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Why British and Commonwealth Catholics Venerate their Protestant Monarch

Above: then Prince Charles, now the ascended King Charles III, kisses the hand of his mother, her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Photo credit MSN

The spectacle is undeniably impressive, though predictable and in part long-planned. Even those whose own values do not align with the underlying message can but stand in awe, in fact, at the scale of the thing, and the depth of feeling it so clearly evokes.

I am referring, if course, to the reaction of the American Left-wing media to the death of Queen Elizabeth. While the press of other countries, like their political leaderships, has reacted in a dignified and respectful way to this seismic and melancholy national event, the American Left-wing media, led by the New York Times, has given us a display of rage and hatred that is a bit unhinged. There are many reasons for this that I do not intend to explore; more troubling for non-Americans than the woke ravings of the Left is the fact that, as I have discovered over the years, a degree of incomprehension and even hostility to the institution of monarchy is not limited, in America, to one side of the political divide. It even extends to some Traditional Catholics.

I want therefore in this piece to take the opportunity to try to give an explanation and defense of the British monarchy, at least to traditionally-minded Catholics, who should be more open-minded about it than “the gray lady” of New York. I will do so in three stages. First, I will say something about the role and importance of human traditions; then about the monarchy as an institution; and finally, specifically about the British monarchy, and Queen Elizabeth.

Human Traditions

I start with human—that is, non-divine—traditions because the anti-traditional attitude is so powerful in secular culture, that even some Catholics who accept the importance of divine Tradition with a capital “T”, as a source of Revelation in Catholic theology, can be dismissive of any other kind of tradition. It’s one thing (they might say) to acknowledge that Jesus Christ revealed things to the Apostles which were not written down in Scripture, which therefore come to us by Tradition; it is quite another to feel obliged to do (or believe) things simply because some fallible humans in the past happened to choose to do (or believe) them. And that’s what human traditions are, aren’t they?

Well, not quite. I would define traditions as those practices which have been performed by our predecessors (ancestors, predecessors in the Faith, previous incumbents in the roles we fill, etc.), which (a) have been continued over time by successive generations (not necessarily without breaks), and (b) have been regarded as significant, and are therefore (c) regarded as binding to some degree on the present generation.

Thus it is likely that we feel that we ought, in some sense, continue various inherited cultural practices, such as Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas trees, attending Shakespeare plays, and so on. There may be reasons why it is impossible on a particular occasion, and it may be that we were not ourselves inducted into the tradition in our own families, but if we see ourselves as members of a cultural group that is historically characterised by some practice, we can adopt or revive it.

These things have value because things characteristic of a cultural group are markers of identity. They give members of the group shared experiences and a sense of belonging, both synchronically, with other living members of the group, and diachronically, with previous generations. Discussions about the origins of the practices are usually besides the point. If members of a group identify them as things they ought to perform, because they are members of the group, they will function as markers of identity. A cultural group must by definition have traditions to distinguish it from other groups.

We want to be members of cultural groups because it gives us a sense of belonging. We could meet our physical needs in a bland, impersonal hotel, but what we want to live in is a home. Home is where we can relax and be ourselves; it is characterised by things that distinguish it from other people’s homes. Some of these markers of identity will be specific to one’s nuclear family, others to wider groupings of which one is also a member. These locate one in a group which may be of practical assistance (say, in a calamity), in terms of who we feel ourselves to be, and where we are located in history. They prevent us from being, in Pope John Paul’s striking phrase, “prisoners of the present” (Orientale lumen (1995) 8).

Ecclesial and political institutions include a range of cultural groups, but also have a cultural manifestation of their own. Cultural identities can be combined: one can be Irish, an American citizen, and a Catholic, culturally, all at once. If the Church or political institutions were to weaken as cultural identities, this would weaken members’ sense of unity, their solidarity.

Traditions teach and manifest values, and one’s induction into traditions is at the same time an induction into the values of the group whose traditions they are. A group with shared traditions, accordingly, is a group with shared values. Human beings do not absorb values as abstractions, but as embedded in what they do.

This being so, not all traditions are good. Traditions are subject to reappraisal, renegotiation, and development. This can happen naturally and spontaneously, or in a self-conscious way, but if all the traditions of a group were permanently in dispute, they would lose their value as markers of identity, and the cultural group will be dissolved.

This is all to say that, if you see in the United Kingdom a high degree of concern with traditions connected with the political community, this is an indication of a state with a correspondingly high degree of solidarity. It is not despite but because of the power of the markers of identity belonging to the state, that the state can successfully incorporate into itself different cultural groups, without destroying either them or itself.

The Monarchy as a Constitutional Institution

Political institutions are themselves traditions, under my definition. Unless they are brand new, they are passed to us from our predecessors, and those under their authority characteristically feel they ought to continue the practices associated with them: elections, assemblies, and so on. If they are highly abstract, without ceremonial or culturally resonant appendages, they will find it more difficult to serve as centres of solidarity.

