LONDON — The U.K. government has proposed a new law that would allow members of the British royal family to marry Catholics without forfeiting their claim to the throne — but Prince Charles, the current heir to the throne, is reportedly unhappy with this idea.
The new law would also end the rule of primogeniture, with baby girls being given the same inheriting rights as boys.
The proposed changes mean that if the unborn child of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is a girl, the baby will become third in line to the throne, after her grandfather, Prince Charles, and her father, Prince William. Previously, a firstborn royal-family daughter could have had her claims superseded by a younger brother.
Though the move promised by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government would affect several previous laws, the most obvious is the 1701 Act of Settlement. That legislation was passed to block the Catholic heirs of King James II ascending to the throne and prohibited the British head of state from being Catholic or any member of the royal family marrying a Catholic without forfeiting the right of succession.
Its impact was recently seen in 2008, when Peter Phillips, the oldest son of the Princess Royal, married Canadian-born Catholic Autumn Kelly. In order for him to remain 11th in line to the throne, she was required to convert from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Another famous example is that of the Queen’s cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, who gave up his claim to the throne to marry a Catholic.
The British government has said that it intends to introduce the Succession to the Crown Bill to the House of Commons at the earliest possible date.
However, Prince Charles has reportedly raised concerns about the proposed changes. Though he is apparently happy as regards the rights of a baby girl, he has worries about the rules regarding marriage to Catholics. Allegedly, his main concern is that any child born of such a marriage would be raised a Catholic. As it is not proposed to change the law to allow a Catholic monarch, this would mean such a child would have to stand aside from possible succession to the throne. Prince Charles’ concerns center around the relationship between the British state and the established church — the Church of England.
The Church of England has also voiced concerns that any child could be brought up Catholic, as is required under canon law.
The proposed changes have been met with a lukewarm reception by U.K. Catholics.
Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, pointed out to the Register that the proposed changes “will not allow anyone in the line of succession to be — or to become — a Catholic or to raise their children as Catholics, without them losing their right to succeed.”
Therefore, he suggested that “succession to the crown will remain an invidious and deplorable example of anti-Catholicism.”
Kearney said that it is important to note that “neither current statute nor the proposed new law require that the head of state, who is also supreme governor of the Church of England, to be a communicant member of the Church of England. By law, a Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or whatever could be head of state and supreme governor. Needless to say, this compounds the offense caused to Catholics.”
Francis Davis, political commentator and columnist for the U.K.’s Catholic Times, said that the move was an easy one for secular politicians looking to garner easy popularity.
“This decision reflects the modern mood and is, helpfully for ministers [of Parliament], cost-free,” he told the Register. “Its only practical consequence would be a constitutional crisis, were a future monarch to convert to Catholicism.”
However, he said that he did not believe such a scenario would happen in “our lifetimes.”
He also warned that Catholics should be careful at rejoicing too much, as “the same forces of modernization and the majority mood which are opening up the senior reaches of the royal family to women and to Catholics are also bringing us same-sex ‘marriage.’”
Catholic peer Lord David Alton also struck a cautious note. Speaking to the Register, he said that the issue “surfaces from time to time; and when the opportunity arises, it would be right to remove the impediment on Catholics being barred from the throne.”
More Important Issues?
However, Lord Alton questioned whether this should be the pressing concern for Catholics, when “far-worse injustices face countless numbers of people in Britain.”
He said that he was “far more concerned about attempts, for instance, to ban Christians from wearing a cross or forcing Catholic midwives to take part in abortions,” which have both been the subject of recent legal cases, one of which found British Airways guilty of discriminating against a Christian for not allowing her to wear a small cross around her neck.
He also added that, “in other parts of the world, Catholics face horrific discrimination and even loss of life for their faith. Issues like the succession to the British throne tend to generate a lot of heat but can distract our attention from the relentless persecution and discrimination being faced by Christians in countries like Nigeria, Syria and North Korea.”
Concluded Lord Alton, “Catholics should be wary of spending a lot of time or energy on this.”
James Kelly is a columnist for The Universe and a researcher at the University of London.