THE baptism of babies into the Catholic Church is unsuitable and needs to be overhauled because it means people’s freedoms are being suppressed for life, Mary McAleese has said.
In an address to Oxford University today, the former Irish President said canon law claims the Church is entitled to limit, compromise and control church members’ rights thanks to the “christening contract which most of us slept or cried through”.
Her talk – entitled ‘Baptismal obligations? Revisiting the christening contract – a necessary prelude to any synodal journey’ – called for a change in the way infant baptism imposes lifelong obligations and compulsory obedience to church teaching as babies cannot possibly understand what is being promised on their behalf.
Church members, she warned, are expected to subordinate their freedoms to compulsory obedience to the Church’s teaching or magisterium from the day of their baptism onwards.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of baptism that “having become a member of the Church, from now on, he is [we are] called to obey and submit to the Church’s leaders”.
It is a claim increasingly contested by an educated laity who point out that infants are incapable of making such promises, she said.
Speaking to academics of St Benet’s Hall at the prestigious British university, Ms McAleese said: “It is difficult, arguably impossible, to sustain any longer the proposition that the 37,000 babies who are baptised every single day into the Catholic Church have, as a consequence of that christening, made promises which bind them to serious lifelong obligations, promises they cannot possibly understand and which canon law says they cannot escape even when they become capable of understanding their implications.”
She indicated the Church needs to find an alternative to the christening contract and instead offer its members an opportunity for expressing a voluntary commitment to these obligations when they are mature enough to do so.
Contemporary understanding of human rights, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have overtaken Canon Law’s limits on people’s freedom of conscience, opinion, belief and religion, she suggested.
Canon Law and the Catholic Church are at a “crossroads” Ms McAleese, a canon lawyer, said and there was “evidence of panic” at the top of the Church “and a familiar degree” of denial.
"Some old and some new enemies are blamed for the serial crises in the Church; secularism, relativism, feminism, gay cabals, atheism, selfish individualism, sectarianism, a hostile media,” she said.
She paid tribute to the Irish Church’s youngest prelate, Bishop Paul Dempsey, of Achonry, who admitted earlier this year that the blame for the crisis lies in the Church’s own mistakes and the shattering of its reputation by abuse scandals.
The Catholic Church’s “imperial top-down model of control” which centralises power in a clerical elite and “obliges unquestioning loyalty from the lay and paying masses” is not simply outmoded, it is no longer fit for purpose and never was, Ms McAleese said.
She warned that the Church is hollowing out faith from the inside and that its system of control had skewed relationships between the laity, the clergy and the hierarchy in such a way that the laity have been unequal Church citizens, excluded from discernment and decision-making.
“So, we can say truthfully of Church teaching it has been a case of ‘everything about us – without us’.
"It still is and will remain so regardless of synodality,” she warned.
In March, the Irish bishops announced a national synod for the Church in Ireland.