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Repeal Anti-Catholic Section of Act of Settlement 1701
Some answers and explanations

Fr. Sean Mc Manus • 22 October 2005

The Irish National Caucus campaign to force the British Government and the Queen of England to repeal the sectarian and anti-Catholic section of The Act of Settlement, 1701, has evoked a considerable response. (To remind our readers: that provision mandates that the heir to the British Crown must be Protestant and that if he/she becomes Catholic, or marries a Catholic, then he/she must forfeit the Throne, and -- I kid you not -- "the people are absolved of their allegiance". So if the universally esteemed Queen Elizabeth II felt conscience-bound to convert to Catholicism, she would have to renounce the Throne. And, yes, that's right, we are speaking of today, 2005, not 1701).

The reactions to our campaign can be broken into three categories:

  1. Irish-Americans sympathetic to equality, justice and peace in Ireland;
  2. Supporters of the sectarian and anti-Catholic provision; and
  3. Those who want to dismiss the whole issue as irrelevant.

Irish-Americans sympathetic to equality, justice and peace in Ireland

Some Irish-Americans are amazed that such a law still exists in modern British society (many, of course, know of it as the Irish National Caucus first launched its campaign about this way back in 1980). But the reaction of some, at first, is to laugh at the silliness of such a law, until they reflect that it would be similar to the US Constitution having a provision to outlaw an African-American becoming president or marrying a Black person. And, if the president were to marry a Black person, his/her election would be declared null and void by the constitution.
And then they realize just how much such a racist law would have fanned the fires of white racism in the United States, providing justification and affirmation to White racists, segregationists, the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan? (*See note blow on the KKK). Now, never mind the non sequitur that some have raised, namely, that in fact it would have been -- granting the attitude and the demographics -- impossible in the past for a Black person to have become president, anyway. That is not the point. The point is that it would have been absolutely abhorrent to have such a racist provision in the Constitution -- and only the whacko and racist American would defend it.

Supporters of the sectarian and anti-Catholic provision

(a) Some have raised the issue of Ne Temere, the Papal Decree of 1908. Here it should be pointed out that there has been a change in Catholic teaching, which I greatly welcome: "Although Catholics in a mixed or interfaith marriage must still promise to do all they can to raise the children Catholic, non-Catholics are no longer required to make such a promise" (Marriage. Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Harper Collins, New York. 1995, page 828).

But even if that section of Ne Temere were still in force it is simply not comparable to the sectarian and anti-Catholic provision in the Act of Settlement. Church law in a secular society, to state the obvious, is not the law of the land. So, for example, if Catholic President John F. Kennedy had divorced and remarried a Protestant, he would not have been able to receive Holy Communion at Mass, but he would not -- for goodness sake -- have been forced to resign the Presidency. Church law is hugely different from a country's Constitution.

(b) Some have raised the issue that the Queen is not only head of State, but also head of the Church of England. Well, for starters, that is simply another reason why Church and State should be separate, as in America. That was one of the great ideas of the Founding Fathers, who were aware from their knowledge of the English system how discriminatory and sectarian the concept and practice of an Established Church is.

Those who want to dismiss the whole issue as irrelevant

(a) No part of a "constitution" can be considered irrelevant. (I realize the British do not have a written Constitution, which further means all rights can be suspended). But if the anti-Catholic provision of the Act of Settlement is irrelevant why not change it? Why oppose change? And if it is not relevant, why is the Guardian Newspaper leading a campaign to repeal the sectarian and anti-Catholic provision and why is it supported by the Attorney General of England, 72 MPs and 35 peers, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of England, Cardinal O'Brien of Scotland?

The sectarian anti-Catholic provision in the Act of Settlement may not mean much to the average Englishman/woman in the street, but it has always been of great importance to the extreme Protestants/unionists/Orangemen of Northern Ireland.

This provision provides the "theological", philosophical, political and cultural "justification" for their belief that Catholics should not be treated as equals. For you see, if the very top law in England, the Queen's own law, says Catholics can be discriminated against, then it's okay to discriminate against them in Northern Ireland. That's the deadly logic.

Dr Paisley, for instance, is on record of stressing that his allegiance is not just to the British monarch but also to "Protestant succession to the British throne".

Furthermore, back in 1980 -- before Prince Charles married Princess Diana -- there was speculation that he might marry a Catholic. So a Protestant/Unionist/Orange delegation was promptly dispatched from Northern Ireland to London to ward off this calamitous possibility. The Washington Star explained it in the following way:

"The row broke out over the week-end when militant Protestants demanded that Prince Charles be barred from succeeding Queen Elizabeth as sovereign if he marries a Roman Catholic. The Protestants said they had raised the matter with the government and insisted that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promised them that Charles will have to renounce his right to the throne if he marries Marie-Astrid or any other Catholic. We pointed out that we were most anxious that only a Protestant would succeed and Mr. Atkins (then secretary of state for Northern Ireland) gave us a guarantee that the present government would never revoke the Act of Settlement - which would mean a constitutional change in Parliament to allow a Catholic to become either Queen or King." ('Protestants object to Charles ruling with Catholic wife'. Washington Star, Monday July 7 1980).

A Call to all True Protestants

The tragedy of all this is that true Protestantism is supposed to stand for freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. I believe the Unionist/Orange extremists of Northern Ireland need a good dose of true Protestantism -- as, indeed, I believe every good Catholic needs a good dose of true Protestantism. "Here I stand, I can do no other," as Martin Luther put it. These ecumenical sentiments are particularly apt as Reformation Sunday (the Sunday nearest October 31) is Sunday, October 30, 2005.

Cicero once said: "Fundamentum iustitiae est fides" (the foundation of justice is good faith). I call on all good Protestants to show their good faith and join the Irish National Caucus in calling for the abolition of the sectarian and anti-Catholic section of the Act of Settlement.

But remember, the buck stops with the British Government and the Queen of England -- it was not the Orangemen who passed the Act of Settlement, 1701.

LBJ's words of Wisdom

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (which, coupled with the Civil Rights Act 1964, did for African-Americans, morally speaking, what the Good Friday Agreement did for Catholics in Northern Ireland). To his fellow southerners, the president made a memorable plea, which to some degree is applicable to the Protestants/Unionists/Orangemen of Northern Ireland (although I know it has been said that "every parallel limps," and that "all comparisons are odious"):

"It is difficult to fight for freedom. But I also know how difficult it can be to bend long years of habit and custom to grant it. There is no room for injustice anywhere in the American mansion. But there is always room for understanding toward those who see the old ways crumbling. And to them today I say simply this: It must come. It is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders too. It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it."

Let us all commit us to nonviolence, equality, justice and peace. Let us work for justice and pray for peace in Ireland. God bless America and God save Ireland.

* Note on Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It is important, here, to remember that the three targets of the KKK are: Catholics, Jews and Blacks. "The modern Klan was revived in Atlanta, on October 16, 1915, by William J. Simmons. By the beginning of 1921, anti-Catholicism had emerged as the most effective rallying cry." (Anti-Catholicism in America: the last acceptable prejudice", Mark S. Massa, S.J., The Crossroad Publishing Company. New York. 2003). Noted historian Arthur Schlesinger has termed anti-Catholicism as "the deepest bias in the history of the American people".




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Index: Current Articles

23 October 2005

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