Thank God for the Act of Settlement (1701). It keeps us focused. In the past week newspapers have been focusing on poor Peter Phillips, tenth in line to the throne, who is engaged to Autumn Kelly, a Canadian Catholic. If she does not abandon her religion, he will have to renounce his right to succeed — or call the wedding off.
That’s the deal with the Act of Settlement — the Supreme Governor of the Church of England may not be married to a Roman Catholic — and RCs are said to be very cross. In the words of the Times’s excitable Ruth Gledhill, the Act ‘has for centuries been a cause of anguish to Catholics’. According to my friend Christine Odone, ‘he [Phillips] and Miss Kelly face the kind of sacrifice that recurs in medieval chronicles along with witch-burning and lepers’ bells…’
Whoa, girls. Most Catholics have never heard of the Act of Settlement. Those who have are inclined to look at the younger male members of the royal family, and ask one another: ‘Well, would you allow your daughter to marry one?’
The Act is certainly discriminatory, but so what? Catholicism is discriminatory. In the eyes of the Rome, for example, the Church of England is heretical, its orders invalid. Catholicism is also subversive. It rejects much that the secular world holds dear: recreational sex, choice, gay marriage, artificial contraception, liberal capitalism. Worse, at least as far as the Daily Mail is concerned, Rome is European.
Does that mean, as angry Protestants insist, that the loyalties of Catholics are divided? Yes, up to a point. If in matters of faith and morals there were a conflict between the Church and the Crown, Catholics would (or anyway should) side with the Church. Here and there, I gather, there are Catholics who still cannot bring themselves to rejoice in the defeat of the Armada.
In truth, the Act of Settlement is nothing more than a device to frustrate humbug. It reminds us who we are and what we profess to believe. It is a defining act, and must remain in place for so long as England is a Protestant country. That won’t be for much longer, of course. Charles will become defender of faiths, the Church of England will be disestablished, the Act of Settlement will be repealed, and England will become, in law as well as in fact, a secular state. That will be a pity. Anglicanism may be a heresy, but it is, as Cardinal Newman observed, ‘a serviceable breakwater against errors more fundamental than its own’