I wasn’t going to wade into the Boris Johnson wedding hullabaloo until I watched “Have I Got News for You” on Friday night.
The prime minister’s nuptials came up, and guest Clive Myrie said, “There’s clearly one canon law for the rich and one canon law for the poor.” (In his defence, he was quoting some unnamed priest.)
Ian Hislop then joined in.
“It’s a technicality,” Hislop said. “Obviously, the country was amazed that Boris should be failing to obey the rules in terms of his marriage as well as everything else.”
“Apparently,” he continued, “in this particular version of Catholicism, if you got married as a Catholic before, you’re married; if you’ve got married in the C of E before, you’re not married.”
Hislop is right: It’s a “technicality.” Johnson was “technically” baptised Catholic. Under Church law, “once a Catholic always a Catholic.” Catholics must get married before a Catholic cleric. Otherwise, the Church doesn’t recognize the marriage as valid. There are limited exceptions, dispensations, etc., but none of them applied to Johnson.
Although Johnson abandoned his faith for Anglicanism in his school days, his wife Carrie Symonds is a practising Catholic who wanted to be married in the Church.
Despite Myrie’s insinuation money or status was involved in getting Johnson’s previous marriages swept under the carpet, all it required was a baptismal certificate and his previous marriage licenses, signed by a non-Catholic minister or government official.
It happens thousands of times a year across the world, for rich and poor alike. It doesn’t even involve the annulment process, which is judicial, and often doesn’t even have to be handled by anyone but a parish priest.
Sometimes, for the sake of propriety, the Church can insist that a wedding happen “without publicity,” due to the possible scandal. Given Johnson and Symonds were married without any public notice, I am not sure what more the Archdiocese of Westminster could have done in accordance with Church law.
The “Have I Got News For You” discussion followed a June 4 article in the Church Times by Andrew Brown saying Johnson’s marriage to Symonds “shows the Roman Catholic Church in this country in one of its worst lights since the height of the child-abuse scandals.”
“He is not, of course, the worst character to have been married in a Roman Catholic church,” Brown graciously concedes, before adducing the example of Napoleon, who “was married to his second wife, Princes Marie-Louise, after he put aside the Empress Josephine.”
“In our own time,” Brown goes on to say, “the peculiarly loathsome American politician Newt Gingrich married his current (third) wife, Callista, after conducting a seven-year-long affair with her while still married to the woman for whom he had left his first wife while she was in hospital with cancer. The happy couple were ultimately rewarded when the devout Callista was appointed her country’s ambassador to the Vatican.”
Now, I don’t expect members of panel shows or even Church Times columnists to be experts on Catholic Church law. But let’s face it, most of those who are upset with the Catholic Church for allowing Johnson to marry his girlfriend (and mother of his child) are more upset with the prime minister’s policies than his — or the Church’s — morals.
All of them know people who have divorced and remarried — sometimes under sordid circumstances — and didn’t think that much of it, aside from the usual feelings after a friend or colleague goes through “rough times.”
They do not shake their fingers at the Protestant ministers that preside at the new weddings, nor do they look to deeply into how often a non-custodial spouse sees his or her children.
Elected officials expect this sort of treatment, but the ease with which commentators decide also to take a free swipe at the Catholic Church shows how much anti-Catholicism is still accepted in the UK.
But the nature of that anti-Catholicism is changing. It is more based on accusations of hypocrisy and corruption, than on the Church somehow or other being antithetical to British society.
Johnson is the first person baptised in a Catholic Church to be made prime minister — the post didn’t evolve until well after the Reformation — yet it didn’t even cause a peep at the time. (Admittedly, when Boris arrived at Number 10, there were more obvious red flags for his detractors.)
Johnson is now married to a Catholic, and his child has been baptized into the Catholic faith. Again, no questions have been raised about the propriety of a British prime minister being in such a situation.
Even the specifics of the marriage “case” — the public affirmation by the Catholic Church that a sitting prime minister’s previous marriages are “null” according to its law, and that the prime minister presumably accepted this fact before marrying in a Catholic cathedral — might have caused a political crisis in living memory.
That’s an improvement.
(And a non-political congratulations to the couple: Try to make it stick this time, Boris.)