Former President of Ireland, Professor Mary McAleese delivered the Trinity Long Room Hub Annual Edmund Burke Lecture 2019 last night, just days after her appointment as the new Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin.
Speaking on the topic of human rights and children’s rights, Professor McAleese said that the State has a duty to ensure that children’s freedom and rights are being upheld in a country where the Catholic Church has ninety percent patronage of all primary schools and sixty percent of secondary schools. During her booked-out talk, she said she wanted to look at how the ‘rights of Catholic children who are the majority norm in our schools are being protected and respected by our major service provider.”
Framing her talk in the context of The Future of Ireland, and “the constitutional issue” raised with the prospect of a future border poll, Professor McAleese stated that Church-State relationships are central to these discussions.
The Annual Edmund Burke Lecture is organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute to celebrate Trinity’s strong connection with the 18th-century philosopher, historian and politician Edmund Burke who graduated from Trinity College in 1748.
Professor Mary McAleese is the sixth distinguished speaker to deliver the lecture, which is sponsored by the Fallon family in honour of Padraic Fallon. Choosing topics that challenge our thinking today, this year’s theme around The Future of Ireland is a way of exploring the changes that have transformed Irish society and the challenges which lie ahead.
Whether the debate is in the Republic of Ireland, within Northern Ireland or involves the entire island of Ireland, “religion and religious sensibilities are rarely far from central stage”, Professor McAleese commented, adding: “religious conservatives on both sides of the border are finding common cause around certain socio-moral issues while those pursuing the same issues from a liberal perspective have also found common cause cross border.”
Looking more broadly at the understanding of children’s rights under Convention on the Rights of the Child, she said that while she focused on education services by the Latin Catholic Church to children in this jurisdiction, her research has wider implications for other denominations and faith systems.
Professor McAleese also explored how when it comes to the obligations imposed on children as a result of baptism, the Holy See’s Canon Law stands at odds with the United Nations Convention’s principals.
“Baptism in the Catholic Church has two quite distinct sets of consequences, one theological the other juridic”, she explained. While acknowledging the parent’s right to bring up a child in their faith, she argued that the canon law consequences of Baptism include life-long “man-made” obligations on the child, including “church membership which can never be rescinded, becoming subject to Church laws from the age of seven on reaching the use of reason, and being deemed by Baptism to have made personal promises to fulfil the many onerous obligations canon law imposes on Church members.”
“The Holy See 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.”
She concluded by acknowledging the Catholic Church’s contribution to Ireland’s past and present as a “story of both dark and light” in education, health care, welfare and charitable outreach, but added “any debate about Ireland’s future is about the future of children, children whose voices we should hear.”
Professor McAleese served as Ireland’s President between 1997 and 2011. She graduated in Law from Queen’s University Belfast, where she became the first female pro-vice-chancellor of the university in 1994. She has also worked as a barrister and a journalist. Professor McAleese was recently awarded the Alfons Auer Ethics Award for her doctoral thesis on Children’s Rights and Obligations in Canon Law, which she completed last year.
‘The Future of Ireland’ is a key theme for the Trinity Long Room Hub in 2019-20 as it builds up to the 10th anniversary of the opening of its iconic building in Trinity’s Fellows Square in September 2020.