Citizenship confers on a person certain rights and responsibilities. As recent news has reminded us, a person’s citizenship is not primarily a matter of personal choice, nor a rational decision made by the individual. Rather, citizenship is decided at birth, without the person’s consent. Those with U.S. citizenship are granted rights, such as voting in government elections, and obligated with duties, such as following the laws.

Baptism within the Catholic Church likewise confers rights and responsibilities on the person, and these often begin when the person is an infant, again, without consent. Former Irish president Mary McAleese recently made some headlines when she was quoted in the Irish Times June 23 and June 22 asserting that baptized babies are “infant conscripts who are held to lifelong obligations of obedience.” McAleese regards this as a breach of fundamental human rights: “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.”

No doubt, if we were to apply this perspective to citizenship, we would find many people objecting that they did not choose to be citizens of a country with high poverty levels, drug problems, inadequate infrastructure, gang violence, etc. And yet we must recognize that there are restrictions applied to persons because of their (unchosen) citizenship, which was decided for them at birth. As we have recently been reminded, one cannot simply and easily change the citizenship assigned at birth.

The rights and duties of citizenship imply an ordering of society. There are natural rights (and corresponding obligations) that are codified in order to allow for flourishing of a particular people. In the United States, we are accustomed to talking about “freedoms.” Often these freedoms provide citizens with protection that allows them to choose how to worship, how to speak, and so on, with the conviction that such freedoms benefit the common good.

The Catholic sacrament of baptism does also confer rights and duties; McAleese is correct in noting this. Similar to citizenship, baptism makes a person a member of a community. And similar to governmental rights and duties, those granted by baptism are associated with freedom. While McAleese clearly identifies freedom with the choice to be and do whatever one desires, the Catholic Church understands freedom in terms of living out what the person, made in the image and likeness of God, is called to be. The end of the natural rights and duties of citizenship is earthly good, and the end of the supernatural rights and duties of baptism is heaven.

Hence the usual language for the sacrament of baptism is not that emphasized by McAleese, but rather, theologically, baptism is recognized as a profound gift. The tradition of infant baptism recognizes the grace of becoming a child of God (CCC 1250-1252) and becoming a member of a community of believers (CCC 1253). Parents have their children baptized as infants because they want the best for them; they want their children to have true freedom, the freedom of the children of God. Ultimately, they want their children to have eternal life with God, and in the meantime, they want their children to grow in virtue and holiness.

McAleese wants an emphasis on choice when it comes to belonging to the Church: “Parents can guide and direct them but they can’t impose, and 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’.”

Of course, the Church recognizes the necessity of post-baptism Christian formation, which is crucial to help children grow in the faith, including recognizing the gift of baptism they received as infants when they were welcomed into the Church. But McAleese is not altogether wrong, and certainly from a descriptive perspective, she is correct in noting that young people often do repudiate the faith and leave the Church. While an ex-pat might find his citizenship forever surrendered with such a decision, however, the Church is always ready to welcome back a member who has changed his mind.

The solution to the problem identified by McAleese is thus not to eliminate infant baptism (as did many Protestant reformers with similar views), but to renew our efforts in helping members of the Church to live out their baptismal calling.