Pete Whitehead explains and reflects on Boris Johnson’s recent marriage in the Catholic Church. 04/06/21
Picture, if you will, an English ruler. He is well known for his many wives, and a historically contested number of children – for his historically contested relationship with Europe too, not to mention his turbulent relationship with the Catholic Church. An alpha male who expresses his sensitive side in Latin.
I am of course thinking of Boris Johnson.
OK, OK, I’ll admit the Henry VIII metaphor is low–hanging fruit. But it’s also significant – for perhaps there would be an understandable practical, realpolitik case for the Prime Minister’s preferential treatment if Britain were still a Catholic nation. In reality, it was precisely Rome’s unwillingness to bend to secular power (and on an issue of marriage, no less) which paved the way for the Reformation in England to take hold. Catholicism is not our state religion; indeed, this (not the exact number of wives) is arguably Henry VIII’s greatest historical significance. And so, against the historically charged backdrop of Anglophone Catholicism, the English Catholic Church really ought to (and could) have been a little more prudent in their handling of Johnson’s marriage. It is all so deeply ironic.
How, then, did a divorcee get married in the holiest (and most beautiful, for my money) Church in British Catholicism?
The Canon Law grounds for this marriage have been widely covered in the Catholic press. Put simply (though few things in Canon Law are really that simple) the Church is bound by ‘canonical form’ – the conditions required for marriages to be considered valid. Since neither of his previous two marriages had correct canonical form – a Priest was not present, and they were not conducted within the Catholic Church, so are not valid under canon law – they do not stop him from marrying now. He isn’t remarrying; he was simply never properly married.
That might well be the case, technically speaking. But there’s also little denying that for many Catholics, Johnson’s marriage does not sit easily. How many good priests will have to – perhaps already have – explain to their parishioners that they cannot get married, but Johnson can?
After all, as things stand, a Catholic who converted having been married and divorced cannot be remarried, even if their wedding didn’t occur with the Church’s blessing. Likewise, a Catholic who is married, abused by their spouse, divorces them and finds love again cannot marry, and if they do so civilly cannot receive the sacraments of the Church.
Meanwhile, a man, twice married, a serial adulterer, who may or may not know how many children he has, is welcomed with open arms. In the words of Pope Francis this week, ‘Marriage isn’t just a ‘social’ act; it’s a vocation born from the heart.’ One wonders how the Prime Minister understands his most sacred vocation as a husband.
Even if the grounds are sound in terms of canon law, many Catholics would therefore be right to wonder if the average member of the laity would be afforded such a cordial relationship with the Church if they had Johnson’s marital history. I suspect not.
Marriage aside, many Catholics have pointed out the watershed moment this might well represent for our faith. Johnson would be the first Catholic prime minister – Blair, though now a Catholic, waited until he had left office to convert. Certainly, after our history of anti–Catholic persecution and anti–Catholic laws on the books in recent memory – it wasn’t until 2001 that the late David Cairns was allowed to become an MP, having previously committed the ‘crime’ of being a Roman Catholic priest – it’s good to see a Catholic in number ten.
It’s good, but not a panacea.
It wasn’t clear for many Catholics why Johnson’s marriage could go ahead, but that of their friend, brother, or son cannot. Of course, every Catholic has a right to the sacraments, providing there is no impediment. But the laity also has the right to decent communication from the Church, decisions explained, and reasoning laid out clearly and plainly. This need is made even more pressing when the Church is dealing with political power, to ensure that the appearance of preferential treatment of those with secular authority never gets a foothold. Francis has tried to avoid politicisation of the Church wherever possible. Especially with the US Bishops potentially attempting to block Joe Biden from receiving communion amidst claims of institutional capture by the Republican Party, it is incumbent upon Church leaders to ensure that the Church doesn’t become a political football.
For me, one of the greatest elements of the Francis papacy has been his rhetoric around the Church becoming a field hospital. He expanded on this metaphor in an interview with the Jesuit magazine, America: ‘I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.’ This is not the Papacy of the “Benedict Option”. The Church is called to minister to the sick, treat people as they come in, and ‘then talk about everything else.’ To continue the Holy Father’s metaphor, a hospital – or at least one in the UK – gives you the same treatment; prince or a pauper, prime minister or not. The Church would do well to advertise that.
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