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Catholics and the Monarchy

Above: London, 12th May 1937: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth pictured wearing their crowns and coronation robes as they stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with Princess Elizabeth (waving) and Princess Margaret.

Editor’s note: occasioned by the transfer of royal power in the English Monarchy, we will publish two further perspectives from traditional English Catholics. The first comes from Mr. Bogle, former president of Una Voce. See also our contributing editor’s treatment “Why British and Commonwealth Catholics Venerate their Protestant Monarch.”

As we mourn the loss of Queen Elizabeth II and celebrate the accession of the new King, King Charles III, let us take the opportunity to consider the institution of the Monarchy, its role today and relevance to Catholics.

Most British and Commonwealth Catholics have a benevolent attitude to the Monarchy but there remains a minority who are either indifferent or hostile. Classically, secular republican nationalists, including in the United States, some of whom claim to be Catholic, tend to be hostile.

Some have fallen for the propaganda of secularism and others still simply do not know enough to understand the real issues. Surprisingly, there are too many supposedly “traditional Catholics” who sometimes seem to adopt as solipsistic, infantile and irrational an approach to authority as do rebels and revolutionaries and it is all the more reprehensible for them to do so given that they owe, as a religious duty, respect and reverence to authority.

It is particularly irrational as regards the late Queen Elizabeth II who was one of the most exemplary monarchs of our time, if not the most exemplary. Those who rail against the Monarchy simply do not make any effort to understand the extent to which her steady and faithful fulfilment of her role was one of the most stabilising factors in British and Commonwealth society.

As more Commonwealth governments have decided to opt for secular republics, and to jettison Christian monarchy, so much the more have they tended to sink into the mire of corruption, instability, criminality, oppression and tyranny. Zimbabwe is a classic example and perhaps the ultimate disaster story but there are many others.

There is also a class of critic which makes the most elementary of mistakes about the British monarchy, egged on by secularists, and by the general social and cultural milieu of rebellion and revolution that now seems to prevail everywhere. Even of those who reject revolution there are many who have imbibed far more of its poison than they realise or are prepared to admit.

The following points may help Catholics to understand the true constitutional nature of the British Monarchy.

The Authority of the Constitution

First, the constitution of any country is what it is, not what we think it should be or what we would like it to be. In the British Constitution – which is unwritten and develops slowly step by step – the Monarch simply does not have the power that some critics ascribe to him.

The limits of the royal prerogative powers are, to be sure, debated by scholars and lawyers but almost all agree what cannot be done. The British Monarch cannot, for instance, overrule the democratically elected House (the House of Commons) once its Bills have been passed by the upper House save as defined by Parliament and the courts or on the advice of ministers.

Since 1688, Parliament and the courts have been able, to a certain limited extent, to circumscribe the extent of the royal prerogative powers. The royal prerogative powers are those powers that are exercised by the Monarch himself or else by his ministers acting in his name.

By the time of King George III, the Protestant Hanoverians, who had replaced and usurped the Catholic Stuart dynasty, had become legitimate. Even though the aim of the 1688 and 1701 constitutional settlements was to exclude any Catholic from the British throne, nevertheless, by the time of King George III, both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor recognised the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty, believing that the greater danger now lay in other more dangerous revolutions.

The Catholic English Monarchy

Jacobites, those who continued to support the legitimate Stuart dynasty and who derive their name from the Latin, Jacobus, being the name of our last Catholic king, King James II of England and Ireland and VII of Scotland, continued to try to restore the legitimate Stuart dynasty to the throne. The Jacobites made several such attempts but were unsuccessful. This was despite the fact that the majority of the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, considered the Stuarts still to be their legitimate kings, despite the Hanoverian take-over. This was because, after the death of Queen Anne, she having had no children, the Parliament, in seeking to find her nearest Protestant relative, by-passed no less than 48 other claimants to the throne for the only reason that they were Catholic.

