Over the last two weeks, when not enthralled with the Punchestown races, Ireland has been entranced by the publicity firestorm raging around the proposed relocation of the National Maternity Hospital from Dublin City to a new facility to be built on the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital, a large, up-to-date teaching hospital in South Dublin affiliated to University College Dublin. The burning issue is the transfer of ownership of the hospital to the Sisters of Charity who own the land. Although approved almost unanimously by the Board of Governors, the transfer of ownership was immediately denounced by a number of political and media figures. Two members of the board resigned in protest this week.
Although the hospital would be administered by an independent corporation, barring interference by the sisters or the Church, the tarnished reputation of the Sisters of Charity, who operated the now-infamous Magdalene Laundries in the mid-20th century, seems sufficient warrant to many for the objections. More is obviously at stake, however, as the rhetorical bombast has often centered on the Catholic Church itself.
The public expressions of outrage probably evince more a revulsion toward the past behavior of church figures than some deep-seated hatred of the Church itself, but sometimes it is difficult to separate the two. The figure of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid casts a long shadow over 20th-century Ireland. Without doubt there was plenty of collusion between the DeValera government and the ecclesiastical establishment. The stern hand of moral guardianship outlived De Valera and McQuaid, surviving until successive referenda decriminalized homosexuality, permitted divorce, and loosened some restrictions on abortion. But the intransigence of the hierarchy in the face of growing public support for more liberal and compassionate attitudes in law and life undoubtedly contributed to popular alienation from church authority.
Recent events added considerable fuel to the fire. The Mother and Baby Homes scandal, brought to light in recent months, involving hundreds of cases of infant deaths that were improperly reported and largely unexplained, figured prominently. But there were other instances that over the last few years have cast a very dark shadow over past Church-State social schemes, among them the shocking revelations involving the Industrial Schools, the Magdalene Laundries, dozens of clerical sexual abuse cases, the badly-handled Bishop Casey affair (resurrected by his death last month), and a long history of institutional misogyny and entrenched sexism.
According to the 2016 census, three densely populated areas, Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire, and Galway City, reported that more than a third of the population regard themselves as non-Catholic. Among counties, Tipperary had the lowest percentage at 12.9%. Civil marriage is on the increase, and the nationalization of church-run schools is well underway. Vocations have withered alarmingly. Many parishes no longer have residential clergy and some offer no services at all.
Most recently, an 18 months-long Citizens Assembly finished its deliberations regarding repealing or replacing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, introduced in 1983, which prohibits abortion. Prompted by highly publicized and deeply troubling issues arising over a decade ago, both on humanitarian grounds and because of pressure from the EU, 99 randomly selected citizens have been poring over thousands of pages of testimony, discussing and debating possible interventions by the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament.
Last week the members of the assembly voted overwhelmingly (87%) to recommend that the Eighth Amendment should not be retained in its current form. Only twelve members (13%) voted to retain the articles in full, close to the 16% reported of Ireland’s citizens in a national poll.
It will probably take generations for the Irish Church to recover its credibility and moral authority. It is hardly surprising that church affiliation and attendance have declined markedly over the past two decades, especially among the young, despite occasional periods of recovery between scandals. Nor is it surprising that there is plenty of evidence today of bias and in some cases political as well as journalistic antipathy against religion itself in all its forms. It sells papers and creates celebrities. But it does not in itself solve deeply troubling moral dilemmas. That takes time and a commodity in increasingly short supply, good will.