Change in British Law Will Allow Monarchs to Marry Catholics
by David Gibson
British law dating back more than 300 years has banned monarchs both from being Catholic and marrying Catholics. But it seems the law prohibiting monarchs from choosing a Catholic mate is about to change.
Prime Minister David Cameron announced planned changes in the laws governing royal succession Oct. 28 during a summit of Commonwealth heads of government in Perth, Australia. His announcement came after he secured the agreement of 16 nations within the Commonwealth who recognize Queen Elizabeth II as head of state — nations that, with England, will need to amend laws in order to enact the changes.
The change that perhaps captured the greatest immediate attention allows a monarch’s oldest child to succeed to the throne, whether or not the child is male. This reverses the centuries-old practice of placing younger sons above older daughters in the royal line of succession.
However, many commentators underlined the significance of the second change, which opens the door for a monarch to marry a Catholic. The decision was welcomed both by the Catholic archbishop of Westminster (London) and the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury for ending a discriminatory practice.
That’s not to say there will be no challenging questions to deal with after some future monarch decides to marry a Catholic. There always are questions to resolve in mixed marriages — in this case, the question particularly of the religious upbringing of an Anglican-Catholic royal couple’s children.
After Cameron’s announcement, numerous reports noted the anomaly that monarchs have been free to marry members of other Christian and non-Christian communities, but not to marry Catholics. Cameron called it “simply wrong” that monarchs “should be denied the chance to marry a Catholic if they wish to do so. After all, they are already quite free to marry someone of any other faith.”
The prime minister made clear, though, that “the monarch must be in communion with the Church of England because he or she is the head of that church,” which remains Britain’s established church.
Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury happened to be in Rome at the time of Cameron’s announcement. Interviewed Oct. 28 by Vatican Radio, the Anglican leader said his “immediate reaction is that the possibility for the monarch to marry a Catholic is not something I lose any sleep over.”
However, Archbishop Williams continued, “the constitutional question — of course the tough one — is the upbringing of any heir to the throne in an Anglican environment.” The archbishop stressed that “so long as the monarch is supreme governor of the Church of England, there needs to be a clear understanding that the heir is brought up in that environment.”
In further remarks, Archbishop Williams said he thinks “the question of royal marriage … understandably has aroused a certain amount of popular feeling because it looks like a simple question of human rights, and it also looks like a bit of an anachronistic discrimination against Roman Catholics dating back to the time when people saw them as the Taliban of their day.”
In a statement the same day, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster said he welcomed the government’s decision “to give heirs to the throne the freedom to marry a Catholic.” The decision “will eliminate a point of unjust discrimination against Catholics and will be welcomed not only by Catholics but far more widely,” the Catholic leader stated.
Archbishop Nichols said that “at the same time” he fully recognizes “the importance of the position of the established church in protecting and fostering the role of faith in our society today.”
Later, in an interview with the BBC, Archbishop Nichols was asked how a Catholic marrying an Anglican monarch would meet the demands of Catholic canon law, which requires the Catholic “to do all in his or her power so that all offspring are baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church.”
Archbishop Nichols indicated that the Catholic bishops would not precipitate a crisis over this issue. He commented that as long as the Church of England remains Britain’s established church, “it’s not unreasonable to expect” that the church’s head “should be an Anglican.”
Of course, the archbishop said, the question of the religious upbringing of the children in such a marriage “would be a very difficult situation indeed,” but he said he did not “think we should try to prejudge” it because “it’s not even a practical possibility at the moment, it’s a theoretical possibility.”
He explained that if a case actually arises, the Catholic Church will talk to the Catholic party “about the duty and expectation of the Catholic to give their best endeavors within the unity and harmony of the marriage to bring up their children Catholic.”
However, such discussions do “not guarantee that the children of every mixed marriage are brought up Catholic,” Archbishop Nichols pointed out. For, while the Catholic party is expected to do his or her “best,” the partner who is not Catholic “is not required to give any explicit undertaking about what they will do.”
How significant is it, really, that in the 21st century the way is being cleared for British monarchs to marry Roman Catholics? Well, it’s a long way from the 16th-century religious turmoil in England that sent Catholics and Catholic worship into hiding. It’s a long way from the times of King Henry VIII who, seeking to marry Anne Boleyn, broke with the pope in order to nullify his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.