QUESTION: Now after the vote on abortion in Ireland, I heard that the Irish government is thinking of banning the baptism of babies. Can that possibly be correct?
ANSWER: Several news services and blogs recently carried a story about an interview given by Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland. In the interview she spoke about the baptism of infants, saying, “You can’t impose obligations on people who are only 2 weeks old.” She went on to say that “… babies baptized into the Catholic Church are infant conscripts who are held to lifelong obligations of obedience.”
Her point apparently was that baptizing infants somehow offends fundamental human rights. She contended that no one should impose obligations on individuals who are so young. Quoted in the Irish Times, she added, “But you and I know, we live now in times where we have the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, freedom of opinion, freedom of religion and freedom to change religion. The Catholic Church has yet to fully embrace that thinking.”
Although McAleese was president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011, she does not currently speak for the government. But the notions she espouses are important to address.
The baptism of infants is as old as the New Testament, where “whole households” were baptized and received into the Christian community. At the same time, there have been challenges to this practice over the centuries.
What McAleese and many other critics miss is the uniquely human element relating children to parents and families. Clearly, what parents value in their own lives they most often want to share with their children. That includes faith and sacramental life. It would have been strange for families to believe what they believed and not initiate their children into that same reality.
Those who stand so firmly for freedom and question the baptism of infants seem to miss the point that being born into a family and a community provides relationships over which we have little choice until we are adults. This includes having specific parents, siblings and family. But it also involves citizenship and other civil realities.
Parenting of children also involves “forcing” children to eat from a wide spectrum of food groups despite various levels of protest. Household safeguards are in place, such as putting shields over electric outlets, even though this limits the freedom of a child to experiment with electricity.
Parents and communities possess insights and values that they want to share with children long before those children can decide for themselves. It is clear that young adults have the freedom to accept and internalize those insights and values or reject them. But they at least have the experience of something about which they can decide. Providing children with nothing of a religious nature only charts a course for a child that seems to exclude religion as a value.
In any case, I have not seen any Irish government initiative regarding infant baptism. What you may have heard or read is really the opinion of one individual no matter what office she may have held previously.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.