Mary McAleese has recently condemned the practice of infant baptism in the Catholic Church claiming it to be like a form of conscription. She recognises the spiritual significance of baptism viz the removal of original sin, but dismisses the importance of that for the child as simply ‘spiritual’ focussing instead on how through baptism the child becomes Catholic, and that this is a kind of tragedy since the child cannot make a decision on the issue: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/infant-baptism-is-enforced-membership-of-the-catholic-church-says-mary-mcaleese-1.3540706?mode=amp&__twitter_impression=true.
But let us consider Mrs McAleese’s position here. Infant baptism is a regular occurrence amongst many Christian congregations, and indeed for the Catholic Church it has been the practice for Centuries.
Why is it so common?
It is common precisely because of those realities that Mrs McAleese dismisses as spiritual. As Christians we believe that all people suffer from original sin. This is not because of something we have done, but because of something our ancestors did such that a blessing was denied them and thus denied us as well (just as if one’s ancestors made poor financial decisions that lost them their riches with the result that today one cannot enjoy the riches one’s ancestors would have passed on). Baptism is the sacrament by which original sin is removed and the recipient can enjoy God’s grace and proceed to enjoy the other sacraments of the Church. Quite simply, baptism is the first sacrament by which the child enters onto the path of salvation. It is certainly correct that the newborn cannot make a conscious decision to be baptised. But all of a newborn’s decisions are made for it by its parents, e.g. what food to eat, where to live, what to wear; indeed as the child grows, parents continue to make these decisions, even with respect to what school the child should go. Baptism is another one of those decisions that a parent makes for a child precisely because the parent has the child’s best interests at heart. Now a child can grow up and reject salvation; and that is the nature of free will. But given that we want to give our children the best kind of start, we have them baptised so that they can make the best start with salvation.
Of course, it is understandable that if one is not a Christian or dismisses spiritual realities, then none of this will make sense. But that is not a disagreement over whether or not children should be baptised, that’s a dismissal of Christianity tout court. In any case, Mrs McAleese certainly claims to be Christian, and so presumably she understands the inherent good in salvation and hence in infant baptism. One wonders then why she would dismiss it merely as something spiritual, as if the primary focus of the Christian life were on anything other than our being united with God after death. Baptism is the sacrament by which that can occur, so it seems strange that Mrs McAleese would think that a bad thing for our children.
Dr Gaven Kerr