Roman Catholicism is an issue in the popular PBS drama, "Downton Abbey," which has its season finale Feb. 17. As background, the series is about a fictitious, Anglican English noble family, the Crawleys, of which the earl of Grantham is a member.
One of the earl's three daughters, Sybil, falls in love with and marries the family's Irish chauffeur. His being a servant and a strident supporter of Irish independence from Britain are bad enough. Even worse, he is a Catholic.
Sybil dies when their child is born. The baby's Irish father insists that she be baptized a Catholic. The earl is strongly opposed. The Crawleys are divided.
Actually, in real-life, the British aristocracy has had Catholics within its ranks since King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 16th century. Most English aristocrats followed him – at least publicly. Others refused. Some died as martyrs, among them are canonized saints, because they stubbornly kept the Catholic faith.
Most prominently, the Howards, the family of the dukes of Norfolk, the most noble of British nobility, are Catholics to this day. Indeed, in a family discussion in "Downton Abbey," the earl's mother says that her dear friend is the dowager duchess of Norfolk, who is "more Catholic than the pope."
In another scene, the earl frankly admits being "anti-Catholic" to Archbishop of York Cosmo Gordan Lang, who was an actual figure. Ironically, in real-life, eventually as Archbishop of Canterbury, Lang supported the Malines Conversations, an effort to re-unite Anglicanism with Roman Catholicism.
Despite exceptions, anti-Catholicism was an issue in Britain's upper class for a long time. It seemingly, however, was not always so pronounced among the British royalty.
Catholicism colored the situation when two events in the royal family occurred, both of which the dowager countess of Grantham well would have remembered. Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson, duke of Clarence and heir to the future King Edward VII, wanted to marry, so the stories went, Princess Helene, great-granddaughter of France's last king.
Helene was a Catholic. No heir to the British throne, at the time, could be married to a Catholic. Nor could the monarch. The romance ended. (He soon died of influenza).
In 1906, another uproar followed Spain's King Alfonzo XIII's proposal to Princess Victoria Eugenie, another of Queen Victoria's grandchildren. She accepted and announced that she was converting to Catholicism. Horror of horrors for British Protestants, King Edward VII, her uncle, gave his approval. Under British law, Victoria Eugenie still lost her rights to Britain's throne, but she remained close to her British royal relatives, and they to her, until her death in 1969. (She and King Alfonso were the grandparents of Spain's present King Juan Carlos I.)
Another shoe fell in 1913 when still another of Queen Victoria's granddaughters, Princess Beatrice, became a Catholic.
Today, two of Queen Elizabeth II's first cousins, Edward, duke of Kent, and his brother, Prince Michael of Kent, are married to Roman Catholics. Their children are Catholics. The maternal grandmother of Prince William, duke of Cambridge, became a Catholic. (She died in 2004).
After Henry VIII, British monarchs virtually ignored popes. Religion is said to be important to Queen Elizabeth II. She is supposed to have admired Blessed John Paul II very much. In sixty years, she has attended only one funeral outside Britain. When John Paul II died in 2005, she sent Prince Charles to represent Britain at his funeral. Two weeks later, she sent Prince Philip to Pope Benedict XVI’s installation. They were the highest ranking representatives after the queen herself.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.