Church ethics permeate private not public hospitals

Controversy about ethical codes overstates church influence in healthcare

Agitation over the Catholic bishops Code of Ethical Standards for Healthcare in recent weeks was greatly exaggerated.

Relevant healthcare facilities are not run by the bishops but by religious congregations and, as the bishops' spokesman Martin Long pointed out, "the governance of individual hospitals and the application of an ethos in these institutions is a matter for the board or the religious order concerned".

To illustrate the guarded independence of such hospital boards, you need only go back to the 2013 Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act, which set out the circumstances where an abortion may be performed in Ireland.

The board of Dublin’s Mater hospital, run by the Sisters of Mercy, said it would “comply with the law as provided for in the Act”.


A short time beforehand Fr Kevin Doran, a member of the hospital's board of directors and board of governors, said "the Mater can't carry out abortions because it goes against its ethos."

He resigned from both boards when the Mater issued its statement

Fr Doran is now Bishop of Elphin and chair of the Bishops' Consultative Group on Bioethics and Life which helped prepare the recently published Code of Ethical Standards for Healthcare.

In another check to authority, Doran was public reprimanded by Minister for Health Simon Harris at the weekend when he tweeted "Please just make it stop" in response to the bishop telling a conference it was "lopsided" to regard marriage as "simply a loving relationship" in which procreation was regarded as "an optional extra".

"Humanae Vitae (the 1968 papal encyclical which banned all artificial means of contraception) teaches that every act of intercourse should be open in principle to the gift of life," the bishop had said.

Contraception policy

In his tweet, Harris continued: “Increasing access to & availability of contraception is and will remain public health policy. Religion plays an important role for many on an individual basis – but it will not determine health and social policy in our country any more. Please get that.”

Yes, it is true some bishops may chair the boards of some hospitals and so on, but in effect these positions remain more nominal than real. For instance, the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin is chair of the National Maternity Hospital board at Holles Street in Dublin. He has never attended a meeting.

The truth is that the bishops have no say in any maternity hospital in the State. None is run by the church. In Dublin, the Rotunda, Holles Street and the Coombe hospitals are independently run but funded by the Health Service Executive, as are Cork University Maternity Hospital, Kerry General Hospital in Tralee, South Tipperary General Hospital, St Luke's Kilkenny, University Hospital Waterford and Wexford General Hospital.

So too with the Galway University Hospital, Letterkenny General Hospital, Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar, Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, Sligo General Hospital, University Maternity Hospital Limerick, the Cavan/Monaghan Hospital Group, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, the Midland Regional Hospital Mullingar and the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise.

All supply healthcare services which are compatible with the law of the land rather than a particular denominational ethos.

Yes, there are hospitals in Ireland which supply services solely in line with a Catholic ethos. But these are all in the private healthcare sector, which raises its own questions.

Included would be the Mater private clinics run by the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Drogheda, Mitchelstown, Mallow, Mullingar, Navan and Sligo. There is also St Vincent's private hospital run by the Sisters of Charity.

In Dublin too there are the Blackrock and Hermitage clinics, as well as the Galway clinic, all founded by Dr James Sheehan and run in accordance with a Catholic ethos.

‘Right to life’

Dr Sheehan is a patron of the Iona Institute, which "promotes the place of marriage and religion in society" as well as "freedom of conscience and religion and the right to life". Then there are those private hospitals/clinics run by the Bon Secours congregation in Dublin, Cork, Galway, an outreach clinic in Cavan, Tralee, Limerick, and its care village in Cork.

It means those Catholics who wish to abide solely by the church’s teaching on contraception, sterilisation, in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and abortion have a choice. They can go either public or private but must have health insurance to avail of the latter.

It raises an inevitable question, and not because of healthcare issues involved. What are the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, and the Bon Secours Sisters doing in the business of private medicine? And private medicine is a business, even if those running it in these cases do so on a not-for-profit basis. In Ireland, private healthcare is available to the 43 per cent who can afford health insurance.

Dubliner Catherine McAuley set up the Sisters of Mercy in 1831 “to provide medical care for the sick and poor of Dublin city”. The Mater was opened in 1861 as “somewhere the sick poor could go without having to know someone or pay money”. It says so on the Mater’s website.

The Sisters of Charity were founded in Dublin by Cork woman Mary Aikenhead in 1815. In 1834, they set up St Vincent's hospital in Dublin. It was open to all who could afford its services, irrespective of religious persuasion. Some consistency there, then.

In 1824, the Bon Secours Sisters were set up in Paris “to care for the sick and dying in their own homes”. In 1861, they came to Ireland where they “continued their mission of caring for the sick and dying in their own homes”. They grew from there. So it says on their website.

Why are these religious congregations running hospitals and healthcare facilities that are only available to the 43 per cent in Ireland who can afford their services?

How is any of this compatible with the “marginalised” beloved of Pope Francis? Or a church “which is poor and for the poor” such as he has said he longs for?

Should Catholic religious congregations be involved at all in running our most expensive hospitals any more than in running our most expensive schools? And an explanation that “the rich have souls too” – as one senior cleric once put it to me – does not really wash.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent

* This article was edited on August 8th, 2018, to note that the Rotunda, Coombe and Holles St are independently run but funded by the HSE.