“A pretty face may be enough to catch a man, but it takes character and good nature to hold him.” – St. Thomas More
To the dismay of many a crumpet-and-tea Englishman, earlier this summer British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was married in Westminster Cathedral, the seat of Catholicism in London. Johnson’s marriage to Carrie Symonds, a Catholic, was a surprising and sudden affair. It caused something of a stir, as surprising and sudden weddings will—especially by public officials, and most especially by British public officials.
The twice-divorced Mr. Johnson is not only the first prime minister the United Kingdom has seen marry while in office for nearly 200 years. He is also not known to be a Catholic, though he was baptized as one. Some are decrying how even the Church will bend her rules for the privileged.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Mr. Johnson’s policy on cake, he admits, is “pro having it and pro eating it.” Does that attitude extend even so far as religion?
When asked by a journalist after his Catholic marriage and the Catholic baptism of his son, “Are you now a practicing Catholic?” Johnson, an Anglican since Eton, replied, “I don’t discuss these deep issues—certainly not with you.” Fair enough, sir.
In any event, the Prime Minister is now under suspicion of being England’s first Catholic prime minister, which would complicate his relation to the Church of England (God save the Queen). Mr. Johnson known for his wry and ready wit, and he wielded it in that moment to keep to himself what so many seek to fling into public scrutiny. Whether it be our religion, our political affiliation, or our vaccination status, the deep issues of our lives are boarding themselves up against undue exposure as they become increasingly divisive.
St. John Henry Cardinal Newman said, “We can believe what we choose; we are answerable for what we choose to believe,” and Catholics must never put their lamps under bushel baskets. They should also serve as beacons of respect for the privacy and persuasions of others. They should resist the tabloid tendency to identify a fellow in the famous, realizing that the title of “Catholic” typically only goes so far in almost any case in the secular smorgasbord and the human condition.
Much ink has been spilt on whether Joe Biden is in communion with the Church, or if Britney Spears is a convert, or if the pope himself is Catholic. Is Boris Johnson Catholic? Well, let us conclude that we hope so, and let that suffice. If he is possibly a Catholic, he is still certainly a man, which subjects his faith faculties to the same flaws that all must endure. In Johnson’s words:
I suppose my own faith, you know, it’s like a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio when you’re driving through the Chilterns. It sort of comes and goes. I mean sometimes the signal is strong, and then sometimes I’m afraid it just vanishes. And then it comes back again.
Oscar Wilde said, “The Roman Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone—for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” We are all sinners, even if some of us are saints, and we should always bear that in mind when judging the lives of others, especially those with public lives whom we must judge. As Boris Johnson said, “The beauty and riddle in studying the motives of any politician is in trying to decide what is idealism and what is self-interest, and often we are left to conclude that the answer is a mixture of the two.” Saints and sinners, unsurprisingly.
It may well be that Mr. Johnson knows himself well enough to know which religion will save him once he makes his own personal and eternal Brexit, and that is a matter of his business without question. Given Mr. Johnson’s baptism and his previous civil marriages, the English eyebrow was raised over his wedding in a Catholic ceremony to a Catholic lady. It seems to participate in a popular yet pernicious (or popular because pernicious) principle that the politician is the one human being in the world who is not permitted to change his mind. When they do, they are generally not congratulated for coming round to a new way of thinking. They are liars.
It is one thing to be false and inconsistent while occupying a position of trust and responsibility. It is another to come to the right conclusion, despite the social rights that are prevalent. The problem is that truth is barely ever as convenient, in a certain sense or at a certain point, as falsehood. This is especially true for those who occupy and make up the media. Having been a journalist himself before entering the political arena, Johnson himself has said, “It is possible to have a pretty good life and career being a leech and a parasite in the media world, gadding about from TV studio to TV studio, writing inconsequential pieces and having a good time. But in the end, you have a great sense of personal dissatisfaction.”
Of course, only the truth will make you free, but the truth is often too deep an issue to be comfortably discussed, as has been more or less demonstrated in Britain ever since the uncomfortable reign of Henry VIII and given rise to the “we don’t do God” policy under former prime minister Tony Blair, who himself converted after leaving Number Ten. And while it is a matter of concern if the men and women who lead nations and represent the voters are people of faith, it should not be a matter of controversy. Even a Catholic has moments of sin and moments of sanctity, which is precisely why he is Catholic.
G. K. Chesterton (who was definitely a Catholic) wrote, “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” Boris Johnson may or may not be Catholic, but he is certainly Chestertonian, and that goes somewhere beyond his doughy build and rumpled hair. He is elusive and playful and insightful—and those are traits that often go with the faithful. But let us not, as Catholics, be as the slavish children of the age sniffing for social controversy or social stigma—or even stigmata. Let us worry about being Catholic rather than who may or may not be Catholic.
The journalist who invited the deep-issue discussion and was denied by the PM pointed out in the same conversation that the Labor Party leader asserted that he doesn’t believe in God, to which, Boris Johnson said, “The fool has said in his heart he doesn’t believe in God. I’ll leave it at that.” And so shall we, closing with a comment from the prime minister that may or may not serve to sum up the ever-problematic intersection of faith and politics:
Irrespective of your religious views, the fact is that every day Parliament begins with prayers for Her Majesty and indeed for all politicians, that they should govern justly. And it’s a very, very interesting moment because politicians, everybody, no matter what their beliefs, they all pray and they think about the sacred trust that they’ve been given by the people and I think it’s quite a good thing, whatever they may think about the existence or non-existence of God or whatever.
[Photo credit: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images News]