Catholic Church’s influence over Irish hospital medicine persists

Nuns sit on St Vincent’s board of directors and doctors must sign contracts promising adherence to hospital ethos

The Institute of Obstetricians has expressed concern that St Vincent's hospital, which is owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity, will govern the National Maternity Hospital when it transfers to the St Vincent's campus. Chairman Dr Peter Boylan stated that "Catholic-controlled hospitals around the world forbid the provision of modern contraceptive services, IVF, sterilisation operations and gender reassignment surgery", and also expressed concern about the implementation of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act.

Despite a common perception of secularisation, many modern Irish hospitals are still run according to Catholic mores. The running of the Irish health service was largely undertaken by religious orders in the past. Orders of nuns were responsible for the setting up of many of Ireland’s hospitals in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1978, the then archbishop of Dublin, Dr Dermot Ryan, asked all Catholic hospitals to set up ethical committees which would "set out clearly ethical policy, both for the day to day running of the hospital and for the problem cases".

This request was accompanied by an ethical code which stated: “The concern of the hospital for the good of the patient is not confined to his bodily and mental welfare but extends to the spiritual wellbeing which is inseparably connected with bodily and mental welfare.” The 1980s marked a difficult period between church and State on the issue of negotiation of the “common contract” pursuant to which the State was established as the employer of hospital consultants, including those working in Catholic voluntary hospitals.


Bind doctors

These hospitals were concerned that the contract did not bind doctors to a Catholic ethos. In later years, there followed a change in ownership of some of the voluntary hospitals. Nonetheless, the influence of religious orders was preserved. For example, in 2001 the Sisters of Mercy sold the Mater hospital to the State with the contingency that its Catholic ethos, first espoused by the order's founder Catherine McAuley, be retained.

The mission of St Vincent’s is described as being: “To bring the healing love of Christ to all we serve.” The first core value is “human dignity respecting the sacredness of human life and the dignity and uniqueness of each person”.

Nuns are on the board of directors and doctors must sign contracts promising adherence to the ethos of the hospital.

There are myriad ways in which the law of the State has reflected and continues to reflect Catholic thinking on certain reproductive/life issues, such as the constitutional ban on abortion and the fact that Ireland was the last country in Europe to legalise the sale of modern contraception. However, hospital treatment which goes beyond the dictates of the law is also relevant. Both the Mater and St Vincent's prohibit female sterilisation, a standard procedure which is not illegal, and is carried out in non-Catholic-run institutions, as well as other treatment centres. In the 2006 Lourdes hospital inquiry report, Judge Maureen Harding Clark highlighted that the "prohibition on sterilisations" gave rise to the performance of what have been described as compassionate hysterectomies.

Between the 1940s and 1980s, the barbaric symphysiotomy procedure was performed in preference to Caesarean sections, a decision driven by religious ideology.

Further evidence that medical care at State-funded hospitals is often influenced by the religious views of board members surfaced in 1994, when the Mater banned HIV- prevention leaflets and posters from its Aids unit. The hospital’s chief executive agreed the Catholic ethos was a factor in this decision.


The chairman of St Vincent’s quickly dismissed as sensational the “tale of nuns attempting to control Irish maternity services”. However, history shows that ethos affects treatment. The concerns of the Institute of Obstetricians ought perhaps be given more consideration.

Claire Hogan is a barrister and has a doctorate in the area of constitutional freedom of religion