Why Could Boris Johnson Marry in a Catholic Church?

Why Could Boris Johnson Marry in a Catholic Church?

Why Could Boris Johnson Marry in a Catholic Church?

Why Could Boris Johnson Marry in a Catholic Church?

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s marriage to his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, on Saturday caught even his closest advisers off guard. Yet, perhaps the most surprising thing about the stealth ceremony was how by-the-book it was.

The bride wore a flowing white dress and a crown of white flowers in her hair; the groom a dark suit with a boutonniere. They were married by a Catholic priest in Westminster Cathedral in London, the seat of the English Catholic Church.

That last detail has become a subject of lingering intrigue because, after all, this was Boris Johnson, no altar boy, walking to the altar. The question bubbling in Catholic circles: How did a twice-divorced man, with at least one child born out of wedlock, manage to get married in the Roman Catholic Church?

The answer is simple and, to some people, unsatisfying: Mr. Johnson, 56, and Ms. Symonds, 33, were both baptized as Catholics. Neither of Mr. Johnson’s previous two marriages was in the Catholic Church so the church does not recognize them, and Ms. Symonds had never married.

As a matter of canon law, it is cut and dried — except that when Mr. Johnson was a teenager at boarding school, he was confirmed as a member of the Church of England. Then, of course, there is the issue of double standards: Many other practicing Catholics who are divorced are turned away by the church when they seek to remarry — to say nothing of same-sex couples who are Catholic.

“It’s not about whether Boris and Carrie should be allowed to get married in the church — they should — it’s about why other Catholics cannot,” said Christopher Lamb, the Rome correspondent of Tablet, a weekly Catholic publication. “Laws are only worth their salt if they’re seen as fair or consistent.”

“Boris seems to have been able to do what Henry VIII couldn’t do,” Mr. Lamb pointed out. “To have his third marriage recognized by the church.”

The church apparently overlooked Mr. Johnson’s conversion to the Anglican faith because under church law, it is now all but impossible — once baptized — to formally defect from Catholicism (he inherited the faith from his mother). Mr. Johnson was confirmed in the Church of England with his class at Eton College, though some students choose to opt out of the process.

“It would have been a thoroughly conventional thing to be confirmed,” said Andrew Gimson, Mr. Johnson’s biographer, “and Boris Johnson is in many ways a thoroughly conventional person.”

Whatever the prime minister’s religious affiliation, the diocese of Westminster said in a statement: “The bride and groom are both parishioners of the Westminster Cathedral parish and baptized Catholic. All necessary steps were taken, in both church and civil law, and all formalities completed before the wedding.”

Some objected that the church was invalidating Mr. Johnson’s 27-year marriage to Marina Wheeler, which produced four children and ended in divorce only last year, after he and Ms. Symonds had moved into Downing Street. He was married to his first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, from 1987 to 1993. They had no children.

To others, Mr. Johnson’s Catholic marriage is in keeping with a political career and a private life in which the normal rules do not seem to apply.

He has declined, for example, to say exactly how many children he has — beyond the four with Ms. Wheeler and his year-old son with Ms. Symonds, Wilfred, who was at the ceremony. Wilfred was baptized last year by the same priest, the Rev. Daniel Humphreys, who officiated at the wedding.

Mr. Johnson is believed to have at least one other child — a daughter, Stephanie, from a relationship with an art consultant, Helen Macintyre. He has also been dogged by questions about whether he did inappropriate favors for an American girlfriend, Jennifer Arcuri, while he was mayor of London.

The prime minister’s untidy personal life is more a subject of mockery than opprobrium in 21st-century Britain. As a politician, he has rarely invoked religion, and the depth of his faith is a moving target.

“It’s a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio when you’re driving through the Chilterns,” he once said. “It sort of comes and goes.”

Mr. Gimson described Mr. Johnson as a “pre-Christian figure,” though he noted that the prime minister issued a strikingly spiritual statement to mark Easter this year. Some say that may reflect the influence of Ms. Symonds.

For Britain, having a Catholic prime minister is itself a novelty. Tony Blair regularly attended Catholic Mass while he was prime minister, but formally converted to Catholicism only after he left Downing Street.

For some Catholics, the issue is less Mr. Johnson’s picaresque route to the altar than the inability of other Catholics to make the same journey.

“Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were married within the rules of the Catholic Church. And I wish them well,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the editor at large of America magazine, wrote on Twitter. “I also wish that the same mercy and compassion that was offered to them, recognizing their complex lives, could also be extended to same-sex couples who are lifelong Catholics.”




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