Monarchies are particularly good as serving this function, because they are surrounded by traditions which serve as markers of identity and convey shared values. They cannot be created out of thin air; their historical rootedness is part of their value. But where they exist, they can perform the function of political institutions exceptionally well. For this reason the many constitutional monarchies of the modern world, such as those of Japan, Thailand, and Belgium, serve as stabilising elements in their societies. States which have suffered a period of national trauma have restored their monarchies, such as Spain and Cambodia. And monarchies have proved resilient in times of constitutional crisis: obvious examples are Spain in the failed coup of 1981, the constitutional crisis in Australia in 1975, and, behind the scenes, in the UK in 1968.

The values embodied in the Christian symbolism of monarchy should have a special appeal to Catholics, for the same reason they have aroused the hostility of political radicals. The Christian monarchies of Europe found a model in the Old Testament, in which it is emphasised that the King is in a sense appointed by God, and rules as God’s deputy: his “vicegerent.”

This might sound like a recipe for arbitrary rule, but properly understood, it is the opposite. The kings of the Old Testament were subject to God’s law, and were held up to the mark by priests and prophets. A leader who claims to be the delegate of the people, on the other hand, can commit all kinds of crime in their name: whether because, as he claims, they desire it, or for their benefit. What prevents any constitutional leader from ruling tyrannically is a sense in which there is a higher law, something that limits his actions, that ensures both fair play in politics and justice to ordinary people. This obligation, ultimately, is to God, and is expressed more clearly by a head of state who is appointed by God, as it is generally expressed, than one appointed by “the people.”

The religious symbolism of monarchy, therefore, should not be seen as the co-option of the Church to serve the State, but as the State’s subordination to principles of justice which are ultimately interpreted by the Church. Stalin and the French Revolutionaries were perfectly happy to co-opt the Church; what they did not want to do was to obey the Church.

It remains true that a wide range of constitutional arrangements are compatible with the Faith, and have historically been blessed by the Church. The point is not that monarchy is the only legitimate form of government, just that it embodies in a uniquely clear way a Catholic understanding of political authority.

The British Monarchy

None of this is to say that the British monarchy, or its recent incumbents, are perfect. Obviously, since 1558, with a brief respite from 1685 to 1688, our monarchs have been Protestant. Some were responsible for great suffering by Catholics. However, the experience of Cromwell’s Commonwealth (1649-1660), in its treatment of Ireland, does not give us any grounds for thinking that other forms of government would have been better. The problem was not that the British Isles was governed by hereditary monarchs, but that the state was for so long dominated by an intolerant Protestant elite. When this elite was confronted by a more Catholic-friendly monarch in the 1640s, and an actually Catholic monarch in the 1680s, it was the elite that triumphed, not the monarch.

Queen Elizabeth II was a devout Protestant, preferring a fairly low-church style. The pageantry of the monarchy, supplemented for some members of the Royal Family by the ceremonial of Freemasonry, seems to have taken the place of what the original High Anglican, Archbishop Laud, called the “beauty of holiness.”

To echo the martyr St Robert Southwell, when he was asked whether he wanted a Spanish invasion, I would like the Royal Family and the whole political elite to convert to Catholicism of their own free will. This is something for which Catholics in the United Kingdom pray and do penance. In the meantime, we must live with current realities.

First, it is clear to all but a lunatic fringe that Britain’s new King, Charles III, is the legitimate head of state of our country. He deserves the loyalty of citizens like any head of state. Many French traditional Catholics join the French military, because they believe in France, even if they aren’t particularly keen on the Revolution which created the Republic. In the same way, British Catholics, even under persecution, have wanted to give the lie to the accusation that their faith implied disloyalty, by serving the Crown. Should we pray for the King? Of course we should. At the traditional Mass, in England we have said special prayers for the monarch since the beginning of the long process of “Catholic emancipation” in 1778. It should be noted, that since the 18th century the Holy See has recognised the British monarchy as the legitimate Monarch, reversing the more strict policy of St Pius V. Since emancipation especially, Catholics have worked to convert their society and sovereign from within.

Second, while the monarch and the Royal Family get drawn in to politically fashionable causes, and while their role means that they studiously avoid political partisanship, they remain an important cultural force. King Charles, for example, has lent his significant weight to combatting ugliness in architecture, and is patron of the Prayer Book Society, which defends traditional Anglican worship. If the British monarchy disappeared it would be a calamitous setback for cultural conservatives of all kinds, with repercussions all over the globe.

Third, the ceremonial of the British monarchy has preserved its ancient Catholic character in a way that even the Catholic monarchies of Europe have not. The kings of Spain and Belgium, for example, do not even have coronation ceremonies. We will see how mutilated our own next coronation turns out to be, but the historic Catholic content will be greater than zero. In many other ways, including simply by existing, the monarchy embodies and preserves our Catholic heritage. For example, the monarch personally gives alms to the poor on Maundy Thursday in a ceremony which preserves a Catholic tradition abandoned in the Church’s liturgy in 1955, when giving alms was removed from the Mandatum.

Can a Catholic be a republican? That is the wrong question. The default setting should be to support the existing constitution of one’s country, if it is working reasonably well. The British monarchy has associations and resonances in Ireland which it does not have elsewhere, but even there the bitterness of the past is, increasingly, now in the past.

The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales is organising a Requiem Mass for her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, as the discipline of the Church allows, and I hope we’ll have a Mass of Thanksgiving for the coronation. As Britons we honour our head of state; as Catholics we do that, in part, through the liturgy.


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