My family goes to a lot of baptisms these days. With several of our Catholic friends raising young children, rarely do a few months go by without fifteen minutes spent peeking over shoulders into the baptistery.
One tradition that surprised me the first time I witnessed a baptism in the Extraordinary Form is that the parents are basically spectators: It’s the godparents who hold the child and accept the Faith and its obligations on his or her behalf. The rite beautifully symbolizes how the Christian community takes responsibility for the relationship with the Lord established by the sacrament. It communicates the resolution to one of infant baptism’s apparent paradoxes: The sacrament is necessary for salvation, and yet children can neither understand nor fulfill the duties this implies on their own.
In its ritual and theology, infant baptism makes it clear that the nature of our relationship with God and his Church is incomprehensible on the individualist and voluntarist assumptions of modern liberalism. Former president of Ireland Mary McAleese recently had the bad manners to point this out:
[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 demands of compulsory obedience 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.”
The newly-minted doctor of canon law—she was, unaccountably, awarded the degree for her thesis on this topic by the Pontifical Gregorian University—adds that the Church “has never considered the ethical, legal and moral implications of imposing lifelong membership of the Church and a body of obligations on a baby who is not in a position to weigh the implications.”
This is, of course, nonsense: There are few things the Church has considered more deeply than the theory and practice of forming Christians to recognize and embrace their eternal destiny. What McAleese really means is that the Church hasn’t brought her understanding of baptism and membership in the Body of Christ in line with the modern liberal understanding of autonomy.
Here, McAleese gets at something deeper than she realizes. The Church has spent the last several decades (and even longer in America) bringing her public face broadly in alignment with liberal principles, including doing things like giving Mary McAleese a doctorate in canon law. At the same time, the Church has attempted to cordon off the distinctively “religious” aspects of her mission from interference. Thus we end up with the Vatican enthusiastically signing up for the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child—then balking when the oversight committee asked, 25 years later, to have a look under the hood of canon law.
Of course Rome was right to object. The question is: What did they expect? The truth of baptism, and the duties it imposes, clearly violates the rights of children (and of adults for that matter), so far as liberalism can perceive those rights. The indelible mark of baptism brands our souls for God first and forever; in light of this, every liberal notion of rights and privileges and autonomy either loses its coherence or must be comprehensively dismantled and reconstructed. The salvific order of the cosmos is inescapably illiberal.
The Church’s gambit has been that she can embrace liberalism exteriorly while remaining interiorly true to the illiberality of God’s order. Challenges like McAleese’s threaten to puncture this arrangement, and so Catholics’ first defensive impulse is generally to adopt the rhetorical conventions of liberalism and claim bias or bigotry.
This strategy only makes sense, though, if we believe the Church has successfully positioned herself within the liberal order while maintaining her integrity. But she has not. The logic of liberalism has seeped into the faithful’s understanding of God and his Church through every imaginable pore.
Just look at baptism: Catholic parents now routinely wait months or years to have their children baptized, and the role of godparents has been reduced to a one-time honorific. Catechists will tell you about how parents send their kids to class, but not to Mass. The sacraments are commonly seen as rites of passage and nothing more, the Church as one voluntary association among many, and God as a cheerful but invasive grandfather against whom we have certain rights, like the right not to be bothered with or by him.
Rather than lash out at Mary McAleese, we should thank her. She dares to clarify, saying what too many in the Church have trembled to say for generations: The sacramental order cannot be reconciled with liberal notions of liberty and autonomy. In these signs of heightening contradictions we should find hope and a refreshing freedom to build families, communities, and societies that take our baptismal promises at their word.
Brandon McGinley is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh.