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No Catholics Need Apply !

History was made on two accounts this week when Liz Truss was elected Prime  Minister in the United Kingdom. For the first time the Leader and the Deputy Leader are both women and the latter, Thérèse Coffey, is the first Catholic to serve in this position.

There has only been one baptized Catholic English Prime Minister and that was the last incumbent, Boris Johnson. His mother Charlotte Wahl is one as is his wife, Carrie Symons. His wedding was in Westminster Cathedral and his children with Carrie, Wilfred and Romy have been baptised as Catholics.

There is no law to say that an English Prime Minister cannot be a Catholic, but it would be somewhat awkward constitutionally, due to the Leader’s role in advising the Queen when she is making ecclesiastical appointments to the Church of England of which she is Head. Someone else in government would have to step in instead because there is actually a law which forbids Catholics and Jews from advising the Monarch on religious matters.


Anti-Catholicism in England had its roots in the fear that a Catholic would attempt to seize the throne and overthrow the Protestant religion.  In 1570, Pope Pius V sought to oppose Queen Elizabeth I with the Papal Bull Regnans in Excelcis, which declared her a heretic and released her subjects from any allegiance to her. Henceforth your loyalty to the state was defined by your religious persuasion. The intensity of anti-Catholic feelings rose and fell according to the political situation.

The English feared that a powerful country such as France would use its impressive military strength to impose Catholicism on England in a manner similar to Spain’s attempted invasion in 1588. The conflict with the Spanish Armada represented the height of the long struggle between Protestant England and Catholic Spain. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was the defining moment of Elizabeth’s reign and made a Protestant heroine of the Queen. It also secured Protestant rule in England.

There was an assumption that Catholic rule would mean the loss of Protestant property, their parliamentary form of government, the rule of law, and of course their religion. It was the spectre of international Catholicism rather than practising Catholics at home that worried the people.  In general, Catholics and Protestants lived on good terms in their local communities.

Plots and Punishments

The strength and persistence of anti-Catholicism at all levels of society was one of the basic underlying and continual themes of seventeenth-century England.  In 1604, King James I publicly announced his ‘utter detestation’ of Catholicism; within days all priests and Jesuits had been expelled and fines imposed on those who refused to attend Anglican services.  The persecution of Catholics during this time led to the Gunpowder Plot, which generations of historians accepted was an attempt to re-establish the Catholic religion.  Others more recently, have surmised that the plot was the work of a group hired to discredit the Jesuits, and reinforce the ascendancy of the Protestant religion.

Most unfortunate Catholics accepted the inevitable, but some decided to take action against their oppressors. In 1605 Guy Fawkes and his conspirators attempted to blow up Parliament and the King. The so-called Gunpowder Plot became the defining story of Catholic violence.  Even before the executions of those involved, prayers were being offered in every church in thanksgiving for deliverance from this ‘Papist Powder Plot’.

As a result, Catholics suffered even more. New laws were passed preventing them from practising law, serving as officers in the Army or Navy, or voting in elections. Furthermore, as a community, they would be scapegoated for the rest of the century.

Catholic Prime Ministers

Tony Blair waited until he left office to convert to Roman Catholicism although it was a well-known fact that he intended to do so. It was for political rather than constitutional reasons upon which he based his decision. His religious preference had become a political issue because of his role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

While Boris Johnson may not be the ideal Catholic role model, his decision to reembrace the religion he had abandoned in favour of Anglicanism was more than just a curiosity. Britain is culturally secular but Roman Catholicism alone still has a contested place in the realm. By law, the Monarch cannot be Roman Catholic.

Given the history of Britain since King Henry VIII, Johnson’s position as the first Catholic Prime Minister takes on a huge significance.  After hundreds of years of post-Reformation discrimination, Catholics have slowly moved into positions of authority in recent decades. The appointment of Thérèse Coffey as Liz Truss’s second in command marks another step on that ladder.        

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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