The Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism of the British Monarchy

With the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III, the British Monarchy is dominating the news. For Catholics, this presents some tensions. After all, the British Monarch is the Supreme Governor of the (heretical) Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, and of course is the successor of monarchs like King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, who mercilessly persecuted Catholics, pillaged monasteries, and made Catholicism an illegal religion during their reigns. 

Because of this history, watching Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin being placed in state at Westminster Hall yesterday was a surreal experience for Catholics. On the one hand, the beautiful pageantry, liturgical precision, and moving chanting of the psalms all had deep Catholic roots. Yet this same room has seen the condemnations of both St. Thomas More and St. Edmund Campion for their defense of the Catholic Faith.

This dichotomy is deep in the English soil. The era from the reign of Henry VIII (d. 1547) up to the beginning of the 19th century was one of constant persecutions of Catholics, with varying levels of intensity over the years. Under Queen Elizabeth I in the late 16th century in particular, being a Catholic was a life-threatening condition at all times. It’s not an exaggeration to compare Elizabethan England to the pagan Roman Empire or the Soviet Union in terms of the level of persecution of Catholics. And latent anti-Catholicism still lingers in English culture today.

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However, that’s not the whole story. Henry VIII could not have broken with Rome if at one point the Monarchy had not been united to Rome. And united it was. England has a long and glorious history of faithfulness to Rome and the Catholic religion, even to the point of being called “Mary’s Dowry” for its devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Church. 

When St. Edmund Campion was condemned, he harkened back to this glorious history to challenge his persecutors: “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England—the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.”

After the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury in 597, England became a gem of Christendom, with many of her monarchs leading the way. King Alfred the Great fought against the pagan vikings to keep the island Christian, and King Edward the Confessor was a model of sanctity. Many English Monarchs enthusiastically supported the medieval crusades, fighting to stop the spread of Islam and regain the Holy Land for Christianity. Even King Henry VIII was a stout defender of the faith against the heresies of Martin Luther before his falling in with Anne Boleyn. 

It would be mistaken then, to simply dismiss the British Monarchy as an anti-Catholic institution that must be wholly rejected by Catholics today. Its history shows a deep connection to the defense and spread of Catholicism, in spite of the stains of the Reformation-era monarchs. 

I would argue then, that the British Monarchy is like a glorious and beautiful fruit tree, with roots extended deep into the ground. But next to that tree grew up a thick weed that became intertwined with the trunk and branches of the tree. It began to cover the tree’s beauty, and even to suck the nutrients from the tree, stifling its growth and health. Its fruit is no longer beautiful, no longer healthy to eat.

So the question becomes: do we try to save the tree, or should we just cut down both the tree and the weed? To me, it seems clear that the best path would be to extricate the weed from the tree, thus freeing the tree to be glorious again. This, to be sure, is far harder work than simply removing both. But instead of leaving an empty space and memories of a once-great tree, freeing the tree from the weed will return the tree to glory, thus attracting many to eat of its fruit.

How can this be done practically? After all, it’s not like any of us can talk to King Charles III and convince him to convert to Catholicism (if you can do that, though, please do so!). But we can work in our own sphere toward that goal.

One practical step would be to spiritually “adopt” an Anglican church in your area and pray for it each day to convert and become an Ordinariate parish. Imagine what would happen if dozens, even hundreds, of Anglican parishes converted en masse to the Church and became Ordinariate parishes. Would it lead to a rethinking of basic beliefs at all levels of the Anglican church, all the way up to the Supreme Governor himself? 

Perhaps if the majority of the Anglican church converted to Catholicism, the British Monarch would eventually even join his former congregants and himself convert. Yes, it’s a fantastical scenario, but I believe in a God who was raised from the dead, which is the most fantastical scenario of them all.

Make the British Monarchy Great Again: Return it to the Catholic Church, even if it means one convert at a time.

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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