How the ghosts of faith past haunt the future of Ireland’s new National Maternity Hospital

“There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates and the glare that obscures.”

-James Thurber

One thing that’s puzzled me in the last three weeks has been what’s at the base of the controversy in the south over the terms of the lease for the building of a new National Maternity Hospital (NMH).

Strong and genuine emotions have surfaced in the Catholic Church’s decision to retain ownership of the land that reflect how church dominated southern life in a way it didn’t in the north eastern part of the island.

I won’t dwell too much on how casually dismissive some of the political pushers of these objections (and genuine anxiety) have been of historic unionist concerns about the dominance of the Church in the south.

For me, in the Northern Ireland I grew up in, our version of the Church (a lamb more than a lion) was more an enabler than it seems it was in the south. It provided a conduit to culture, language and sport.

No doubt we had the same fiery sermons at mission time, but once you walked out of Mass, you were in a world where there the Church was just a bit part player and it had to share billing with many others.

Most of our hospitals were run by the state under local control. With exceptions the church had little look in in healthcare. Abortion was averted by the secular social conservatism of both unionism and nationalism.

So although intellectually I can understand why people want the new maternity hospital prized out of the hands of the church, even as a post religious Catholic myself I’ve no real emotional apprehension of it.

Maybe too it’s because I stopped attending Mass regularly long before the revelation of the extent of the various scandals from the church’s historic treatment of young women and a children in its care.

So I gently parted from the Church on good terms, grateful in many ways for the strong values it left me with. In contrast, those shaken out of belief by its misconduct must question every single move it makes.

It must lead them to suspect everything the Church involves itself in. And yet, I have a sense that the ghost of faith past is creating a social myopia about the degree of threat implicit in a 299 year lease.

In 2017, evangelical friends celebrated the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses which he pinned to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg: a single act that bisected the church (and Europe).

The church was burned to the ground during the seven years war (1760) and rebuilt and rededicated a hundred years later. In 300 years there may not even be a Catholic Church in any meaningful sense.

So the key question for me is: will the administration of the hospital (built and owned by the state on what remains church owned land) conform to its obligations under the law or the tenets of the Church?

Yesterday the Taoiseach called time on a debate that would do justice to the most trenchant Jesuitical of scholars around the precise meaning of the term “clinically appropriate”.

Despite reports that the phrase “clinically appropriate” would be removed, the Taoiseach has confirmed that this is not the case.

The cabinet is expected to approve the memo on Tuesday that will see the state sign a 299-year lease to build the hospital on the St Vincent’s Hospital site in Dublin.

The phrase “clinically appropriate” in the agreement sparked concerns there could be issues further down the road about provisions of abortion care.

Supporters of the deal say the phrase “clinically appropriate” is the accurate phrase to use to ensure that all services necessary for a modern maternity hospital will be provided into the future and those which are legally available in the state now.

So both sides appear to be arguing that their proposed actions would protect the women who have been waiting ten years for the green light on this project and may have to wait another ten after it’s given.

Today should see the end of the matter. But it should be a cause for a break in how the south handles its religious legacy in ways that don’t do actual harm to its own ambitions for a truly secular future.

Some of the anti Catholic tone of the debate sits very uncomfortably with me, not least this full bore attack by a former Master of the NMH in its current cramped quarters in Holles Street, Dublin:

Many of us feel we don’t need this sort of space, but that’s not the case for many of the older generation who continue to attend in fewer and fewer number in great halls like St Andrews’ Church in Westland Row.

You don’t build a diverse society by denying history or space for a once popular religion now out of favour. If Birmingham can supply Wudhu facilities at an airport, then an Irish hospital can surely provide Mass?

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