Are changes to monarchy rules out of respect, or indifference?

  • October 25, 2011

Commonwealth summits come and go, with often nothing more dramatic taking place than Queen Elizabeth having to smile benignly upon some less-than-benign leaders of various unlovely regimes. This week in Perth, Australia, will be different. It is expected that the 16 heads of government from those countries where Her Majesty is head of state will agree to modifications in the rules for succession. If they all agree, the British parliament will amend the 1701 Act of Settlement to i) remove male primogeniture in favour of simple primogeniture, and ii) remove the prohibition on heirs to the throne marrying Catholics.

Currently, males are preferred in the order of succession, even if they have an older sister. It seems rather incongruous to speak of unfairness in a hereditary monarchy, as heredity is always arbitrary, but it is generally accepted that treating sons and daughters equally would be more fair. Since 1701, the two longest reigning and most successful monarchs have been queens, Victoria and Elizabeth II — reigning nearly a combined 125 years — so the distaff side has taken a rather distinguished turn even under current norms.

As for the religious test, the prohibition on marrying a Catholic would be lifted. In 1978, when Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s first cousin, married a Catholic, he forfeited his (remote) place in the line of succession. Thirty years later, when the Canadian Autumn Kelly married the Queen’s grandson, she cast aside her Catholic faith in order to protect the place (equally remote) of Peter Phillips in the line of succession. Should some grisly massacre dispatch Her Majesty and the other 10 relatives ahead of him in the queue, Mr. Phillips will accede to the throne courtesy of his wife’s apostasy.

Which gets us to why I am rather ambivalent about the proposed change. It’s not just because, given the rather poor record of the past generation or two, it would be hard to recommend marriage into the Windsor clan to a good Catholic young gentleman or lady. It’s because the prohibition on the heir marrying a Catholic arose in a time when, mixed with all manner of profane priorities, differences in religion were taken seriously. People spoke of apostasy then. It might be reasonably expected that a prince with a Catholic wife may indeed have Catholic children, should the princess be interested in handing on her faith rather than abandoning it. That might lead to a Catholic heir which, given Henry VIII’s insistence that the British sovereign was to be head of the Anglican Communion, would be at least awkward. 

If the proposed change grew out of a genuine respect for religious liberty and pluralism, or was conceived as a step toward healing the violent sundering of the Church accomplished under Henry and his successors, then it would be welcome. If, to the contrary, it arises out of a certain religious indifference about matters of faith and morals, then it becomes just the latest sign that faith is an increasingly marginal part of British public life.

The musings some years ago by the Prince of Wales about his desire to be a “defender of faiths” rather than “defender of the faith” give cause for worry. To be a defender of faith in general, or of multiple faiths at once, is really not possible. It’s like being spiritual but not religious, which is as impossible as listening to music in general, without listening to a particular piece. It’s not possible to play sports in general; one has to select a particular sport. Likewise, it is not possible to have faith in general, but only faith in a certain something or someone. As a Catholic I would prefer a sovereign pledged to uphold the Anglican faith, with its adherence to a particular Christian creed, rather than a sovereign solemnly pledged to uphold nothing in particular.

So it is hard to know whether lifting the prohibition on the sovereign marrying a Catholic is welcome news or not. Most Catholics will rightfully accept it as a gesture of respect and courtesy, always welcome in a land burdened by a long history of Catholic persecution and discrimination. But the question will remain. Are Catholics now permitted to marry into the royal family because Catholics are entitled to that respect or it is because in today’s Britain no one cares much about religion at all?

As for the Queen — may the question of succession be long delayed!

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