McAleese told the newspaper that by baptizing children before they have reached the age of reason, the Church is creating “infant conscripts who are held to lifelong obligations of obedience.”
“You can’t impose, really, obligations on people who are only two weeks old and you can’t say to them at seven or eight or 14 or 19 ‘here is what you contracted, here is what you signed up to’ because the truth is they didn’t,” she said.
(1) It is extraordinary that someone could say this and not grasp that this would make it impossible to be an Irish citizen, or any other citizen, from birth. (The parallel is in fact quite close, because baptism is not a contract but an initiation into allegiance like citizenship.) Ireland itself imposes obligations like this; it is useless for an Irish nineteen-year-old to protest that Ireland has no authority over him just because he never explicitly contracted to be Irish. One can always repudiate citizenship; but, of course, one can always formally apostatize, as well.
(2) The theory of obligation involved in McAleese's claim is simply incoherent. You can't make contracts without prior obligations imposed by society; these obligations, being presupposed by all contracts, are imposed without contract, and involuntarily. These customary obligations themselves presuppose natural obligations of reason. Some of these obligations, both natural and customary, give parents and others operating in parental capacity a power to impose obligations -- again, obligations imposed by parents on their children are not contracts. In addition, everyone has a natural obligation to draw from the heritage given them by previous generations; this, in and of itself, even with no other consideration, would give reasons at least to respect baptismal obligations, even if there were no other reason, and even if some other obligation interfered, and even if one decided not to regard oneself as strictly obligated by them.
(3) Parentally imposed obligations are particularly relevant, because the authority of the Church to impose obligations is generally seen as a sort of spiritual parenthood.
(4) What, precisely, are baptismal obligations? They are of three kinds:
(a) natural obligations specified by baptismal context;
(b) positive obligations received by divine revelation;
(c) positive obligations imposed by the Church.
The general positive obligations imposed by the Church are what are known as the precepts of the church, and there are somewhere between five and seven of them (depending on how they are broken up). The five you always find are:
1.You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation.
2.You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
3.You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least once during the Easter season.
4.You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
5.You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.
Precepts 6 and 7, when they are added to the list, are to observe the laws of Matrimony and to participate in the evangelization of the Church; they are arguably just positive republications of natural or divine obligations. It is generally understood that children, not being in full authority, are not strictly obligated to these (although their parents and godparents have a responsibility to train them to follow them as part of their way of life). What is function of these? It is to outline a minimum participation, and to provide a minimal guideline to the Catholic way of life. Beyond these, all the Church does is give local specifications of these, or certify that other obligations are natural or divine, or exhort to better behavior.
(5) Baptism confers rights in the Church; rights carry with them obligations for their proper exercise and use, just by being rights. If we only had obligations by contract, we'd only have rights by contract. (And, of course, contract rights, like contract obligations, presuppose non-contract rights and obligations.)
(6) The direct implication of McAleese's comment is that the Church has no power to impose law, and thus that canon law is not actually any kind of law. This is somewhat remarkable given that she has written a book on canon law but in fact is exactly in line with other comments she has made about canon law. But the problem is that, if the real problem is very existence of Church law, then it is immensely glib and facile to pretend that it is a simple matter of contract.
McAleese justifies herself the way it has become common to do so, in a vague and uncritical appeal to conscience:
In her interview with the Irish Times, she said, “My human right to inform my own conscience, my human right to express my conscience even if it is the case that it contradicts the magisterium, that right to conscience is supreme.”
The right of a well-formed conscience is supreme; an erroneous conscience, on the other hand, obligates, since that is the function of conscience, but does not itself excuse in any way. Everyone has the natural obligation to educate their conscience properly. Part of educating your conscience properly is recognizing that you have obligations to your parents, your forebears, your nation, and those with whom you are in society, regardless of whether you made an explicit contract to accept such obligations. If you regard yourself as a practicing Catholic and yet regard your conscience as having supreme veto over the practical obligations of being Catholic, the name for that is 'liar'.