By Msgr. Owen F. Campion
According to Our Sunday Visitor’s 2011 Catholic Almanac, 43 percent of the Canadian population identifies itself as Catholic, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees complete freedom of religion in Canada, yet no Catholic, nor anyone married to a Catholic, may serve as Canada’s head of state.
Canada is a very vibrant democracy. A parliament makes the laws, and a prime minister, customarily the leader of the majority of members in the lower house of Parliament, administers the law.
However, under its constitution, Canada is a monarchy. Its head of state is a king or queen who also is the British monarch. So, Queen Elizabeth II is the official head of the Canadian state under the title of “queen of Canada.” Her position in Canada is completely independent of anything in Britain. (In fact, Queen Elizabeth's grandson, Prince William, and his bride, Kate Middleton, will visit Canada on their first official overseas trip as a married couple in June. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called it "a testament to our country’s very close relationship with the Royal family.")
Canadian public officials and Canadian soldiers and sailors swear allegiance to the queen of Canada personally just as American officials and military pledge allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. She is commander-in-chief of Canadian armed forces, and all authority is vested in her, although in Canada a governor-general, whom the queen appoints, but only as advised by the Canadian prime minister, acts in her name. The crown stays out of politics and the running of the government but technically names the prime minister.
The religious angle, the slight against Catholics, is that current Canadian law includes, and maintains, the rule pertaining in Britain since 1701 that no Catholic can occupy the throne nor can anyone whose spouse is a Catholic.
Eight years ago, a Catholic Canadian, Tony O’Donahue, from Toronto, brought suit against Canada, and against the Province of Ontario, stating that prohibiting Catholics from being the head of state violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and furthermore insults him and the country’s other Catholic citizens.
Eventually, in effect, the courts ruled against him. So, the statute enacted 310 years in Britain still binds not only in the United Kingdom but also in Canada. To some extent, it does not matter. Queen Elizabeth II is a Protestant, as are her son and his son, her heirs.
Possibly had Prince William, second in line to the throne, chosen to marry a Catholic, a change would have been made. However, Kate Middleton is an Anglican as is he. For the foreseeable future, no conflict with the law seems likely to arise.
Still, the Act of Settlement, as the 1701 law is called, enshrined not only in Britain but also in Canada a prejudice against Catholics, despite the fact that the religious quarrels of the early 18th century long have faded away.
The O’Donahue lawsuit held that keeping this old requirement, and certainly applying it in a country completely independent of Britain, and not even existing as sovereign entity in 1701, is ridiculous and offensive.
Neither in Ottawa or London have politicians moved to change the Act of Settlement, although it recently was debated in Britain. Advocates of change have noted that ironically the monarch may be Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist, but not Roman Catholic.
Not much fire has been generated, however, because no one cares very much. The crown has little actual power in either country.
Furthermore, fewer people in Britain and in Canada think that religion is important anyway. Both societies more and more are becoming secularist and irreligious.
Things have come a long way since the beginning of the 18th century. For almost 200 years, British Catholics have been able to worship freely. Members of the royal family have converted to Catholicism. Catholics hold high government offices. For almost a century, much longer than the United States, Britain has had diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
By the way, while each is independent and conceivably might view the 1701 law differently, Australia, Jamaica, New Zealand, and 10 other states deny the role of head of state to Catholics since they, too, share a monarch with Britain.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV's associate publisher.