The centuries-old law barring the British monarch from marrying a Catholic has been scrapped, but not the rule forbidding the monarch from being a Catholic.
“Let me be clear: The monarch must be in communion with the Church of England because he or she is the head of that Church,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron as he announced the change Oct. 28.
“But it is simply wrong they 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 decision was made at a summit of the 16 countries that still retain the British monarch as head of state. The gathering took place in the western Australian city of Perth.
The bar on the monarchy marrying a Catholic or personally being one has been British law since the passing of the “Act of Settlement” in 1701.
“I welcome the statement from the prime minster indicating that his government, together with all of the Commonwealth heads of government, intend to reform the Act of Settlement,” said Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland.
The cardinal previously labeled the act as “discriminatory and offensive,” which led him to say today that he is “pleased to note that the process of change, which I hope will lead to repeal of the act, has started.”
He was backed in that call by Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who also welcomed the lifting of the marriage ban, but said it was “deeply disappointing” that Catholics were still unable to ascend to the throne.
“It surely would have been possible to find a mechanism which would have protected the status of the Church of England without keeping in place an unjustifiable barrier on the grounds of religion, in terms of the monarchy,” he said.
However, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said he would not go as far as calling for the Act of Settlement to be entirely repealed.
“I welcome the decision of Her Majesty’s government to give heirs to the throne the freedom to marry a Catholic without being removed from the line of succession,” said Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England.
He described the move as eliminating “a point of unjust discrimination” against Catholics.
“At the same time,” added Archbishop Nichols, “I fully recognize 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 BBC News, he explained that “while the Church of England is the established Church,” it is “not unreasonable to expect the head of the Church of England should be an Anglican.”
The 18th-century Act of Settlement was aimed at preventing the descendants of the Catholic King James II from ascending to the throne. He was deposed in the 1688 “Glorious Revolution” by supporters of the Protestant William and Mary. Mary was the eldest Protestant daughter of James II and was married to William of Orange, who later became William III.
The question being asked by some today is what religion the children of an Anglican-Catholic royal wedding would be raised in? The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law (Canon 1125) only permits a mixed marriage where the Catholic party makes “a sincere promise to do all in his or her power in order that all the children be baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church.”
Archbishop Nichols said such a scenario “would be a very difficult situation indeed,” but stressed that he did not “think we should try to pre-judge” it because “it’s not even a practical possibility at the moment; it’s a theoretical possibility.”
He told BBC News that the Catholic Church’s practice of “sitting down with Catholics who are marrying outside of the Catholic community and trying to see how the marriage will develop” was “actually quite subtle” and “quite advanced.”
He explained that if and when the hypothetical case ever arose, the Church would 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.”
But Archbishop Nichols added that having that discussion “does not guarantee that the children in every mixed marriage are brought up Catholic.”
He explained that no guarantees can be given because the non-Catholic party “is not required to give any explicit undertaking about what they will do,” while the Catholic party is only expected to do “their best.”