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Mary McAleese calls on Church to remove ‘padlock’ on members’ human rights

The former president said Church law must acknowledge intellectual rights such as equality and freedom of thought


Mary McAleese. Photo: David Conachy

Mary McAleese. Photo: David Conachy

Mary McAleese. Photo: David Conachy

Former President Mary McAleese has called on the Catholic Church to remove the “padlock” on its members’ human rights.

Speaking from Rome to the lay-led Root & Branch Synod in Bristol, England, the former head of state said Church law must acknowledge intellectual rights such as equality and freedom of thought.

She said recognition of these rights by canon law could be “the most important reset
button” the Church has ever hit.

“The future Church will only work if it is firmly set in a context where there is unequivocal acceptance that Church members are entitled within the Church and all its laws and processes, including synods, to the inalienable human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the canon law specialist said.

But Catholics, she explained, by their baptismal promises are deemed to have accepted the Church’s right to impose limitations on members’ freedom of expression and opinion.

“It says it can legitimately do so because of personal promises we made at baptism which imposed on us compulsory, life-long obligations of Church membership.

“In my view, this understanding of magisterial control over Church members is no longer sustainable,” Professor McAleese told the international audience, which was gathered both in person and online.

She said the Catholic Church had arrived at a “watershed” where, before it could move forward, it had to reform these presumptions which “limit our fundamental God-given faculties and freedoms to make up our own minds, speak with our own voices, and inform our own consciences”. 

“What God has given, the Church has no right to take away,” she added.

The professor of law said it was time for Catholics to make the case that “fictitious baptismal promises made by non-sentient babies” made by 84pc of Church members baptised as infants can no longer be relied on to justify depriving members of their “inalienable human rights to make up their own minds, offer their own opinions, dissent from and challenge the magisterium as well as change their minds completely about Church membership”.

She explained that infant baptism in itself is not the problem.

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Rather, the problem lay in the failure to separate out the divine from the man-made consequences of baptism, which are found in canon law and “bolted on to the sacrament” to impose acceptance of the extensive obligations of membership, which the vast majority of those baptised “lack the capacity to evaluate until it is too late”.

“These obligations hold us forever in a relationship of subservience and submission, not to Christ but to the sacred pastors,” she said.

Dr McAleese said they had also protected a dominant Church culture of celibate male hierarchicalism and clericalism.

This silenced and scorned the voices of the faithful, especially the laity, especially women, and especially those who dissent, she said.

“It has resulted in a dysfunctional top-heavy edifice with unhealthy repression of internal discussion,” Professor McAleese said. “It has facilitated unaccountable and untrustworthy episcopal management by company men rather than Christ’s men and led to the long shelf-life of unenlightened and damaging teachings and practices to the detriment not just of the Church but of humanity.”

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