The Church, the State and civil society: questions for The Times Ireland Edition

‘Momentous review to end church’s health role’, said the headline in Saturday’s issue of The Times Ireland Edition. ‘For the first time since its foundation, Ireland is formally emancipating itself from the church’, said the editorial, without a hint of hyperbole.

The headline made it look like the Church is being singled out. Not so. As you read down the report you discovered that there is to be a review (ordered by Health Minister, Simon Harris) of all publicly-funded hospitals run by voluntary groups, and not just by Church groups such as religious orders.

A question arises here and it is this; should ANY voluntary groups, especially those running major institutions like schools or hospitals ever receive public funds, or should public funds only be allocated to major institutions that are also State-run?

A follow-up question; if it is right to give public funds to SOME voluntary groups, is it only wrong to do so when those groups are religious? If so, why?

The British version of The Times is a liberal paper, by and large. It is still more or less a liberal paper in the classic meaning of that word, meaning it believes in individual liberty and limited Government. You cannot have limited Government when the State has taken over the running of more and more areas of life, including the provision of health and education.

It is very easy for the State to squeeze out civil society. It can do so by heavily regulating it and robbing it of its independence, and it can do so depriving it of the funds it needs to survive. It is all very well to tell a voluntary organisation like the Church that it can have its own schools (or hospitals) if it wants to, so long as they are privately funded, when the State takes so much from us in tax.

In Britain, the State funds Church-run schools in large numbers. This is in response to public demand for such schools.

The same principle can be applied to many other areas of society, including health provision. If the public want some publicly-funded hospitals to be run by the State, and others to be run by the voluntary sector (the Church included), then why should we deny this wish?

The Times Ireland Edition did not explore these questions on Saturday because it is too eager to see public funding of Church-run hospitals brought to an end.

It’s true that the paper wants the proposed new national maternity hospital to be run by the State rather than the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, but it should spell out more clearly its overall attitude to public funding of the voluntary sector, and what it thinks is the proper relationship of the State to civil society overall, never mind the Church only.

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