Monday 20 May 2019

Colette Browne: Papal visit will remind us just how tangled Church and State still are

Pope Francis, left, meets Taoiseach Enda Kenny, right, during a private audience in the Vatican yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Alessandra Tarantino
Pope Francis, left, meets Taoiseach Enda Kenny, right, during a private audience in the Vatican yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Alessandra Tarantino
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The Ireland that Pope Francis visits in 2018 will be vastly different to the theocracy his predecessor John Paul II toured in 1979, but the Catholic Church's grip on education and healthcare remains as tightly clenched as before.

According to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, we're all friends again. After a brief spat in 2011, when Mr Kenny rightly eviscerated the Vatican for its wilful failure to adequately investigate decades of clerical child sexual abuse in this country, relations are now much improved.

"I explained [to Pope Francis] my own difficulties with the Church some years ago and was happy to confirm that Church-State relations are in better shape now than they were for very many years," said Mr Kenny, speaking after his 25-minute meeting with the Pontiff.

So, I suppose this means Mr Kenny no longer thinks "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism" continue to "dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day".

Although, the opinion of some high-profile Irish priests who have been silenced by the Vatican, and whose plight Mr Kenny raised, may be different.

Much like the recent visit of Queen Elizabeth II to this country was billed as an opportunity to put old enmities firmly to rest, the Papal visit is shaping up as an exercise in showing a former coloniser how well we're getting on without it.

We may have introduced divorce, same-sex marriage and legalised contraception, but the number of wife-swapping sodomites among the population is still relatively low and the dystopian future senior members of the Church warned would be a consequence of these social changes has yet to materialise.

However, before we all go searching for our 'Yes to Equality' badges and smugly congratulate ourselves on how well we've delineated the separate roles of Church and State, a couple of issues arise.

Firstly, while Mr Kenny may now be happy with the Vatican's response to child sex abuse scandals, did he happen to raise the delicate issue of how much money religious orders continue to owe the State for the vile acts of abuse perpetrated by their members?

In 2009, the Ryan Report, which revealed "endemic" rape and abuse of children in residential institutions, recommended the religious orders that ran them pay 50pc of the costs of a €1.5bn redress scheme.

To date, those religious congregations remain €245m short in satisfying this amount, having only agreed to contribute €480m of the €725m sought by the State.

While Pope Francis has previously apologised to the victims of sexual abuse, those words ring hollow when religious congregations continue to shirk their financial responsibility to those victims.

As the State continues to grapple with the historic vestiges of religious control of vulnerable children, it has all but given up in its attempt to dilute the monopoly the Church enjoys when it comes to the provision of primary education. Yesterday, this newspaper reported that attempts to introduce a new religious curriculum to primary schools have been scuppered by the Church, which has refused to countenance any change.

Currently, half an hour of school time each day is devoted to religious instruction and faith formation - the second-highest allocation anywhere in the developed world after Israel, an explicitly Jewish state.

Last year, it had been hoped that some of the time the Church currently uses to indoctrinate children into its own religion, could instead be used to teach them about other religions and ethics. However, the Church has now dismissed any likelihood of that happening in the 90pc of primary schools it continues to control.

If parents had some choice about where to send their children to school, then this intransigence would not be so problematic. Regrettably, with the Church divesting just eight schools of its patronage between 2011 and 2015, choice remains elusive.

Consequently, many parents are forced to baptise children into a religion they don't subscribe to just so their children can get an education that is paid for by a supposedly secular State. In almost every other Western democracy, this would be a scandal. Here, politicians shrug and blithely accept it as a quirk of the system.

Similarly, the reluctance of the National Maternity Hospital to move to a new facility on the St Vincent's campus, if the Religious Sisters of Charity-owned institution controlled corporate governance, highlighted the extent to which religious orders are still enmeshed in the provision of healthcare.

Dr Peter Boylan, chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Ireland, said he had deep concerns about the Sisters of Charity exerting any control over maternity services.

"Catholic-controlled hospitals around the world forbid the provision of modern contraceptive services, IVF, sterilisation operations, and gender-reassignment surgery. We also have concerns in this respect about the implementation of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act," he said.

That spat was recently resolved, but only after the maternity hospital received guarantees it would retain clinical and operational independence in the provision of maternity, gynaecology, obstetrics and neonatal services.

The fact that doctors were so alarmed about the possibility of religious ethos trumping medical best practice should be deeply worrying for everyone in the State.

A related issue is the matter of abortion and the draconian ban that results in nearly 4,000 women being exported every year and many more being forced, through poverty and circumstance, to give birth in this country against their will.

Given anti-choice groups' criticism of the meddling of foreign billionaires in the abortion debate, one can only assume they will be trenchantly opposed to any attempt to time the visit of the Pope to coincide with a referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

Perhaps this will be the impetus for the Government to deal expeditiously with the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly and hold any referendum as early as possible.

While Pope Francis is welcome to come to Ireland, and his visit will be an occasion that many Catholics will celebrate, let's not fool ourselves into believing we have yet achieved the status of an independent secular State.

Irish Independent

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