The most famous attempt to restore the Stuart dynasty was that led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the heir apparent, who attempted, in 1745, to restore his father, Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, son of King James II and VII, to the throne. He began in Scotland, the Stuarts being originally a Scottish royal dynasty.

However, by the time of King George III the world had moved on and greater dangers were apprehended elsewhere. The last to accept the legitimacy of the Hanoverians was, ironically, not the Catholic Church but the Scottish Protestant Episcopalian Church which continued to refuse to do so until as late as 1788.

The Veto Power of the Monarch

Second, it is generally agreed among scholars, lawyers and constitutionalists that the veto power of the Crown is now only exercisable to prevent the abolition of democracy (e.g. to veto an Act to abolish elections).

This is his sole remaining veto power but it is a very important one.

Before the Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 allowed for delegation of the power to Lords Commissioners, royal assent was always required to be given by the Sovereign in person before Parliament. The last time it was given by the Sovereign in person in Parliament was during the reign of Queen Victoria at a prorogation on 12 August 1854. The 1541 Act was eventually repealed and replaced by the Royal Assent Act 1967.

Once a Bill is passed by the houses of Parliament, the following formal options arise:

  • royal assent, thereby making the Bill an Act of Parliament;
  • delay of assent through the use of the reserve powers (again in very circumscribed circumstances); or
  • refusal of royal assent but only on the advice of ministers or in the very rare case mentioned above.

The last time assent was refused was in 1708 by Queen Anne who vetoed the Scottish Militia Bill. Nowadays, however, the only veto power remaining is for the preservation of democracy. The royal assent can be done by issuance of Letters Patent (Litterae patentes) and they are issued only with prior ministerial approval. Indeed, they are physically generated by a ministerial office (usually that of the Prime Minister) with the seal or signature of the Sovereign added or affixed as a formality by members of the ministerial office, and not by the King himself or his staff.

When one witnesses the elaborate ceremony of the granting of the royal assent in the House of Lords, all of the old forms are preserved as if the King himself were still the sole or prime source of authority but, in reality, the decision-making power is that of the Prime Minister or other minister of the Crown.

The “Bible” on parliamentary and constitutional procedure, Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, accepts that the Sovereign no longer has the power to withhold assent from a Bill, against the advice of ministers, save in the case of preserving democracy. However, since ministers (usually) enjoy majority support in the elected house (the House of Commons) they would be most unlikely ever to advise the Sovereign to withhold assent.

The Monarchy’s Power Against Immoral Law

Third, to claim that the Monarch can and should unconstitutionally veto immoral or bad Bills passed by the Parliament is thus to claim that the Crown should over-ride both the Constitution and the Parliament, and thus to undertake what would be, in effect, a seditious coup d’etat. It goes without saying that it would be wholly wrong for the Monarch, of all people, sitting at the apex of the Constitution, to undertake a seditious act or a coup. It would also, of course, be gravely immoral.

One may argue that it is all in a good cause and that, if a Bill is so evil, then it would be worth staging a coup d’etat to prevent it, but such a course is flatly condemned not only by political and constitutional convention but by moral theology, by St Paul, by reason, by the Church and by God. As St Paul taught (Romans 3.8), we may not do evil that good may come of it i.e. the end cannot, and does not, justify the means.

It is thus legal and constitutional – as well as moral – nonsense to claim, as some ill-instructed persons do, that the Queen could have vetoed the Abortion Bill of 1967. The simple fact is that the British Monarch has no such power and could not give himself that power save by conducting a seditious and immoral coup d’etat.

Those who say “but wouldn’t it be better to avoid such an evil Bill even if it means sacrificing the Monarchy?” are not only defying the whole basis of our constitution but are also flatly defying the teaching of St Paul in Romans 3.8, and the teaching of the Church and of God.

Americans, in particular, need to ask themselves whether they would do the same for the US constitution. Would they consider it right to wreck the entire US Constitution, constitutional settlement, system of government and country in order to achieve a good end?

No, of course not, but it is curious how many insist that such be done to the British Constitution.

