Catholics won something of a symbolic victory last month when the leaders of 16 independent nations that recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state agreed to allow the monarch the right to be married to a Catholic.
The law until now has required that no one may be monarch if he or she is married to a Catholic.
In actuality, it does not mean that much. Elizabeth II’s spouse is not a Roman Catholic. Neither is the wife of her probable successor, Prince Charles, nor the wife of his likely heir, Prince William.
Still, it bothered some people in Britain and in the other Commonwealth countries. They saw Catholics slighted. In fact, a Catholic in Ontario actually took the matter to court. Canada’s Supreme Court upheld the ban. (Canada is participating in this present plan to overturn the prohibition regarding a monarch’s spouse.)
It all began in the late 17th century, when King James II was on the throne. Although his mother was a lifelong Catholic, he had been reared as a Protestant. As an adult, he converted. As king, he tried not only to give Catholics freedom of worship, but he favored Catholics, or that was what some people claimed. The tension between Protestants and Catholics already was significant.
In 1688, in what British historians call the “Glorious Revolution,” James II was driven from the throne. The law eventually was passed mandating that the monarch had to be a Protestant and so did the monarch’s spouse.
This recent action by these 16 nations is good news and bad news for Catholics.
It is good in that, albeit only symbolic, it gives evidence that Catholics are being recognized as full-fledged — and loyal — citizens. Already, however, practically all legal barriers for Catholics in their worship and their participation in British life have been removed. The other countries never restricted Catholics.
Speaking of symbolism, Queen Elizabeth II on many occasions has met popes. She officially has welcomed two popes to Britain.
Once Britain ignored major events in the papacy or at best gave them only minimal notice. Elizabeth has changed that. Six years ago, she sent her son, Prince Charles, to represent her at the funeral of Blessed Pope John Paul II. She named her husband, Prince Philip, as her representative at the installation of Pope Benedict XVI.
The dark side in all this is that so very many people in Britain, and in the other 15 countries, especially including the more powerful among them, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are willing to see this old slight against Catholics end not because they necessarily want to remove from their national structures any possible insult to Catholics, but because religion — any religion — means little or nothing to them.
So what? The United States is not Britain nor is it Australia or Jamaica. This is true, but this country very surely is drifting away from institutionalized religion. Down the road, perhaps nearer than we think, privileges historically given religion and individual religious beliefs in the United States at least may be diluted. It is no wild fear.
Privileges, such as exemption from taxation, were accorded religious institutions long ago in the thinking that these institutions supported the well-being of the society in ways other than by paying money in taxes. Sectarian schools provided education to citizens. Religious hospitals cared for the sick.
Increasingly, people are ignoring, or short-changing, the good achieved by these institutions and are beginning to resent them simply because they are religious.
Symbols are symbols. There also are realities.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.