Former Irish President Mary McAleese has said that the baptism of infants is a form of coercion, calling on the Catholic Church to change its practice.

“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 in a June 23 interview with The Irish Times.

Baptizing babies, she said, makes “infant conscripts who are held to lifelong obligations of obedience.”

McAleese, Ireland’s president from 1997-2011, is a student at Rome’s Gregorian University, pursuing a doctorate in canon law. Her doctoral dissertation criticizes Catholic practices regarding infant baptism, The Irish Times reported.

“If your parents are Catholic and you are baptised in a Catholic Church, that baby becomes a member for life – according to the teaching of the church – of the church and it has rights and obligations,” she said.

McAleese said that in previous centuries, Catholics “didn’t understand that they had the right to say no, the right to walk away.”
“But you and I know, we live now in times where we have the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, freedom of opinion, freedom of religion and freedom to change religion. The Catholic Church yet has to fully embrace that thinking,”
“What the church has failed to do is to recognise that there has to be a point at which our young people, as adults who have been baptised into the church and raised in the faith, have the chance to say ‘I validate this’ or ‘I repudiate this,’” she added.
In the same interview, she said that the Church must respect the right of Catholics to dissent from Church teaching.

“Let’s be frank about it, very little of the magisterium – there are elements of it that are obviously infallible, things like the teaching on Christ and his divinity – but there are other things that over many, many centuries were taught with great passion that quietly now have been abandoned by the very magisterium that taught them.”

McAleese, who has previously advocated publicly for ending abortion restrictions in Ireland, same-sex marriage, and women's ordination to the priesthood, drew headlines earlier this year when she spoke March 8 at a women’s conference in Rome held outside the Vatican.

The annual conference, “Voices of Faith,” had previously been held in the Vatican City State. In 2018, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, objected to some speakers, including McAleese, and would not approve use of the Vatican’s space for the conference. Organizers moved the event to the headquarters of the Society of Jesus.

“We are here to shout, to bring down our Church’s walls of misogyny,” McAleese said at that conference.

Referring to the Church hierarchy, she added that “I hope that all the hearing aids are turned up today!”  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls on parents to baptize their children as soon as is possible after they are born.

“Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called,” the Catechism says.

“The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism.”