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Rites of participation?

For those of a certain vintage, the term 'start as you mean to go on' will be familiar enough. Experience also confirms that it is not uncommon for those who readily participate in (and derive benefits of membership from) particular associations, or communities, may, over time, seek to challenge the foundational values upon which such associations and communities depend. The motivations for such challenge may be numerous. They range from the desire to enhance those values, to an outright contradiction and challenge to foundational principles on the ground that they are considered uncomfortable, inconvenient, or, simply anachronistic. In the latter case, it may be thought that the values in question (or their rejection) is fuelled by a perception that they are inconsistent with the mores of the day,

Within the Irish Times, the newly appointed Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, is today reported as having touched upon the rite of baptism in general; and infant baptism in particular. If accurate, the report suggests Chancellor McAleese observed:

"[The Holy See] has never considered the ethical, legal and moral implications of imposing a lifelong membership of the Church and a body of obligations on a baby who is not in a position to weigh the implications..."

The same article also attributes to the Chancellor the following:

"[Rights] acknowledged in the secular world to freedom of religion, conscience and thought, as well as freedom to change religion or give it up entirely, are not recognised in canon law. All such freedoms are subordinated to the Church's teaching (magisterium) the obligation to maintain communion with the Church and the Church's insistence that - once a Catholic, always a Catholic."

If accurate, these two observations appear to be advanced in support of the proposition that infant baptism represent an egregious infringement of the civil and human rights of the infant. Implicit to this argument is the suggestion that baptismal promises are adopted at a time when the candidate is lacking in the means of informed choice or, at worst, the sacrament is imposed in disregard of the interests and rights of the child itself. There is no novelty in this proposition. A similar argument was advanced in Germany some years ago in connection with the judaic practice of infant circumcision.

In a world which is is seemingly determined to detach rights from all responsibility, there is a superficial attraction to arguments of this kind. It would, however, be naive to disregard the undoubted influence of the zeitgeist which is patently hostile to the autonomy enjoyed by faith communities; an autonomy which is itself recognised by Art 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights as affirmed in the decision of The Church of Scientology v Russia. But what of the observations made by the Chancellor?

In engaging with the observations said to have been made, it is perhaps informative to consider the fact that the international human rights jurisprudence to which the Chancellor alludes recognises the rights of the parents or those exercising parental responsibility. A cursory examination of the international conventions attests to the fact that the right to respect for family life extends to the formation and education of children in line with the faith and beliefs of those in loco parentis. Whilst a rudimentary observation, it is this same manifestation of freedom of belief which entitles (and no doubt prompts) those who present their children as candidates for baptism. It is noteworthy (and the rite of baptism confirms) the promises and assurances made within the rite to baptism are made in a representative capacity by those who consider themselves (and the civil law recognises) to be competent to make decisions which are in the best interests of the child. Leaving aside the theological understanding of this sacrament, this is in transactional terms, the outworking of the freedom of the parent to make decisions concerning the future life, education and formation of the candidate which the civil and secular legal systems acknowledge as valid. Such parents no doubt consider the transaction to be an important aspect of their own culture, tradition, ethnicity and belief; not to say family life. Viewed in this way, the suggestion that it is a requirement imposed by a faith community disconnected from the choices of those invested with the power to make decisions concerning the welfare of the child is, it may be thought, difficult to support. But what of Canon Law?

There can be no dispute that the rite of baptism marks one of the sacraments of initiation into the Church. Those familiar with the law of the Eastern Churches, will recognise immediately, that it is but one of the three sacraments of initiation. Within the Latin Rite, there has been a tradition of separating those rites of initiation over a period of years; from infancy up to and including the sacrament of confirmation during the period of adolescence. However, the suggestion that Canon Law does not recognise freedom of choice is difficult to reconcile with a number of express canons of the Code. First, canon 96 affirms baptism as the means of juridic recognition by which rights and duties are acquired. Similarly, canon 125 declares that an act imposed upon a person by force or against their will is considered as having never taken place. Moreover, canon 219 expresses in clear terms that the faithful are to be free from any form of coercion in choosing a state of life. It may be thought that these normative canons in the Code of Canon Law place beyond doubt the recognition of freedom of thought, conscience and religion to which the Chancellor's comments are seemingly directed. These freedoms find direct and specific corroboration elsewhere in the Code of Canon Law.

However, it ought to come as no surprise that the Code is itself directed to the facilitation of membership and participation of the faith community to which it has application. Just in the same way as the statutes of a university have application to the constituency of students, staff and other subject to its jurisdiction. Ultimately, like those same university statutes, the purpose of the Code of Canon Law is to retain the integrity of the institution and the values upon which it is founded and with which it identifies. Nor can it be said that this aspiration is something unique to faith communities. All forms of community must necessarily engage with the values and beliefs which are fundamental to its existence. By way of example, in recent years, some academic establishments have expressed this autonomy by the promotion of pro-choice and the prohibition of pro-life demonstrations. Equally, some societies have outlawed the promotion of different faiths, others have outlawed the wearing of the hijab; both being upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.

Whilst those communities and societies founded upon a political ideology, social ambition, or, other philosophy might consider themselves free to modify, amend or reject their foundational values, others do not share this view. It is frequently said that human rights are directed to the creation of a pluralistic and inclusive society. Ultimately, this must include an accommodation of the right of autonomy and self-determination to which faith communities lay claim. To conclude otherwise, is the first step toward homogeneity not inclusivity. Liberal ideologies and notions of rights are, after all, founded upon the notion that each member of society has available to her the freedom to form and manifest her belief; and to do so alone or in association with others. The manifestation of these freedoms are intended to enrich society through tolerance and accommodation of choice on the part of those the law recognises to be invested with them; whether for themselves or for others. After all, contrary to modern distortions, liberalism is directed to the formulation and development of thought and understanding; not the domination of the conscience of others. Within all faith communities, there are doors of admittance as well as doors of departure. Many have chosen the latter course; aligning themselves to a system of belief (or unbelief) which is consonant with their own conscience. They are, of course, at liberty to do so. After all, the Church and the foundational values which she espouses require an assent of faith; not mechanistic compliance. That is, participation not critique.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom - pray for us.

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