, it recalled.

Such hostility towards the nuns prompted the theologian Fr Gabriel Daly to observe that “Irish ex-Catholic atheists sometimes seem to be as uncritical in their religious unbelief as their forebears were in their religious beliefs”. It is hard to disagree.

The French statesman Talleyrand famously said of the Bourbon royal family, after the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1814, that they “had learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. Some in Ireland today do a good imitation of the Bourbons, particularly when the Catholic Church is involved.