U.K. Drops Anti-Catholic Rule of Succession

The British government did away with its more than 300-year-old law that stated that a member of the royal family would lose his place in the line of succession if he married a Catholic.

LONDON — Catholic leaders and commentators in the U.K. have welcomed a change in the law regarding the royal succession but have expressed reservations that it does not go far enough.

Following the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, attended by the 16 nations of which Queen Elizabeth II is monarch — including Canada and Australia — it was announced that members of the royal family would no longer lose their place in the succession for marrying a Catholic.

In addition, the new constitutional rules will give a female child the same rights as that of a male. Thus, if the first child of the recently married Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is a daughter, then her place in the royal succession will not be supplanted by a younger son.

Though the reforms will necessitate amendments to several acts, the most pressing is the 1701 Act of Settlement. Passed to block the Catholic heirs of King James II ascending to the throne, it prohibited a Catholic head of state and prohibited any member of the royal family from marrying a Catholic without forfeiting his right of succession.

Its impact was recently in evidence 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, which she did.

The decision to alter the succession laws was reached unanimously at the meeting in Perth, Australia. Any changes will not be applied retrospectively. However, the ban on a Catholic becoming monarch remains. Equally, if the monarch chooses to convert to Catholicism, then he or she will lose the throne.

Announcing the changes, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen. The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic — this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become.”

He continued: “Attitudes have changed fundamentally over the centuries, and some of the outdated rules — like some of the rules of succession — just don’t make sense to us anymore.”

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, hailed the move. He said, “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. This will eliminate a point of unjust discrimination against Catholics and will be welcomed not only by Catholics but far more widely.”

He noted, “At the same time, I fully recognize the importance of the position of the established [Anglican] church in protecting and fostering the role of faith in our society today.”

Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who is archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh in Scotland, gave a more muted response.

While welcoming “the statement from the prime minster indicating that his government together with all of the commonwealth heads of government intend to reform the royal succession,” he noted the limited effect of the change, saying, “I am pleased to note that the process of change, which I hope will lead to repeal of the Act of Settlement, has started; and I look forward to studying the detail of the proposed reforms and their implications in due course.”

Though not a Catholic, Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, which seeks independence from Britain, echoed such reservations. He said, “It is deeply disappointing that the reform has stopped short of removing the unjustifiable barrier on a Catholic becoming monarch.”

Referring to the monarch’s role as supreme governor of the Church of England, he said, “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. It is a missed opportunity not to ensure equality of all faiths when it comes to the issue of who can be head of state.”

The political commentator Christopher Graffius, writing in The Catholic Times newspaper, went further, describing the move as “an achievement, but it’s only partial.”

Noting that the ban on a Catholic becoming monarch remained, he described the alterations as “a sop to justice” that produces “a series of sectarian ironies.”

He said that the prime minister’s words about thinking in modern countries inferred “that although we are modern enough to reject sexual discrimination, we’re not grown-up enough to get rid of anti-Catholic discrimination.”

Graffius added, “No person, not even the monarch, should suffer civil disabilities because they exercise their freedom of religion. That is denial of basic human rights.”

James Kelly is a columnist for The Universe and a researcher at the University of London.

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