This morning a certain priest (who may or may not be my putative “co-blogger” here) texted me to say, “British royal family opened to Catholics now! Time to take back the island!!” He was joking, of course, but it turns out, plenty of Brits are very worried about this exact thing.
Until yesterday, “a future monarch could marry someone of any faith except a Catholic.” So if Kate Middleton had been a Catholic, she would have had to convert to Protestantism (or anything besides Catholicism), or the wedding couldn’t have gone forward.
The rule also bars the future monarch himself from being Catholic (sorry, Prince Charles), as well as the Prime Minister. These anti-Catholic laws remain in place: so Kate Middleton can be a Catholic, but Prince William cannot, and neither can Prime Minister David Cameron. It was this last part that drew international attention to the discriminatory laws, because former Prime Minister Tony Blair was regularly attending Mass, but decided to wait until he left office to convert, since he would otherwise cause something of a constitutional crisis.
Allegedly, the ban on Catholic royals and Prime Ministers was because the Queen (or King) and the Prime Minister are involved in some capacity in the governance of the Church of England, the official state religion. But this reasoning didn’t bar non-Anglican Gordon Brown from becoming Prime Minister in 2007, after Blair stepped down. And the law only forbids Catholics: Prince William could married a Muslim or a Sikh, but not a Catholic.
Beyond all this, the Queen is also the head of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian. The reality is that these positions of authority are almost completely ceremonial – it’s not as if the Queen is being called upon to settle the issue of female or gay ordination, or even to decide between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism, for example. If an Anglican can head the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, and a Presbyterian can be Prime Minister of the (Anglican) Church of England, then sectarian purity seems to be of a somewhat lower import than defenders of this law would suggest. Where’s the outrage over Gordon Brown or Queen Elizabeth?
But the comments readers left in response to the article waxed conspiratorial. To take a sampling of just what I’ve seen from the front page, there’s this:
As for letting the Roman Catholics back into the succession, you can be sure that Rome will do everything in its power to ensure that any issue from such a marriage is brought up as a left-footer. This article is the start of the campaign – telling us not to worry our pretty little heads about it.
“Left-footer” is a bizarre anti-Catholic slur, if you’re not familiar. Here’s another of the Telegraph comments:
And if the child is secretly brought up as a catholic (mothers usually put their offspring to bed and, if religious, say goodnight prayers with them) and upon ascending the throne feels his/her allegiance is to Rome what might happen next?
What indeed? Why not allow British heads of state to be Catholic? There are a lot of Catholic heads of state throughout Europe. Are any of them handing the keys of the country over to the pope? Does Pope Benedict seem even a little like he really wants to be King of England? Finally, this comment gets right to the heart of things:
Any sovereign sympathetic to the Catholic Church could potentially act in a manner subservient to the Pope. Personally I don’t see the benefit in surrendering sovereignty to the Holy Roman Empire.
To justify this anti-Catholic prejudice, the commenter has to act like the Holy Roman Empire still exists, which it hasn’t, since 1806. And of course, even when it did exist, it wasn’t as if the Holy Roman Emperor was a docile servant of the pope.
In addition to these (and many, many, many more) anti-Catholic comments, they were a lot of atheists smearing all religions. And all this, in England!
Once upon a time, the Crown played a central role in these things, and the Prime Minister was actually a minister. Those days are long over. So, for that matter, are the days of Anglicanism mattering to the British, it seems. Currently, Anglicanism is only the third most practiced religion in England. Despite being the official state religion, there are more practicing Catholics and Muslims than practicing Anglicans, although the fastest growing religious group are non-religious. In fact, practicing Catholics outnumber practicing Anglicans simply because of (a) Eastern European immigration, and (b) Catholics leave the Church slower — both religious groups are in terrible shape, and have seen their numbers halved in the last few decades. This is made dramatically clear by the statistics compiled by the Church Society, measuring Anglican Sunday attendance from 1968 – 2009:
The change in the royal succession laws is good, in that it gets a blatantly anti-Catholic law off the books, and one that was causing heartburn as recently as 2007, with Blair’s conversion. But the sad reality is that this change is possible simply because religion of all sorts – Anglicanism, Catholicism, or theism in general – no longer seems to matter to the United Kingdom in the way that it once did. It’s largely played out as a battle between those who dislike Catholicism and those who dislike all religion. What we’re witnessing may not be the triumph of reason over anti-Catholic bigotry, but the triumph of secularism over religion of any and all sorts.