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Some correctives to Mary McAleese’s Trinity College remarks

November 21, 2019

Dr. Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland and recently minted doctor of canon law (Gregorian, 2018), delivered a speech at Trinity College in Dublin a few weeks back accusing the Catholic Church, per canon law, of ‘at best limiting and at worst eliminating [children’s] fundamental rights to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience.’ McAleese’s theme was apparently developed in her doctoral dissertation, a work reportedly weighing in at 500,000 words for which she won the 2019 Alfons Auer Theology Award valued at € 25,000. It would be interesting to know what the competition for the prize was.

Much of McAleese’s speech deals with matters outside my area (e.g., Irish law, Brexit, and so on), but her comments on canon law, to the extent they supposedly support her criticisms of the Church, especially the inflammatory claim that canon law “flatly contradicts” a child’s “freedom of belief, thought, expression and action”, warrant some reply.

McAleese presents the sacrament of Baptism as having “two quite distinct sets of consequences, one theological the other juridic” and pits the ‘theological’ consequences of baptism, such as cleansing the soul from Original Sin and obtaining sacramental grace—effects that, McAleese assures us, she does not dispute—against the ‘juridic’ consequences of baptism which she claims have been “bolted on to” (there’s a pleasant image) baptism by man-made rules but which, McAleese argues, should now be made subservient to national and international law. Among the supposedly merely ‘juridic’ consequences of baptism that McAleese thinks should be “overtaken by” secular authority are “the imposition of life long Church membership which can never be rescinded, becoming subject to Church laws from the age of seven” and the general incurring of “many onerous obligations”. All of these specific claims are distortions or are simply wrong but they all spring from a single mischaracterization of baptism and its effects.

McAleese skews the central issue by presenting what one might call the distinguishable consequences of baptism as if they were radically distinct consequences of baptism, as if one could, say, be (theologically?) cleansed of Original Sin in baptism but not (juridically?) incorporated into the Church (c. 849)—implying, one supposes, that someone could be incorporated into the Church without having been baptized!—or, again, that one could be baptized into the society that is Church of Christ but not automatically enjoy various ecclesial rights and duties in keeping with one’s condition (c. 96).

In reality, both sorts of effects, whether viewed as ‘theological’ or ‘juridic’, arise simultaneously and inseparably from a single sacramental action. That some consequences of baptism are juridically worded does not mean that they were “bolted on to” the sacrament by canon law but instead are canon law’s attempt to acknowledge and respect the divinely-rooted implications of baptism. McAleese’s attempt to drive a wedge between the ‘theological’ consequences of a sacrament and the ‘juridic’ is fraught, therefore, not simply with canonical problems (as we shall see) but with doctrinal truths concerning matters far beyond her, or Ireland’s, or the United Nation’s authority.

Turning briefly to McAleese’s specific complaints against canon law’s impact on children, that concerning the alleged baptismal burden of life-long membership in the Church requires considerably more analysis than she offered in her remarks or than I can offer in rebuttal here: let’s just say that there is, in my view, confusion in some Church circles over the difference between the maxim Semel baptizatus semper baptizatus (once baptized, forever baptized), a doctrinally sound assertion, and Semel catholicus semper catholicus (once Catholic, always Catholic), as invoked by McAleese, a canonically contestable claim as evidenced by, if nothing else, the fact that we have canons on schism and apostasy (cc. 751, 1364), and by recent norms on formal defection from the Church—norms too narrowly drafted, in my view but, even so, constituting evidence that a mechanism for a Catholic’s official departure from the Church does exist, contrary to McAleese’s claim.

As for a Catholic becoming “subject to” Church law at age seven, that unbalanced description fails to mention that several of those laws actually enumerate canonical rights that a Catholic child enjoys at or even before age seven, e.g., rights to Christian education, to additional sacraments and sacramentals under certain conditions, to effectively full immunity to ecclesiastical sanctions, and to the incalculable graces of full communion with the wider Church.

And as for the supposedly “onerous” impositions of Church law, pray, which canons are so onerous? Against the backdrop of Christ’s words that ‘My burden is easy and my yoke is light’ (Mt XI: 30), can McAleese show us a Church obligation that is enforced with anything like the rigor behind a wide array of State-mandated obligations? Would, say, a Catholic child’s failure to show up for Mass on Sunday (c. 1247) result in the dispatch of Church officials to the home to inquire what sort of religious upbringing the child is receiving along the lines of a state truant officer investigating a child’s absence from school? Does a Catholic child’s failure “to assist with the needs of the Church” (c. 222) or to “support the Church by responding to appeals” (c. 1262) obligate a child to payments as does the state’s enforcement of income tax liabilities against working minors? Whatever ecclesial and/or moral obligations are incumbent upon Catholics, including children, they utterly pale in comparison with the civil and/or legal obligations that states routinely impose on citizens, including children.

{As an aside, lest readers fear I see no canonical obligations on Catholics that visit (in my view) unfair burdens on believers, I think that the obligation of Catholics to marry in accord with canonical form or not at all (cc. 1059, 1108) is an unfair burden on many Catholics unaware that such a religious requirement exists. But I must immediately add that this canonical-sacramental burden is purely an ecclesiastical concern because, for all practical purposes, western States do not demand compliance with religious observances in order to enter a marriage recognizable by the State. While many States accommodate a religious wedding observance, they do not demand one, so McAleese can hardly point to the Church’s canonical form requirement for marriage as a concern worthy of State intervention in religious practice. In any case, canonical form is a problem related to Catholic marriage law, not baptismal.}

Sadly, McAleese’s blithe invocation of a disparaging remark made against canon law by a former Irish attorney general (“Canon law has the same status as golf club rules”) is frankly embarrassing coming from a woman who, one is forced to conclude, spent four years earning a doctorate in what amounts to golf club rules, but the rudeness of the remark (to say nothing of the laughable ignorance it displays) was apparently no bar to McAleese quoting it in advancement of her express goal of making Catholic canon law answerable to national law and international convention. Readers might wish to consult, however, Canon 22 (and CCEO 1504), and the important traditions behind such canons, for a better introduction to the Church’s more nuanced approach to Church-State relations.

Concluding these remarks it should be obvious that, in limiting myself to short correctives to McAleese’s canonical assertions against the exercise of Church law related to Catholic children, I have only hinted at the grave spiritual, pastoral, and cultural implications of a statist attempt to wrench the authority of a religious society over its members away from the leaders of that society. The wider social consequences of such an invasive move would make, I suspect, the canonical complications of McAleese’s agenda seem minor.

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