Professor Mary McAleese did not shy away from either Brexit or Church-State relations as the designated speaker of the 2019 Edmund Burke Lecture at Trinity College Dublin, earlier this month.

The former President of Ireland delivered a striking speech that evening. The topic of the event drew from her thesis work, The Future of Ireland: Human and Children’s Rights, and brought before us “evolving questions, next generation constitutional reforms and church-state relations.”

Professor McAleese began by talking about Brexit, especially in the context of the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement that she was so very involved in. Professor McAleese called for a “move beyond the past… without disturbing the peace”, noting that the Agreement did not provide for Brexit, which interrupted the sense of partnership between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom provided by the European Union, which she calls “the noblest enterprise in the history of Europe”. Professor McAleese did not shy away from criticising the United Kingdom when she claimed that Brexit was “a lesson about how not to go about constitutional change” and produced an “enraged, rather than an engaged, society”.

Professor McAleese then brought around the conversation to the strong religious undercurrents inherent in the Brexit, hard-border problem, mentioning religion and religious sensibilities in the context of changing constitutional demographics and emphasising the importance of upholding different identities which are currently fraught with fragile emotion. Change, according to McAleese, needs to begin with the rights of the child in the context of religion, including the right to freedom of religion, the right to change religion, the right to freedom of thought and the right to freedom of conscience, as set out by Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Latin Catholic Church, as the “biggest service provider of educational services for children in Ireland” is to be the starting point.

Professor McAleese detailed the Convention of the Rights of the Child. This established children as the holders of autonomous rights, including the right to change religion, the right to freedom of thought and the right to freedom of conscience, enlisting parents to the more nuanced role of their obligation to their child to help them to form their own independent, capable thoughts. The Holy See was directly involved in the drafting of this convention and was one of the first entities to ratify it – however, a request to review the Catholic canon law to comply with the convention was refused. 

Professor McAleese then explained canon law in terms of baptism, describing theological impact and its more controversial juridical aspect – to the extent that an infant being baptised was deemed to have entered voluntarily into membership with the Catholic Church through promises made by parents on the child’s behalf. This child was now, by baptism, deemed to have embraced the Catholic faith and obliged to profess it based on promises made by parents’ on the child’s behalf. McAleese likened this to an onerous contract and argued it to be “flatly inconsistent with the Convention”, asserting that the Holy See had never actually taken into account the ethical, legal and moral implications of imposing this kind of obligation on infants.

Professor McAleese claimed that Catholic Church canon law does not confer on the church a right to ignore state and international law, and argued that a new Ireland required “new ways of guiding and directing our children”. She called for Church recognition that the Convention will take precedence over these rights-constricting canon laws. Any covenant between Church and State must start with the rights of children, and so should any talk of Ireland’s future. She concluded that “this is a very good place to begin.”


Photo by TrinityLongRoomHub on Twitter


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