THE announcement that the Sisters of Charity will not be involved in a new national maternity hospital must have been a bitter pill to swallow for the order, the Catholic hierarchy and the wider tradition of Irish Catholicism.
The nuns, their clerical colleagues and their lay supporters may feel they are being marginalised by an increasingly intolerant, cold society.
They may feel that their contribution to the development of this society — it was defining and spectacular — is being cast aside rather too enthusiastically by the very entity they did so much to create.
Be that as it may, the order must be congratulated on recognising that Ireland has changed — and that we will change again.
The sisters must be thanked for accepting that their well-intentioned, belief-driven involvement in a new maternity hospital would be so contentious that it would prove counterproductive and ultimately destructive.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to characterise the decision as a victory or a defeat, it is rather a milestone along the road every society travels.
Principles, relationships and the influence of the Catholic church that seemed permanent a century ago — or even a half century ago — have not endured.
The demand for secular, unaligned maternity services and schools are manifestations of that change. It is likely there will be more.
This change, and it is profound, would not have come about but for the courage of one man who put principle before position — Dr Peter Boylan.
He resigned from the NMH board over the proposal that the Sisters of Charity be given ownership of the new hospital.
He was convinced, and it is just silly to disagree, that ownership meant influence — despite assurances from politicians and his peers.
Like all whistleblowers in this circle-the-wagons society, Dr Boylan was excoriated but yesterday he was vindicated.
That decision, probably taken because the sisters could no longer have the influence they sought, would not have come about without his bravery.
The Bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran, had a huge, if unintended, influence too.
By reminding us that Catholic religious orders are obliged to insist that Catholic teaching shapes any institution owned by a Catholic order he brought the wishful thinking of those who thought the Sisters of Charity might be silent, compliant partners to an end.
His admirable honesty should give the politicians and Dr Boylan’s colleagues pause for thought.
Those who sought his resignation from the NMH board are now in an uncomfortable position.
The challenge now is to build a world-class maternity hospital. It is the greatest tragedy of this rite of passage that the very place to find the idealism needed for such a task are the founding ambitions of the Sisters of Charity, which recognise “the right of everyone to access the care and treatment they need to achieve the best possible health care outcomes, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender or personal means”. Those are uplifting ambitions, we have yet to meet them .
They remind us that the human rights we expect today are a secular expression of the great European tradition of Christianity. Yesterday’s announcement means that if we fail in these objectives we have no one to blame but ourselves.
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