The Catholics who will help pick Britain's next PM
A Pillar Explainer
Boris Johnson announced Thursday that he will step down as Britain’s prime minister after nearly three tumultuous years in office.
Johnson was the first baptized Catholic to become prime minister - and attention briefly focused on that biographical fact when he got married last year at Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of Catholics in England and Wales.
He intends to remain in the post until a new leader of the governing Conservative Party is elected, probably in September. Several of the figures who will help to choose his successor are also baptized Catholics.
The Pillar takes a look.
How does a new prime minister get picked?
As a matter of law, the Queen appoints the prime minister to lead the government in her name. In practice, she invites the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons to “form a government” as prime minister.
When the PM steps down as party leader between elections, as Boris has done, the parties select a replacement according to their own internal processes.
In the Conservative Party, currently in the majority, the leader is chosen by the sitting Tory Members of Parliament, who hold a series of ballots until the field is narrowed to two candidates.
The list of two candidates is put to a vote for all card-carrying party members nationwide, who select the leader. The new leader, once announced, will get a phone call from Buckingham Palace — an invitation to meet the Queen. At the palace, the politician will “kiss hands,” and become the new PM.
In this scene from “The Queen,” former Labour Party leader and alleged war criminal Tony Blair undergoes the customary ritual that begins a prime minister’s term of office:
How Catholic was Boris?
It’s certain that he was baptized a Catholic following the wishes of his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl. But while studying at the storied boarding school Eton College, he received the rite of confirmation from the Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion.
The Catholic Church does not regard confirmation a valid sacrament when performed by Anglican ministers, nor does it consider undergoing the ritual to dissolve one’s canonical status as a Catholic.
In 2018 and 2019 Johnson formed a relationship with Carrie Symonds, a Catholic, and on Sept. 12, 2020, their son Wilfred was baptized at Westminster Cathedral in a private ceremony.
On May 29, 2021, Johnson married Symonds at the cathedral, which described them as parishioners.
“All necessary steps were taken, in both church and civil law, and all formalities completed before the wedding,” a spokesperson said.
Those steps would have included recognition that Johnson’s previous attempts at marriage were invalid, since a Catholic is obliged to marry according to Catholic canonical form.
A year later, the couple’s daughter, Romy, was baptized at the cathedral.
Questions swirled about whether Johnson, who had married civilly twice before, had returned to the Catholic fold. But when asked by a journalist if he was a practicing Catholic, he replied: “I don’t discuss these deep issues. Certainly not with you.”
Regardless, it was significant that a baptized Catholic occupied 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, for almost three years with hardly a murmur about it. Many people had previously thought that a Catholic could not serve as prime minister because the role includes responsibility for certain appointments in the Church of England.
Following centuries of persecution, the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 permitted Catholics to sit in Parliament and hold government office, but it did not allow them to advise the British monarch on episcopal appointments within England’s established church.
After Johnson’s wedding at Westminster Cathedral, there was a debate about his role in appointments. Some observers argued that it didn’t matter because nowadays the PM simply rubber stamps nominations, while others suggested that Johnson’s status hadn’t changed since his confirmation in the Anglican Church, so it wasn’t an issue.
Perhaps he’ll be freer to talk about his faith - which he once said comes and goes like the signal of the radio station Magic FM in the rural Chilterns - once he leaves Number 10.
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The Catholics helping to pick Boris’ successor
Boris Johnson is far from the only baptized Catholic in the ruling Conservative Party.
Others include Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the House of Commons since 2017, who has announced a leadership bid. The ex-military man, who quoted St. Thomas More in his maiden speech in Parliament, describes himself as “a Catholic Brit with a French mother and English father.”
Cabinet minister Therese Coffey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions since 2019, is a practicing Catholic who voted against same-sex marriage and recently said she would “prefer that people didn’t have abortions.”
Another Cabinet minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is also a practicing Catholic. The Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency has said that he opposes abortion in all circumstances - and once called for guitars to be banned at Mass.
Damian Hinds, the former Education Secretary and Minister for Security and Borders, the eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, the former altar boy Damian Collins, and former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith are Catholics as well.
There are also some Conservative figures who are sympathetic to the Church while not espousing Catholicism. They include Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities who was unceremoniously fired by Johnson before his resignation.
Rising star Kemi Badenoch, the minister of state responsible for local government, faith and communities, calls herself “an honorary or associate member of the Catholic Church,” thanks to her Catholic husband. Badenoch, who spent her childhood in the U.S and Nigeria, has announced that she is running for the Conservative leadership.
The “dark horse” leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt attended a Catholic school in southern England. During a 2018 visit to Rome, she urged Vatican officials to change Church teaching on contraception.
The chances of Britain’s next prime minister also being a baptized Catholic are slim. But while their influence should not be exaggerated, a number of prominent Catholics will undoubtedly be involved in the succession.