Is Boris Johnson a Roman Catholic? Yes and no. During an ITV interview with Robert Peston, the Prime Minister was asked if he is now “a practising Roman Catholic”, following his very secret and happy wedding to Carrie Symonds in Westminster Cathedral a few weeks ago. In reply, the Prime Minister said: “I don’t discuss these deep issues, certainly not with you.” Peston retorted with the fact that Sir Keir Starmer has said openly that he does not believe in God. The Prime Minister responded by quoting the Psalms: “The foolish man hath said in his heart there is no God.”
This led to a bit of indignation from Peston as to what Johnson meant by “certainly not with you” (as though that weren’t known and clear); and a flurry of conjecture that the UK now has its first “practising Roman Catholic” Prime Minister, with Tim Shipman writing in the Times that henceforth the Lord Chancellor will advise the Queen on the appointment of Bishops in the Church of England: ‘Announcing bishops will fall to someone else now PM’s a Catholic‘, declared the headline, which the Guardian said was a ‘watershed moment’, and the Daily Mail duly churned (with its own constitutional and theological errors), and so news of Boris Johnson crossing the Tiber circled the Catholic world.
But it isn’t true.
It is certainly true that Boris Johnson was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church; a fact which was covered on this blog when he became Prime Minister in 2019. In that sense (and according to the teaching of the Catholic Church), he is Roman Catholic, despite his conversion to the Church of England while a student at Eton. It is sometimes easy to forget the baptism factor: the Church of Rome is a bit like the Hotel California; you can check out and be confirmed into the CofE (or, indeed, become an atheist), but you can never actually leave.
It isn’t clear if Tim Shipman misquoted or misunderstood his “Downing Street source”, or if that source garbled its own misunderstanding and generalised the particular and so misled the Times‘ Political Editor, but you’d think (wouldn’t you?) that a constitutionally significant shift in the appointment of Bishops would merit an official Government announcement, not Chinese whispers in a tabloid.
Nevertheless, Tim Shipman’s article was taken as “the announcement”, with even respected theologians, lawyers, and an Oxford Head of House all treating it as authoritative:
While Boris Johnson may have been sacramentally initiated into the Roman Catholic Church, he doesn’t strive much to observe the Church’s precept of attending Mass on Sundays (or Confession any day of the week) and holidays of obligation. We can cavil over what ‘practising’ means in the context of Catholic politicians, but the constitutional restriction on the Prime Minister advising the Monarch on the appointment of Bishops applies if he or she were a professing Roman Catholic, as the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 stipulates:
18 No Roman Catholic to advise the Crown in the appointment to offices in the established church.
It shall not be lawful for any person professing the Roman Catholic religion directly or indirectly to advise his Majesty, or any person or persons holding or exercising the office of guardians of the United Kingdom, or of regent of the United Kingdom, under whatever name, style, or title such office may be constituted, or the lord lieutenant of Ireland, touching or concerning the appointment to or disposal of any office or preferment in the Church of England, or in the Church of Scotland; and if any such person shall offend in the premises he shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown.
There is no doubt that Boris Johnson is Roman Catholic according to its own canon law, but he is not a professing Roman Catholic according to the Church of England and English law, ergo the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 does not apply: being married in Westminster Cathedral did not make him a professing Roman Catholic (indeed, non-Catholics may marry under certain circumstances in the Roman Catholic Church [provided especially that they agree to bring up their children in the faith]).
Further, the Lord Chancellor has not been asked to step in to send the names of new Church of England bishops to the Queen, as the Times reports. The Downing Street quotation alluding to this is interesting: “The palace can designate another minister to advise the Queen. The lord chancellor looks like the one to be nominated. It’s an incredibly anachronistic thing that a Jew or a Muslim could nominate a bishop but not a Catholic.”
Note “can designate”, and “The lord chancellor looks like the one”. Since when did possibility and seeming get elevated to the status of a formal Government announcement? If something had shifted in the Church-State constitutional realm, we’d have read: “The Palace has designated another Minister to advise the Queen. The Lord Chancellor has been nominated.” And we certainly wouldn’t have read the rather personal gossipy opinion of this No.10 staffer: “It’s an incredibly anachronistic thing that a Jew or a Muslim could nominate a bishop but not a Catholic.”
Not least because of the Jews Relief Act 1858:
IV Rights of Presentation to any Ecclesiastical Benefice possessed by Persons professing the Jewish Religion to devolve upon the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Time being.
Where any Right of Presentation to any Ecclesiastical Benefice shall belong to any Office in the Gift or Appointment of Her Majesty, Her Heirs or Successors, and such Office shall be held by a Person professing the Jewish Religion, the Right of Presentation shall devolve upon and be exercised by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Time being ; and it shall not be lawful for any Person professing the Jewish Religion, directly or indirectly, to advise Her Majesty, Her Heirs or Successors, or any Person or Persons holding or exercising the Office of Guardians of the United Kingdom, or of Regent of the United Kingdom, under whatever Name, Style, or Title such Office may be constituted, or the Lord Lieutenant or Lord Deputy, or any other Chief Governor or Governors of Ireland, touching or concerning the Appointment to or Disposal of any Office or Preferment in the United Church of England and Ireland or in the Church of Scotland; and if such Person shall offend in the Premises he shall, being thereof convicted by due Course of Law, be deemed guilty of a high Misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any Office, Civil or Military, under the Crown.
The “incredibly anachronistic thing” now is not that professing Roman Catholics and professing Jews may not, directly or indirectly, advise the Supreme Governor on the appointment of Bishops in the Established Church, but that professing Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, neo-pagans, atheists and Jedi may so advise. Clearly, in an era of multifaith pluralism, this needs a little tidying up.