Legislation currently being debated in Parliament would reverse a 16th century ban on the king or queen marrying a Catholic – and end discrimination against female heirs.
A group of centuries old laws preventing the British monarch from marrying a Catholic are set to be abolished under major constitutional changes likely to be passed in Parliament later this year.
Succession rules that discriminate against female heirs to the throne are also slated for revision. That means the first child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – due this summer – will become monarch regardless of sex.
Although these laws have little direct impact on most Brits, the proposed changes – particularly around the so-called Catholic question – have stirred up wider conversation among members of Parliament and constitutional experts about the role of religion and tradition in 21st century England.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – who has described himself as an atheist – said the current laws are from a "bygone era."
In Parliament he said: “They reflect old prejudices and old fears. Today we don’t support laws which discriminate on either religious or gender grounds, they have no place in modern Britain and certainly not in our monarchy, an institution central to our constitution, to the Commonwealth, and to our national identity too.”
The outgoing anti-Catholic legislation has deep roots in British history. The turbulent historical division between British Catholics and Protestants dates from Henry VIII's 16th century break from the Vatican and the subsequent establishment of the Church of England. Various laws followed to cement the new church’s place in society and government, among them the 1701 Act of Settlement, which prevented Catholics from becoming head of the nation’s official religion – and by extension from becoming monarch.
Even if the legal changes currently being considered by Parliament are passed, however, that fact will not change. As Bob Morris, a constitutional expert at University College London, points out, lifting the ban on British monarchs marrying Catholics will not change the fundamental fact that Catholics cannot assume the throne themselves.
“The changes are part of the equality agenda and are not especially controversial among the general population," Dr. Morris adds. "In England there is still some sort of residual hostility to Catholics – knee jerk reaction about ‘papists,’ which are lasting echoes to our past, but it’s not serious.”
The Succession to the Crown Bill has already been backed by the other 15 Commonwealth countries where Queen Elizabeth II is head of state, but some British MPs feared the legislation was being rushed through Parliament in a two-day debate.
“We should respect hugely what’s gone before and I am nervous that in this case, nearly 700 years of tradition are going to be trampled on ... in two days," said Conservative MP Richard Drax.
For its part, the Catholic Church said it "would be compassionate" to a Catholic who married a Protestant monarch and could not raise their child in the faith.
Maggie Doherty, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said: “The Church welcomes the government’s decision to give heirs to the throne the freedom to marry a Catholic without being removed from the line of succession. This will eliminate a point of unjust discrimination against Catholics.”