Friday 6 December 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Last thing Harris needs now is an ugly dispute with Church leaders'

Welcome: Pope Francis greets people at the Assumption Cathedral in Bangkok yesterday. Photo: Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS
Welcome: Pope Francis greets people at the Assumption Cathedral in Bangkok yesterday. Photo: Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Earlier this summer Health Minister Simon Harris told a Catholic priest that judging his morality was probably above the cleric's pay grade.

Depending on your viewpoint it was a cheeky, provocative, disrespectful or populist dig at a man of the cloth.

The somewhat unedifying Twitter row was the result of Harris's support for a decision to end religious-influenced sex education classes in a non-denominational school.

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Pressure: Simon Harris is seen as enjoying a bit of 'Church-bashing'. Photo: Collins
Pressure: Simon Harris is seen as enjoying a bit of 'Church-bashing'. Photo: Collins

Fr Pádraig Ó Cochláin posted a message saying: "Beware of those who kill body and soul together. Simon's statement has its own inherent ethos which is ABC. Any But Catholic!"

There is a fine line for politicians to walk in this country between respecting the Church and bowing to its perceived might. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar managed to keep his balance when rolling out the red carpet for Pope Francis while also making it clear that he must atone for the sins of his brothers.

Harris on the other hand is seen by many in Catholic circles as a minister who enjoys a bit of Church bashing.

Despite being in his mid-30s, he has already secured "a political legacy" with his stewardship of the Repeal the Eighth referendum.

Images of young women holding "I love Simon Harris" posters as the results were being read out at Dublin Castle only added insult to the injury in the eyes of the No side.

Yet sources say Harris has no desire to get embroiled in a row with the Vatican over the new National Maternity Hospital.

There appears to be a broad consensus that the Religious Sisters of Charity (RSC) should not have any hand, act or part in the new hospital on the south side of Dublin city.

Even the nuns themselves want out - but they own the land and can't just toss the keys over to the State.

An agreement has been reached to allow for the establishment of a new company that will have clinical, operational, budgetary and financial independence in the provision of services and this was copper-fastened by the "golden share" to be held by the minister.

The idea is that the hospital will operate without any religious ethos. This should ensure there are no grey areas when it comes to treatment and medical care, including abortions.

However, fears have now been stoked that a vengeful Vatican won't sign off on the transfer of land.

In some ways it would be understandable if the top brass decided to stand in the way of progress. When under threat, humans very often react by trying to protect what they already have.

The Church is slowly being driven from our schools and our hospitals. There are fewer and fewer people going to Mass every week.

And even the visit of a Pope failed to capture the public imagination in the way one might have expected only a few years ago.

But the Government does not believe the stakes are quite as high as some of those quoted in this week's 'Irish Catholic', such as Rome-based moral theologian Fr Kevin O'Reilly.

He claims the Holy See has an obligation to block a hospital which will facilitate "an extremely liberal abortion regime".

Senior Government sources argue that it's no longer tenable for Church leaders to believe they can control hospitals. There was a time when this country saw no other option; that era has passed.

Sources said the fact the RSC has the backing of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin means the land transfer should be "a formality".

"Bureaucracy in the Vatican works a bit slower than in Ireland but the hope is we can press go on the project in the first quarter of next year," a well-placed source told the Irish Independent.

Ministers suspect the pro-life lobby is trying to play up the Vatican's role in the situation as though Pope Francis himself is having sleepless nights over it.

"The nuns are asking to be allowed out. The Pope is hardly to going to trap them in," said a Government source.

Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall said it was "shameful" that the State is waiting on Rome to green-light a maternity hospital.

Enabling works are under way at the St Vincent's site and taxpayers are already on the line for €43m regardless of what happens next.

But the relocation of the National Maternity Hospital is just one part of a jigsaw.

Around 40pc of babies born in Ireland are delivered in one of the three Dublin hospitals.

Plans are evolving for the Coombe to move to St James's Hospital, while the Rotunda will relocate to Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown.

There is big pressure on Mr Harris to get all three projects moving. The last thing he needs is a protracted row with Church leaders.

The minister has previously said religion plays "an important role for many on an individual basis - but it will not determine health and social policy in our country any more".

What happens next will be a test of whether the Church accepts that reality.

Irish Independent

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