Parents must accept limits to compulsion in matters of their children’s faith

Young people must be allowed to make choices for themselves

Religion can often be a source of conflict in families, as Joyce’s fiction, and his life, showed. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Religion can often be a source of conflict in families, as Joyce’s fiction, and his life, showed. Photograph: Hulton Getty


The standard literature on the development of adolescents does not tend to profile teenage rebellion in respect of the faith commitments of their parents. I often direct students to read James Joyce or John McGahern on the subject – one that is often a source of conflict within Irish families.

An irony underlying any discussion of this issue is that within the tradition of Christian moral theology, children were judged to have reached the age of reason at seven.

They were deemed responsible and to have attained a degree of Mündigkeit, that is, the capacity to speak on their own behalf, which, indeed, is what is meant by responsibility.

At this age they were said to be capable of exercising moral responsibility and thus of committing mortal sin.

Though this view has been significantly qualified, the second half of the last century has seen research affirm the impressive reasoning abilities of young children. Yet it is parents who enjoy the right to decide on the religious upbringing of their children.

The Constitution of Ireland gives explicit expression to this tradition: in its support of education, the State must show “due regard . . . for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation”.

The right to withhold children from religious education is the sole prerogative of their parents and reflects the historical provisions that applied to primary schools and which are repeated in respect of vocational schools/community colleges and community schools.

Commitment to paternalism is not to be found only among religious parents. Despite the opposition of supporters of secularism or laïcité in France to the Catholic Church, its theorists can be, if anything, more uncompromisingly paternalistic towards young people than Catholics.

Practical consequences
It is easy to acknowledge that children are individuals rather than a homogeneous group but less easy to accept the practical consequences of such acknowledgment. In other words, it is one thing to espouse romantic, politically correct, child-centred views in theory, but it is quite another to accept that children can be actually allowed to make choices about what to believe.

Parents must be willing to accept the limits to the appropriateness of compulsion in matters of faith. They must allow young people to make choices for themselves, however much some parents may wish to keep them involved in the practice of faith or other parents may seek to exclude them from it.

It is perfectly legitimate to ensure that young people have a basis for their stances and that they are not acting as they do from laziness or peer pressure.

Sr Emmanuelle, to whom I referred in an earlier piece, is a good guide here. In her work in helping to create homes for street children, she emphasised the importance of teaching young people to care for one another and for all to respect religious difference.

Free will
In these homes, there was not to be the slightest trace of proselytizing intent. As she reminds readers, the essence of religion (re-ligio) is to bind human beings to God and to each other. Even young Catholics have to confirm their wish to attend Sunday Mass to ensure they are going willingly and of their own free will.

She shared the French passion to respect and preserve the sacredness of individual beliefs. Sr Emmanuelle therefore responded positively to her realisation that the truth claims of religion are contested. Regrettably her perception of the contested status of these claims may not be shared by all parents.

The duty to respect the sacredness of individual beliefs also applies to secular parents. Once a young teacher told me of a pupil who wanted advice from her about how he could get his parents to allow him to participate in religion lessons and to attend Mass on Sunday. His commitments and interests did not feature in his parents’ preferences regarding his beliefs.

In matters concerning religious belief, space must be left for the possibility of disagreement and dissent on the part of young people and for their capacity to reach their own decisions.

Dr Kevin Williams lectures at the Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City

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