Britain’s first Roman Catholic prime minister marries in Westminster Cathedral

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Image credit: James Cleverly

By Christopher Lamb

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, who is twice divorced, has married Carrie Symonds in Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales. News of these nuptials left many asking how this was possible given the church does not recognise divorce and believes that marriage is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman.

How could he marry in Westminster Cathedral? 

The prime minister is a baptised Roman Catholic as is his wife, Carrie Symonds. Both of them are parishioners at Westminster Cathedral, the nearest Catholic church to 10 Downing Street. Mrs Johnson, as she now is, has spoken of her Catholic faith in the past. The couple’s son was baptised at the cathedral. 

Mr Johnson’s earlier marriages, according to canon law, were not valid because they took place outside of the Catholic church and without the permission of the church. As a baptised Catholic he needed the approval for his earlier marriages. This means that he was free to marry. 

What about all the divorcées who are refused a church wedding? 

Many Catholics, including priests, were upset that the wedding highlighted the pain of those divorcées who are unable to marry in church. It is not about whether Mr Johnson should or should not be married in a Catholic church, but about the perceived lack of consistency of the rules in this area. 

As things stand, any divorcée legitimately married in the church’s eyes cannot marry again in church unless they have had their earlier marriage(s) annulled. While Pope Francis has sought to make this process more user friendly, annulments can be lengthy, and complex processes. Some people are reluctant to embark if they have had children in a marriage they are seeking to annul. However, an annulment of a marriage has no effect on the status of the children. 

The Catholic Church also recognises marriages between non-Catholics as “valid”, although these are not “sacramental” marriages. A marriage is valid if the couple freely consented and it was witnessed correctly. The assumption from the church is that these marriages took place in good faith and should be honoured. 

But in practice it means that a non-Catholic divorcée wishing to marry a Catholic needs their first marriage annulled, something which is increasingly common. 

It should be remembered, however, that as a legal code canon law does not make a judgment on the moral character of the individuals when it comes to marriage — it simply checks that people have not been married before, or whether they are free to marry. 

So is the church happy as long as the legal requirements are followed? 

Not exactly. Any couple wishing to be married in the Catholic church must undergo marriage preparation. A church marriage is a sacrament which both spouses have to take seriously and to know that they are making an “irrevocable covenant”. With marital breakdown common across many societies, the church has come to emphasise the importance of adequate marriage preparation. Pope Francis wrote in his family life document, Amoris Laetitia, that “marriage preparation should be a kind of ‘initiation’ to the sacrament of matrimony, providing couples with the help they need to receive the sacrament worthily and to make a solid beginning of life as a family”. Mr and Mrs Johnson would have undergone preparation before their marriage.  

Even so, couldn’t the church have said ‘hold on a minute, I’m not sure about this’? 

Yes, a priest could have advised the couple to wait, and take more time to discern. The bottom line is that the law of the church did not prevent the marriage taking place. 

Does this mean Boris Johnson is a Catholic? 

Yes. Membership of the church is defined according to baptism. Although Mr Johnson was confirmed into the Anglican Church as a teenager at Eton College, this does not constitute a formal defection from the Catholic Church. 

Is he Britain’s first Catholic prime minister — and is that even legal?

Boris Johnson is Britain’s first prime minister who has been baptised a Catholic, and appears to affiliate with the Catholic Church. The 1829 Catholic Relief Act, which permitted Catholics to take their seats in the Houses of Parliament, said it was unlawful for anyone “professing the Roman Catholic religion” to be involved in the nominations of Church of England bishops. Given the prime minister’s role in advising the crown on bishop nominations, this law made it virtually impossible for a Catholic to be PM. 

However, constitutional changes made by Gordon Brown reduced the prime minister’s role in the appointment of bishops, and effectively gave control to the Church of England to handle this process. 

Tony Blair, who became a Catholic after leaving office, decided not to convert while prime minister because of the constitutional difficulties. 

What is canon law and could it be changed? 

Canon law is a set of regulations and legal principles which governs the life of the Catholic Church. Over the church’s history, canon law has been updated and amended numerous times, with the current code of canon law for the western church was promulgated in 1983. (The eastern churches have their own code.) On Tuesday 1 June, the Pope authorised a sweeping revision of the code when it comes to penalties for sexual abuse. 

There are those who feel that when it comes to marriage, the code needs to be updated. Some argue that the Roman Church could adopt the approach Eastern Orthodox churches, which permit remarriage. 

 Has Pope Francis said anything about all this?

No. However, the Pope has repeatedly called for a more merciful “field hospital” church, which recognises the complexities of people’s lives. He is wary of religious rigidity, and the church needs to clear “legalism or clerical moralism”. Given Mr and Mrs Johnson’s wedding took place in accordance with the norms of the Catholic Church, there is no reason to suggest he would be opposed to the marriage. 

It’s possible the Pope will meet Mr and Mrs Johnson in Glasgow at the Cop26 summit in November. Francis has been invited and has indicated he wishes to attend. The meeting between a Pope and a British prime minister who is Catholic will be an historic moment, and something that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago.   

Further information

Statement from Westminster Cathedral.

Code of Canon Law.

Commentators

Catholic Voices: Eileen Cole [email protected] 

Dr Austen Ivereigh, author and commentator and founder of Catholic Voices [email protected] 

Christopher Lamb www.christopherlambmedia.com

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