Former Irish President Mary McAleese a week ago raised an important issue regarding children and religion that American leaders, to my knowledge, have never broached.
McAleese, who is also a world-renowned Catholic theologian, believes, as does the United Nations, that children’s right to choose their own religion and morality is a fundamental human right.
Lamenting the religious control and indoctrination of children by their parents and by the Catholic Church, which has enormous influence on education in Ireland, McAlsee proposed more “freedom of conscience” for Irish children in a speech at Trinity College, Dublin, on Nov. 5. (I posted about the harmful effects of enforced religion on American children, here, last month.)
Her speech, titled “The future of Ireland. Human rights and children’s rights,” was the 2019 Edmund Burke Lecture. McAleese claimed that the Church’s traditional canon regarding baptizing infants and its policies for educating children were “in breach of the rights of the child, as outlined in the Irish Constitution and the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child,” The Irish Times reported.
Catholic canon law requires parents to baptize their children as soon as possible after birth, and the infant thus is viewed as having “by baptism … embraced the Catholic faith” and is “obliged to profess it by honoring the promises it made to do so,” the Times reported. In other words, a baptized child is duty-bound to “accept and believe and practice” Catholicism lifelong, the article noted. McAleese said 84 percent of children of Catholics are baptized worldwide and that the percentage is higher in Ireland.
The former two-term Irish president recommended “a clear acknowledgment from the Catholic Church that the canon laws which constrict children’s rights have now been overtaken by the [UN] Convention and our Constitution.”
The UN convention for children’s rights, while acknowledging the right of parents to raise their children in their own religious faith, also encourages parents to instruct their children on their personal rights of conscience and religion, and guide them in realizing and expressing those rights.
In her lecture, McAleese stressed that any covenant “between Church and State should start with children’s rights. So should any talk of Ireland’s future.” She decried that all Irish children’s freedoms of conscience “are subordinated to the demands of compulsory obedience to the [Catholic] Church’s teaching, the obligation to maintain communion with the Church and the Church’s insistence that — once a Catholic [from baptism onward], always a Catholic.”
Nonethless, she admitted that the issue is complicated.
“For the Catholic majority in Ireland this has resulted in the imposition of onerous obligations on children long before they are equipped to evaluate them or agree to them,” she said. “However, a more fundamental issue still lies unresolved and that is always allowing the right of parents to present their child for Baptism and raise the child in their faith, whether the child can, in international human rights law, be held to denominational membership and obligations entered when he or she was non sui compos [“master of oneself,”in Latin].”
In 2014, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors nations’ compliance with the 1989 UN Convention, asked the Catholic Church leadership to review its canon law to ensure it did not undercut the Convention’s provisions. But the Holy See, the papal court, refused, claiming that canon law is not bound to accommodate the committee’s edicts. The dispute remains unsettled.
In beginning her speech, McAleese said it would be about “the future church-state relationship” in Ireland.
She said the constitutional issue regarding religion is “gathering gradual momentum” due in part to changing demographics, to differing attitudes of voters in the Catholic republic and in Protestant Northern Ireland, and to a divide regarding whether Ireland will stay in the European Union.
“These two issues are not disconnected, because in the warp and weft of debates on constitutional matters, religion and religious sensibilities are rarely far from center stage,” she said, “whether the axis of the debate is foursquare within the Republic of Ireland … or whether it involves the entire island of Ireland.”
“Civic society in Ireland has been showing itself to be moving comprehensively and confidently in the direction of becoming a modern, egalitarian, secular state,” she said.
McAleese noted the Catholic Church is currently the largest education service provider in the country, controlling 90 percent of primary schools and 60 percent of secondary schools, and that the “dominance of Catholic schools has provoked considerable debate promoted by a growing multicultural demographic and diminishing religious homogeneity.”
Her goal, she said, is to ensure that the conscience rights of Irish children, who are increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse, are protected in compliance with the UN Convention for children. Since Ireland’s Constitution was drafted and passed in 1937, she said, the country’s “understanding of children’s rights has developed hugely,” and should be reflected in this foundational document.
Currently, the Constitution does not mention children but fully subordinates their rights to parents, she said. The UN convention, however, now recognizes children as holders “of autonomous rights, including the right to freedom of religion, which includes the freedom to change religion, freedom of thought and freedom of conscience,” allowing parents to retain and exercise their parental rights as well, she said.
Parents thus have a right to “guide” their children’s religious formation, but “they do not have a right to impose it on them for life. … children have a right to choose when they are capable of doing so,” she added.
Ireland has already adjusted to the UN convention’s recommendations by outlawing corporal punishment against children and constitutionally recognizing children as autonomous holders of the same human rights that adults enjoy.
But the Church’s current intransigence against the UN’s insistence it abide by the terms of the Convention that Ireland signed will harm children, she said.
“What we’re going to find … is an adamant Church claim to have rights over children and indeed over parents’ choices, which at best limit and at worst eliminate their fundamental rights to freedom of religion, thought and conscience,” she emphasized.
“We are still in the throes of shifting from an ages-old embedded culture of presumption that children should be seen and not heard, spoken for and about, but not speaking for themselves,” she added. But Ireland should find a way to let them speak about what they want to believe, or not.
As evangelical Christian activists work feverishly to embed faith doctrines and icons in the United States’ schools and elsewhere, this is exactly the conversation Americans should be having right now.