On Ireland’s ‘Catholic Ethos’

Delirious

-“If private medicine is funded by the State, why do we need private medicine?”

“Poor guy, he’s delirious”

(El Roto)

Let’s recap.

The Sisters of Mercy are the owners of the Mater hospital. The Sisters of Charity are the owners of St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Both hospitals may refuse to perform life-saving abortions because this might conflict with their religious ethos.

Both orders have refused to contribute to a compensation fund for the victims of the Magdalene Laundries owned and run by them.

So, two religious orders that ran slave institutions are the owners of publicly funded hospitals.

And not too many people seem to see anything wrong with that.

What is more, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity operated various industrial schools. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse report concluded that there was a ‘high level of severe corporal punishment’ in Goldenbridge, an institution run by the Sisters of Mercy. There was a ‘pervasive climate of fear’ in the Institution as a result.

  • ‘Children were beaten and humiliated for bed-wetting by both nuns and lay staff’.
  • ‘Bead making became an industrial activity that was pursued obsessively; the work was difficult and uncomfortable and it was painful for children’.
  • ‘Scraps were thrown out of a receptacle into the yard, and children scrambled for them.’
  • ‘Children drank out of the toilet… some children were deprived of water in an effort to cure bed-wetting, and they found water where they could.

The idea that religious orders should own hospitals paid for by the public, but with an important private and exclusive component, is regarded as something normal. The idea that religious orders should own schools paid for by the public, but with an important private and exclusive component, is regarded as something normal too.

The officially acknowledged involvement of the religious orders in deeply abusive and repressive institutions has had no effect on their ownership of hospitals funded by the public. The present Government has said it cannot compel the orders to make any contribution to the compensation fund.

(The congregations transmitted their refusal after the Government had unleashed ferocious investigative Rottweiler Martin McAleese upon the congregations.)

The priest on the board of the Mater hospital, Fr Kevin Doran, has objected to the Mater carrying out abortions. Because, he says, this would go against the ethos of the Catholic hospital.

An ethos is not very easy to define in the abstract. It can’t be characterised simply by its declared values. You also have to look at the way those values are reflected in practice.

What are the particular characteristics of the Catholic ethos in Ireland’s hospitals and schools? You can’t really say that the Catholic ethos, in hospitals, is characterised by compassion or dedication to treating sick people, because you find such things in hospitals that are not Catholic. And if it is a matter of religious belief in gospel teachings, those teachings are open to interpretation. It is their interpretation through practice that counts, but it is hard to distinguish between what flows from religious conviction and what does not. People who work in the hospitals themselves may be atheist but conduct themselves no different from their Muslim or Christian colleagues.

What we can say about the ethos of a Catholic hospital in Ireland, or a Catholic school in Ireland, is that there is no contradiction between the Catholic ethos and the ownership of private property. There is no contradiction between the Catholic ethos and excluding someone from medical treatment or access to education because they don’t have enough money.  There is no contradiction between the Catholic ethos demonstrated in Ireland’s education and health systems and capitalism.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. If we look at the history of said ethos in Ireland, we see slavery, child labour, corporal punishment and humiliation, psychological torture, the subjugation of women, and a ‘pervasive climate of fear’, to use the words of the Ryan Commission.

Well, such an ethos has served, and continues to serve, certain people rather well, both in terms of its repressive function and its ideological function. If you don’t believe you have the right to universal health care, if you don’t believe your child has the right to free education, because the education system and the health system has treated you as inferior, you are unlikely to mobilise for it.

So we might want to start talking about how this Catholic ethos serves Ireland’s ruling class and its discourse of privatisation and meritocracy, especially in relation to health and education. We might want to start talking, for instance, about the fears of Ireland’s ruling class for what might happen if women were to win abortion rights.  Because this goes a lot further than a problem of a few antediluvian priests and nuns who rear their heads every now and again.

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