LONDON (RNS) – As U.S. Catholic Bishops debate whether President Joe Biden should receive Holy Communion given his support for the right to abortion, outrage has grown in the UK since the Chief Executive of the country, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, recently declared himself Catholic, much to the concern of British Catholics, some priests and parliamentarians.
The controversy began when it emerged that the twice divorced Johnson had been allowed to marry Carrie Symonds, his longtime girlfriend and the mother of his baby, Wilfred, in Westminster Cathedral, seat of Catholicism in London , May 29.
Biden has been known as a lifelong Mass follower – he recently attended mass in the parish church of St. Ives, the small seaside town next to the G-7 summit venue in Cornwall – but not Johnson. Now, however, it appears for the first time that the main politicians on either side of the Atlantic are both Catholics.
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Baptized into his mother’s Catholic faith, Johnson seemed to stray from it in his youth, being instead confirmed Anglican at Eton. Her first two marriages were civil – both invalid from the point of view of the Catholic Church, which allowed her to marry for the third time in a Catholic ceremony – and there was little indication until what left the cathedral that he was attached to the Catholic faith. .
In retrospect, there were signs. In September, for example, Wilfred was baptized Catholic. But it wasn’t until after Johnson and Symonds got married that the Diocese of Westminster said the two were baptized Catholics and Cathedral parishioners. For the very first time, it seems, the UK has a Catholic Prime Minister.
According to constitutional expert Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary, University of London, and himself a Catholic, having a Catholic prime minister in Downing Street is a turning point after hundreds of years of post-Reformation discrimination in Britain. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Hennessy said, Catholics made their way to positions of influence, being appointed Cabinet Secretary, Chief Executive Officer of the BBC, and Heads of Oxbridge Colleges.
âThe appointment to the post of Prime Minister is the completion of the rise of the stealthy Catholic minority,â Hennessy said.
The UK may seek to place religion at the heart of its public life – the Church of England is the established Church, with its Bishops sitting in the House of Lords and Queen Elizabeth II at its head. But Britain is also one of the most secular countries in the world, where a growing number of its citizens have no faith, although members of other religions including Islam, Judaism, the Sikhism and Buddhism, are becoming more and more important and vocal.
Only Roman Catholicism still has a contested place in Britain: by law, the monarch cannot be Roman Catholic (although other family members can belong to the church). And the implications of a Catholic in the country’s highest elected office are still considerable.
To take an example, the Prime Minister plays a role in the appointment of Church of England bishops. Under the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, no “person professing the Roman Catholic religion” is permitted to advise the monarch on the appointment of bishops for the Church of England. A Muslim or a Jew can, but a Catholic cannot. It seems likely that Johnson will deputize for Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland on this matter.
Johnson’s faith could affect Northern Ireland’s future as well. When Tony Blair delayed conversion to Roman Catholicism – the religion of his wife, Cherie, and their four children – until he left office, the appointment of bishops was a factor, but more so the way including a Catholic Prime Minister could be received in Northern Ireland. , where the Good Friday agreement of 1998 had finally made it possible to establish peace between nationalists and unionists divided along Catholic-Protestant lines.
Today, after more than 20 years of peace, Northern Ireland is in turmoil again as the reality of Brexit strikes. Johnson’s deal with the European Union to avoid the return of a ‘hard’ trade border to the island of Ireland has outraged trade unionists who believe the deal compromises the island’s ties with the UK. United. At a rally earlier this month in Northern Ireland, hundreds of trade unionists dressed in paramilitary-style clothing accused Johnson of betraying them.
If tensions rise over Brexit, said Steve Richards, British political commentator and author of “The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson,” “perceptions about it and mistrust could grow. The question of his Catholicism could play a role in this.
Even the allies of Mercuriel Johnson’s Conservative Party were surprised by his ability to persuade the Catholic Church that he was returning to their folds to marry.
âThe Tories I spoke to noticed his nerve,â Richards said. âIt’s very Boris. They saw it as an artifice. Her biggest political involvement will be if she breaks down, and then there is a question about her ability to stick to something.
At the recent G-7 summit, when Biden found time to attend mass on the Sunday of the meeting, Johnson did not, preferring to bathe in the nearby Celtic Sea. âThey wonder if the wool was pulled over the priests’ eyes,â Richards added.
When a political television interviewer asked Johnson at the end of the G-7 rally if he was now a practicing Catholic, Johnson replied, âI am not discussing these deep issues.
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In saying this, he was following in the footsteps of many recent prime ministers. When asked on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003 if he was praying with then-President George W. Bush, Blair looked very embarrassed, moved to his seat and said. finally answered no.
Since then, however, Blair’s informal “we don’t do God” policy has weakened, as prime ministers and their advisers see the potential to reach loyal voters. Johnson appointed a faith-based engagement advisor to produce a report on how the government could better engage with faith-based groups. Religious organizations and other bodies have been recognized by politicians as working effectively on issues of homelessness and drug addiction.
But unlike in the United States, questions of personal morality, such as abortion, do not play powerfully in the British public arena. If asked about it, look for Johnson to take another dip in the sea.