Friday, 3 August 2007

Does it matter?

I see it has emerged that the fiancee of the Queen's grandson, Peter Phillips, is a baptised Catholic. OK, so they've been living together for years, and her given name is Autumn, which wasn't a saint's name last time I looked. And nobody knows whether she's a practising Catholic. But her mother is quoted as saying that Autumn is "proud of her religion".

The trouble is, under the 1701 Act of Settlement, which is still in force, monarchs and their heirs are forbidden to become or marry Catholics. There are apparently only two solutions: he must give up his right to the throne, or she must "formally give up her membership of the Church".

Of course, there is a fairly recent precedent - when Prince Michael of Kent married a Catholic, he gave up his right to succession. He was eighth in line to the throne at the time of their marriage, while Peter Phillips is currently tenth in line.

So you might say, who cares? It's highly unlikely he's giving up anything that would ever come to fruition, and a lot of people, even here in Britain, don't care about the British Royal Family anyway, and would be quite happy if the country became a republic.

But we should care. In fact, we should be making a real song and dance about this. Religious discrimination is supposedly forbidden by law in this country. And yet we still have a law on our statute books which directly discriminates against Roman Catholics in particular. What's more, it hasn't just remained on the statute books because everyone's forgotten about it - John Gummer attempted to have this outdated law overturned earlier this year, pointing out in his speech some of the other ways in which Catholicism is still legally discriminated against in the UK today.

You could say it's important for our monarch to be a member of the Church of England, since they are the titular head of the Church of England. But the law doesn't forbid royals to become or marry atheists, Buddhists or Moslems. No, it's just Catholics who are singled out for special treatment.

Time after time after time we have seen Catholicism treated with suspicion, disrespect and downright hostility. Look at the comments to the Daily Telegraph article I linked to at the start of this post - this one could have come straight from the most hardline leader of the Chinese Communist Party:

"Should any of his children come to the throne then the Pope will have authority over them."

Oh yes, the old "Catholics are ruled by a foreign power and so shouldn't be trusted because they're unpatriotic" argument.

Why is it that Catholics are the one minority that it's still acceptable to discriminate against in modern Britain?

I'll be interested to see if the people who bang on about civil liberties and human rights take up the cause for the repeal of the Act of Succession. My money's on them doing absolutely nothing of the sort.


Mac McLernon said...

Brown declared openly that he would not be seeking to repeal this form of discrimination...

Anonymous said...

You're not alone. Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable - and seemingly most popular - prejudice in the US. :\ The press especially love to stir it up every chance they get.

Ma Beck said...

Far be it from me to comment on the inner workings of the monarchy (because I don't know anything about it), but that's loopy.
I can't believe the English put up with that kind of discrimination.
And hooray for Prince Michael of Kent!

Dracunculus said...

Well count this as one civil libertarian who agrees with you. I can see why the original act was there, both England the the Papacy were very different animals back in 1701; then you guys were the al-qieda de jour as far as the people in power were concerned!

These days of course it's all a bit different. I can't imagine those guys with the halberds and stripey pantaloons posing much of a military threat. Also I think Princess Anne had horses in her stables who were higher up the line of succession than Peter Phillips but it does seem like one of those silly old laws like the one about having to practice archery on a Sunday that need to be retired.

I'm wondering if the reason it wasn't is something to do with the Northern Ireland peace process? This silly old law gets retained as a sop to Paisley's mob so that they'll never have to swear allegiance to a "papist" king ("No surrender Billy" and all that rubbish) Realpolitik trumps fairness and reason every time.

That said I'm more worried about the influence of the church on my politicians than some royal with no power. I expect my elected representative to represent the wishes of his or her electorate, which could be a bit tricky if this
sort of threat
is hanging over you to make sure you vote the "right" way.

diana said...

Very interesting...

newhousenewjob said...

Hmmm, that takes us back to the issue we discussed before of when life begins and should start being protected, Drac - I think we concluded that we'd just have to agree to disagree on that one.

Dracunculus said...

We did... but let's skip the details of what church was saying to politicians and look at the principle.

As an example let's take a muslim MP and imagine there is a bill before the house to offer increased subsidies to pig farmers as a result of hardships suffered in the recent foot and mouth outbreak.

"Ah!" says this MP's imam, "pigs are forbidden in islam and those who raise them are unclean beyond imagining. If you vote in favour of this bill you will be cast out of the Mosque and be declared an unbeliever and never get to heaven when you die."

Now would that be acceptable?

newhousenewjob said...

OK, abortion is different because everyone agrees with the basic premise that the right to life should be protected - the problem comes with deciding whose life is 'valid' and worth protecting (when life begins and whether it's worth protecting someone who is expected to have a short life span or to have a 'low' quality of life). I would defend to the hilt any Catholic politician's right to oppose the taking of a human life, regardless of the opinions of any other people about whether that life is worth saving yet. And that's the point on which we have to agree to differ.

Now, beyond the fact that the prohibition of pig flesh has no such universal principle underpinning it, I can't comment on the dictates of the Moslem conscience.

So what would the Catholic equivalent of your Moslem example be? Perhaps the prohibition of contraception? Well, I'm perfectly comfortable with the proposition that Catholics shouldn't be allowed to ban the use of contraception for non-Catholics, just as Moslems shouldn't be allowed to ban the sale of pig meat to non-Moslems. But if you're talking about giving money to the contraceptive industry, or actively promoting the use of contraception as the main or only viable alternative (as opposed to, say, abstinence or fidelity), then I think any Catholic politician should have the right to refuse to have any part in that. And if that means voting against subsidies for the Durex factory, or refusing to ratify an anti-AIDS campaign that treats condom use as the only reasonable way to prevent the spread of AIDS, then so be it.

But maybe there's a difference between actively promoting a particular lifestyle and supporting people who have suffered a disaster in their business ventures. Suppose several factories had suffered severe losses as a result of flooding, and the government was going to give compensation to all of those businesses. Would it be right for the Catholic politician to say he would only vote in favour of the compensation if the Durex factory was excluded?

I think there's a fine line there - compensating business owners for their losses is different from actively promoting and encouraging a particular industry. Refusing to compensate an abortion clinic would be acceptable, because abortion just can't be justified if you believe that life begins at conception, but refusing to compensate the Durex factory would be less so, I think. I'd be interested in other people's views on that...