Constructing normative ethics for child protection and children's rights in a multicultural but largely secular society: a defence of children's graced autonomy.

  • Catherine Shelley

Student thesis: Phd


The thesis defends a critical theological engagement with rights and autonomy as the basis for protecting children. It was prompted by child protection cases encountered as a lawyer involving families from minority religious communities. The cases raised questions about cross-cultural norms for child protection. The need for such norms, emphasised in the Laming report into Victoria Climbie's death through exorcism, is further highlighted by phenomena like forced marriage and 'honour' killing. Government documents and judicial decisions assume that such norms are found in children's rights and welfare. Yet welfare is indeterminate and in some circles rights are seen as incompatible with religion, unrealistic in their universal aspirations and criticised for liberal assumptions about autonomy and reason. The problems are examined through contextual illustrations from contemporary debates about forced marriage, religious dress, 'honour' killings and sexuality, corporal punishment, faith-based education and adoption. The introductory chapter sets out the problematic, methodology, legal and religious sources and paradigms and the limits of the research. The second chapter considers earlier explorations of cross-cultural bases for child protection norms and identifies their limitations; in particular assumptions of agreement over what constitutes harm are challenged. Chapter three examines specific illustrations of secular or liberal concern which highlight differing understandings about what is harmful for children. In chapter four the worldviews, epistemology and theology underlying such differences are examined in greater depth, identifying divergent views about autonomy as a key factor in the differences. Chapter five considers the concept of autonomy from the perspective of Christian theology, particularly that of Karl Barth and Christian arguments concerning rights. This process enables the construction of a theological defence of autonomy and rights in which autonomy is understood not as libertarian freedom but as the graced uniqueness of cognitive, affective and bodily integrity and identity inherent in all human beings from birth. Such autonomy is the gift of personhood in 'what is least fathomable and controllable in the human subject' that human rights are designed to protect. Graced autonomy can only be lived in relationship with family, community and God but recognises that without respect for each person's integrity and worth right relationship is impossible. Rights are defended as necessary in addressing distortions of power even exploitation which subordinates the interests of some to more powerful others, both individuals and communities. Rights based on graced autonomy also provide more substance to what constitutes worth in terms of the material, social and participative. The sixth chapter assesses the compatibility of the paradigm of graced autonomy with Islam and Judaism whilst the seventh and final chapter considers the implications of the paradigm for various areas of public and legal debate concerning children and adults. In addition further areas of research and exploration of the paradigm are considered for example implications for theological literacy in frontline social work, further testing in other faith traditions and application to adults' rights.
Date of Award1 Aug 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorElaine Graham (Supervisor) & Caroline Bridge (Supervisor)


  • Children's Rights
  • Theology and Rights
  • Multiculturalism

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