News Analysis

What does the rise of Boris mean for Catholics?

Boris Johnson (Getty)

That Boris Johnson has become the first baptised Catholic to occupy 10 Downing Street might suggest that God has a sharper sense of humour than even the Prime Minister himself.

Johnson has both a rabbi and a Turkish Muslim in his family tree. But significantly his mother, Charlotte Fawcett, was a Catholic and he was baptised into her faith with Lady Rachel Billington, the daughter of Lord Longford, acting as his godmother.

It was noted on Holy Smoke, the religious affairs podcast of the Spectator, however, that Johnson was confirmed into the Anglican Communion while a boy at Eton College.

There is no sign that he has since gravitated to the faith of his mother, even though he shows himself to be biblically and theologically literate on occasions, urging Theresa May, a vicar’s daughter, for instance, to rise up in the spirit of Moses in Exodus and say to the Pharaoh in Brussels, “Let my people go.”

He once remarked that his religious views were like a signal for Magic FM in the Chilterns: coming and going (a line appropriated by David Cameron). But he admits it would be “pretentious” to assert he is a practising Christian of any hue.

Such ambivalence might have been reflected in the quip he made at a hustings last month, that he sought “a modern British culture in which we love each other in a Christian spirit, or a non-Christian spirit”.

With a private life as colourful as it is public, it would indeed be difficult and unwise for Johnson to preach. Yet his religious reticence will not make it easy for those Catholics who are wondering what his tenure will mean for them.

It is clear, however, that his priority is delivering Brexit, and surely it was with this purpose in mind that he sacked so many of Theresa May’s Cabinet, replacing ministers with those who share his key objective.

That was a point missed by the Guardian, which whinged about the voting records of some of his appointees. The newspaper complained that his “Cabinet for modern Britain” included five MPs who voted against same-sex marriage in 2013.

Gavin Williamson, the new Education Secretary, is among them and he will now oversee the introduction of rules compelling primary schools to instruct children on the range of sexual lifestyles available.

Fifteen members of Johnson’s Cabinet were absent from the vote to impose abortion upon Northern Ireland, noted the Guardian, while Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, turned up to vote against it.

Two members of his Cabinet have voted to decriminalise abortion, while one opposed it and 18 abstained. Only one member, Robert Jenrick, the new Housing Secretary, has voted in favour of assisted suicide.

Although the Prime Minister himself is a believer in a legal right to abortion, he has consistently abstained from voting on pro-life matters. It may be significant also that he has said that abortion should not be imposed on Northern Ireland against the wishes of the populace.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, is the single conspicuous Catholic in the Cabinet. But he was appointed not because of his unapologetic faith (though this might be a bar in other parties) but because of his commitment to Brexit.

The Prime Minister’s so-called “war Cabinet” is not a culture war Cabinet, but one committed to delivering the wishes of a narrow majority of the British electorate following the referendum of 2016. Despite this single-mindedness, many doubt that Johnson really will take Britain out of the EU within the three months that remain before the deadline of October 31.

Even if he accomplishes such a feat, his work will only be the beginning. Anyone who has seen the aftermath of a divorce or separation knows that it marks the start of an often difficult journey rather than the end of one. Pragmatism will be required to maintain existing peaceful and harmonious relationships with the member states of EU, as well as to establish new relations in the post-Brexit era.

Besides preserving peace, Christians will also be anxious to see a commitment to ending persecution overseas.

In this, they can draw consolation from a tweet by Johnson last month:“If I am fortunate enough to become PM, I will always prioritise protecting religious freedoms and stand up for those facing persecution.”

Given the increasing intolerance towards Christians at home, it is interesting that the Prime Minister has reinstated his brother as universities minister. Jo Johnson had previously imposed a duty on all universities to demonstrate to the Office for Students, the regulator for higher education, just how they would uphold freedom of speech at a time when dissenting voices were being silenced. The appointment of one Johnson by another may be seen as either nepotistic or pragmatic – but for Christian and pro-life students, it could be an encouraging sign.