To Crown a Catholic King

The British Parliament is reexamining a 300-year-old law banning Catholics from the throne. According to one Catholic MP, ‘many of us feel that this is not only a profound insult to our faith but an indefensible relic of a time long gone.’ But some think there are other agendas at work, such as a push for secularization.

LONDON — An attempt to remove the last piece of anti-Catholic legislation in the U.K. has not received enthusiastic support from all of the country’s Catholics. Some think there are other agendas at work.

The Act of Settlement, enacted by Parliament in England in 1701 and later extended to Scotland, forbids Catholics or those who marry Catholics from wearing the crown.

Passed at a time when there was a fear of Catholics by the Protestant majority, it states that only Protestant heirs of Princess Sophia, granddaughter of James I, may ascend the British throne. It does not, however, prevent a Muslim or Jew or even an atheist from taking the throne.

Every so often there are calls in Parliament for the legislation to be scrapped, such as that by Catholic Member of Parliament (MP) Kevin McNamara in 2001.

The latest comes from Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. He has been quoted as saying, “It is wrong that anti-Catholic discrimination is written into the U.K.’s constitution.”

Catholic MP Stephen Pound believes the act is an example of anti-Catholic prejudice and paranoia that should have been exorcised long ago.

“In the U.K., Catholics can be the ruled but never the rulers, and many of us feel that this is not only a profound insult to our faith but an indefensible relic of a time long gone,” he said. “If the U.S.A. can elect and cherish a Catholic president and if we are considered sufficiently to sit in the House of Commons, then the assumption that we are all potential traitors in thrall to the bishop of Rome becomes an ever more absurd proposition, and I and many of my parliamentary colleagues will be backing Dr. Evan Harris.”

“Although my 21-year-old daughter has no ambition at present to marry one of the Saxon princes, I feel that she should at least have the opportunity to do so,” he added.

The Act of Settlement reared its head in 1978 when Prince and Princess Michael of Kent were married. A Catholic, the princess refused to convert to Anglicanism. As a result, Prince Michael, who was 15th in line to the throne, lost his place in the succession.

But when the duchess of Kent converted to Catholicism in 1994, her husband, the duke, retained his place in the succession because she was an Anglican at the time of their marriage.

In 2008, Canadian Autumn Kelly abandoned her Catholic faith for Anglicanism so that her then fiancé Peter Phillips, the queen’s grandson, would keep his place in the line of succession.

Catholic MP John Gummer has been staunch in his support of the repeal of the legislation.

“The Church of England is in the ridiculous position where it can be headed by a Mormon but not a Catholic, the largest Church in Christendom,” he said. “It does seem very odd that we believe in nondiscrimination about anything else, but we don’t believe that it is sensible as far as Catholics are concerned.”

Secularizing Bill?

Harris is an unlikely campaigner to repeal the last remaining law against Catholics. He is a supporter of permissive abortion laws and euthanasia.

He also wants to end the discrimination against female heirs to the throne. He believes the current law clashes with the U.K.’s obligations under the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the freedoms of belief and speech.

In fact, Harris wants to exclude religion from politics in Europe and, in his words, “keep it in the home.” He has argued for a secular Europe and doesn’t believe its Christian roots should play any part in shaping its laws.

Because of this, MP Ann Widdecombe, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, won’t support the bill.

“It’s an attempt to impose secularization on the country,” she said. “And it’s a direct attack on the Church of England. I won’t be supporting it, and neither will a lot of other Catholic MPs I know.”

Since the reign of King Henry VIII in the 16th century, the ruler of England has also been supreme governor of the established Church.

At her coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1953, Queen Elizabeth II pledged to maintain and preserve the Anglican Church’s doctrine, worship and discipline. In reality, however, she only acts on the advice of the prime minister (who is allowed to be Catholic).

Opponents to the repeal of the Act of Settlement argue that a Catholic would be unlikely to swear an oath to defend the Church of England because of allegiance to the pope.

Catholic Bishops

While the Catholic bishops in Scotland have been outspoken in their criticism of the 300-year-old legislation (the late Cardinal Gordon Winning once described it as “a grubby little secret that shames the nation”), the bishops of England and Wales have been more muted.

The late Cardinal Basil Hume showed little interest in it. And while Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor did write to parliamentarians in 2001, urging them to support McNamara’s bill, this time around he has stayed out of the debate.

The issue has always been very low on the bishops’ agenda because of the implications a change to the act would have for the Church of England. The last thing the bishops want is to be seen launching an attack on the established Church.

The bishops have always tiptoed around anything that might be construed as meddling in the affairs of the Church of England. Because of how a repeal of the act would affect the Church of England, few expect Harris’ bill to succeed.

Greg Watts writes

from London.

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