The Monarch is, in essence and by office, the last and final protection for the Constitution. Whilst some might wish that the Monarch did have wide-ranging powers, and further powers still, to defend, protect and maintain the Christian basis of the state, the fact is that he does not have those powers and any attempt now to seize such powers would be an illegal, unconstitutional and immoral coup d’etat.

The Value of the Monarchy

Some then might argue “well, what, then, is the use of such a monarch?” but this is an equally ill-thought-out question. The answer is simple: the Monarch’s role is to be the final protection for our democratic Constitution.
For the lack of a monarch in 1933, the German people were led into tyranny and disaster.

If they had still had their monarch, even one with the very limited power of the present British monarch, that monarch could have entirely legitimately vetoed Hitler’s enabling Bills (which eliminated democracy) and forced him to submit to a general election. Think what immense harm would then have been avoided!

So, the role of the King is a vital and important one, even with the limited power that he now has, and is worth all the pomp and ceremony with which we still surround him and his family (who are, potentially, his heirs and successors). It therefore behooves his Christian subjects, as indeed all his subjects, to be particularly mindful of this. We should avoid the self-deluded, but vociferous few, who, increasingly in our time, would seek to overthrow the Monarchy and replace it with a secular republican alternative.

Consider, again, Zimbabwe.

From 1981, Robert Mugabe turned his country into a one-party Marxist republic, withdrew it from the Monarchy and the Commonwealth in 2003, and now, his country, once the bread-basket of Africa, is a state so utterly, dismally and completely failed and fallen into tyranny and desperation that we are unlikely ever to see it recover.

The blame for evil Bills must be laid where it belongs: with the Prime Minister and government of the day, not with the Monarch who does not make those Bills and has no power to veto them. Those who seek to blame the Monarch for the follies and evils of the elected politicians are simply showing their deep ignorance of the nature of the British Constitution, of the law in Britain, of the teaching of St Paul and of the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Famous British theologian, Cardinal St John Henry Newman understood the importance of the constitutional position of the Crown. In his Biglietto speech accepting the honour of appointment to the rank of cardinal, St John Henry Newman publicly said this:

It must be recollected that the religious sects, which sprang up in England three centuries ago, and which are so powerful now, have ever been fiercely opposed to the Union of Church and State, and would advocate the un-Christianising of the monarchy and all that belongs to it, under the notion that such a catastrophe would make Christianity much more pure and much more powerful.

He was speaking of the Church of England as the State Church, and he says it would be a “catastrophe” were it to be de-coupled from the State and were the State to become secular.[1]

Let us also recall what St Peter said in his very first encyclical (1 Pet 2.17):

Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the Emperor[2].

Of which emperor is he speaking?

The answer is Nero and this same Nero was a most brutal tyrant who castrated a servant and then married him in a same-sex marriage. He certainly legislated for abortion, infanticide and other horrors and, of course, ultimately martyred both St Peter and St Paul. Yet St Peter called upon all Catholics to honour the Emperor, meaning, of course, to honour his office and his laws insofar as they do not require us to do evil. If Nero was to be honoured as monarch how much more, then, Queen Elizabeth II?

As we mourn the loss of our late Queen, Elizabeth II, let us then legitimately rejoice in the accession of the new King, King Charles III, and be grateful for the immense stabilising and preserving role that the Monarchy has played over the years, laying the foundation for prosperity, peace and progress over centuries. And let us finally have no more ill-informed claims (least of all by Catholics) that the late Queen Elizabeth II should have disobeyed the Constitution and given herself power she did not have to veto bad bills. Such a course was not morally permissible, as both St Paul and the Church clearly teach.

We simply may not do evil that good may come of it – no matter how great that good may be.


[1] The reference to Newman’s Biglietto speech, as also the reference to the Emperor Nero were disclosed to me by fellow scholar, Dr Sebastian Morello of Buckingham University in Britain.

[2] The Greek word Basileous is often translated by the English word “king” but it was the Greek word used of the Roman Emperor and it was the Roman Emperor to whom St Peter is here referring.

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