Now that the Prime Minister’s baby Wilfred has been given a Catholic baptism at Westminster Cathedral, it may be time for the parents to consider another sacrament: marriage. And what baby Wilf’s baptism reminds us is that there’s no reason why the wedding shouldn’t be a Catholic one. Both bride and groom are baptised Catholics. The PM’s first marriage, a golden affair, to his lovely university girlfriend, Allegra Mostyn Owen, in 1987, was not in a Catholic Church. Neither was his second, to Marina Wheeler. And within the rules that determine what counts as a valid marriage for a Catholic, is the requirement that the ceremony be in a Catholic Church, with a priest presiding, unless you obtain express permission to have it elsewhere. In other words, so far as the Church is concerned, both parties are free to enter marriage.
There are a few hurdles. Before a marriage is celebrated, it must be evident that nothing stands in the way of its valid and licit celebration. Canon law stipulates that you are bound by the bond of a prior marriage unless the nullity or dissolution of that marriage is established. But because the two previous weddings happened outside a church and weren’t conducted by a priest, that should be sufficient to prove that they weren’t valid for the church, though obviously both marriages were perfectly legal in civil law.
Then there’s the expectation – though not an absolute requirement – that Catholics getting married should have been confirmed in the faith; for the PM, who seems not to have taken his baptismal faith on board in any respect, that could be tricky. Boris doesn’t quite fit into the category of people who are problematic for having “notoriously rejected the Catholic faith” but his faith would seem at best, fallow.
Canon law also stipulates that “to receive the sacrament of marriage fruitfully, spouses are urged especially to approach the sacraments of penance and of the Most Holy Eucharist”. This may not be a problem for the bride, but for the PM, it would mean receiving not just one sacrament, marriage, but three. He would have to make a confession of his sins and receive communion. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly. Again, it’s not an absolute requirement.
There are other possible impediments…there’s one to do with “public propriety arising from an invalid marriage after the establishment of common life or from notorious or public concubinage”. And then Boris is “bound by natural obligations towards another party or children arising from a previous union”. It wouldn’t prevent him marrying Carrie, but it would mean the church would have to be satisfied that he had made proper provision for his previous wives and children.
In other words, if the PM and Carrie want a Catholic marriage, they will have to be prepared to put up with scrutiny of the way in which he entered into his previous marriages and whether he has met his obligations to his first and second wives and his other children. He may also have to think about whether he wants to take his Catholicism seriously. All this has moral implications; would he campaign to change abortion laws, for instance? Tony Blair became a Catholic without changing tack on that issue.
But if Boris and Carrie were prepared to take pains to satisfy canon lawyers, theirs could be not just a valid marriage but a sacramental one. My own marriage is valid but not sacramental because my husband is not baptised; theirs would be sacramental, a symbol of the union of Christ and his church, because it is between two people baptised in the faith. And that would give it, in theological terms, greater firmness and greater grace.
All this may seem arcane to the point of irrelevance for most contemporary Brits, for whom the difference between cohabitation and marriage isn’t a big deal, let alone between one kind of ceremony and another. But if you take seriously the notion of Christian marriage, it is matters. It really would be a fresh start.
There are Catholic clergy who will, I am afraid, be cynical about Boris’s capacity to undertake the obligations of marriage which include fidelity and permanence. One priest I know felt that his erratic track record means there would be doubts about his sincerity and commitment – which could make a future annulment possible.
A Catholic wedding would be a very different matter from a soulless affair in a register office. It’s not a guarantee the marriage will last but it would help. It’s worth the wait.