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Fintan O’Toole: A Baptism barrier would solve our hospital crisis

The A&E crisis could easily be solved in Catholic hospitals by turning away infidels

The very fact that non-Catholics arrogantly expect the same treatment as everybody else is a challenge to the whole concept of faith-based medicine. Photograph: iStock

I have a modest proposal to help ease the terrible congestion in our A&E departments. Patients turning up at Catholic hospitals should be required to show their baptismal certificates. Give priority to the faithful; turn away the infidels. Admittedly, this would not work for every hospital, but it would cover some of the more overcrowded A&E departments: St Vincent’s and the Mater in Dublin, the Mercy in Cork. The unbaptised could try their luck elsewhere. If they’re genuinely desperate, they can ask a chaplain to do the needful.

This may seem a bit harsh, but the principle is surely well established in another major field of public services, education. Everyone has a right to be treated in the publicly funded hospital system, just as every child has a right to an education in publicly funded primary and secondary schools. Our primary schools and most of our secondary schools are in theory private “voluntary” institutions, but in practice State-funded bodies – just as the Catholic hospitals are. Health and education are both recognised as public goods, and access to them is equally central to dignity and citizenship. Given these similarities, there would seem to be no good reason why the method we use in one area (education) to ration access to public provision – the baptismal certificate – should not be used in the other (healthcare).

The infidels may claim discrimination, of course. But they have only themselves to blame. Why have they not set up their own hospitals? Are they not perfectly free to do so? We could call this pluralism and diversity, which would make it sound nice. Admittedly, since the State effectively pays for the Catholic hospitals just as it pays for the Catholic schools, this would be extremely expensive for the unfortunate taxpayer. But this consideration is of no account in the education system – the defenders of the Baptism barrier suggest that every faith group, from Hindus to Jedi, Muslims to atheists, should set up its own educational network at public expense.

Not comparable?

It may be objected that health and education, even though they are both public services, are not really comparable. One is science-based, while the other is value-driven. Best medical practice is the same everywhere, but teaching is a way to pass on beliefs (which are often bitterly contested) as well as facts. But this distinction does not really hold up. If we were to accept that medicine is a science, why would we have any public hospitals under religious control? Why would we not just let doctors, managers and patients get on with giving and receiving care?

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It may also be objected that discrimination against infidels in the allocation of primary school places is coming to an end. Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced plans for the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which he hopes to see enacted this year, to stop Catholic primary schools discriminating against unbaptised children. But the Catholic bishops and trustee and management bodies for Catholic schools have made it clear that they will challenge this on constitutional grounds.

As Carl O'Brien reported in this newspaper, a submission to the department from the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association says Bruton's plan is part of a "secularisation agenda aimed mainly at the Catholic Church" and adds threateningly that "We note that such a process may also open the State to a multiplicity of civil suits by those parents who wish to retain a Catholic faith ethos of their children … it would be very difficult to uphold the constitutionality of such a legislative choice." The Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools likewise claims that "the present proposal appears to be part of a process of encroachment on parental rights, property rights and the capacity of faith schools to provide a faith-based education for those who opt for same."

Faith-based medicine

These arguments are very encouraging for my modest proposal. The sacred property rights of Catholic hospitals would surely permit them to turn infidels away from A&E departments. Non-Catholics turning up at the Mater or St Vincent’s or the Mercy could, in a certain light, be seen as harbingers of a secularisation agenda. The very fact that they arrogantly expect the same treatment as everybody else is a challenge to the whole concept of faith-based medicine.

The Catholic education trustees insist that primary schools must be maintained as a “living faith environment”. Why should Catholic hospitals be any different? That would concede that some kind of evolution has taken place in both Irish society and Irish Catholicism. It would imply that we have reached a point where a religious history can be honoured while ceding power, control and ownership. If we ever accepted that, the game would be up for an education system based on religious segregation. And that, of course, is exactly what the secularisationists want.

Of course, we have to be compassionate and tolerant. It must be stressed that the Baptism barrier would be applied in hospitals only when there is a shortage of capacity, with too many patients trying to get into too few beds. This is, of course, a rare and exceptional situation. The rest of the time, we can turn a blind eye to the presence of the infidel.