On May 29, U. K. Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson married his girlfriend Carrie Symonds—a Catholic and the mother of his youngest child—in London's Westminster Cathedral.
The wedding came as a surprise, both because it had not been announced prior to the day and because Boris was not widely known to be a practicing Catholic. It was also surprising to many because this is Boris’s third putative marriage. He previously tied the knot with Allegra Mostyn-Owen in 1987 and Marina Wheeler in 1993.
One of the few Church doctrines still widely understood by the public is the teaching that marriage is a permanent, lifelong union between a man and a woman, and that those who divorce cannot enter a second marriage recognized by the Church. So how could Boris marry in the Church?
Well, first, Boris is a Catholic. Not many people know this, but he was baptized in the Catholic Church as an infant. Boris says he converted to Anglicanism while at school, but what canon law calls “defection from the Catholic Church by a formal act” requires a specific legal process, in dialogue with the Church hierarchy—something Boris did not do. Conversion cannot simply be public or notorious. In short: Boris never stopped being Catholic in the eyes of the Church.
Second, in addition to natural and divine law, the canon law of the Catholic Church also contains what are called “merely ecclesiastical laws.” These are laws that the Church promulgates on her own authority to better order the lives of the faithful and the society of the Church; they apply only to baptized Catholics like Boris.
Marriage, at its most basic level, is open to all humanity. It is contracted by a couple via an exchange of consent to its essential aspects: unity, indissolubility, the good of the spouses, fidelity, and openness to children. Marriage as a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman is part of the natural law and thus contained in the Code of Canon Law. But the Code also contains a number of ecclesiastical laws governing how and when Catholics can enter marriage. Among canonists, these are called the requirements of “canonical form.” They call for Catholics to marry in churches (preferably their own parish church), seek permission from their bishop before marrying outside of the Church, and request a special dispensation to marry non-Christians.
The roots of these laws lie in the Council of Trent. At the time of the council, it was unfortunately common for a young man to exchange consent with a woman and then later deny that he had done so, effectively renouncing the union, the woman, and their children. To address this problem, the council fathers instituted the requirements of canonical form. The sacrament of marriage came under the Church’s immediate jurisdiction, and a cleric (priest or deacon) was required to receive the couple’s exchange of consent.
What does this mean for Boris? Because the prime minister is a baptized Catholic subject to the requirements of canonical form, and because his two previous marriages lacked canonical form, a Church tribunal could find these two previous unions to be invalid. Hence Boris was permitted to marry Carrie Symonds in a Catholic ceremony in a Catholic Church.
I should note that this provision of canon law is hotly debated among canonists, with many in favor of doing away with the requirement of canonical form for validity, precisely because it can lead to situations like this one. That said, it would be wrong to assert, as many have, that Boris must have benefited from some perk of position to have both his previous unions declared invalid. Ask any canonist working in a marriage tribunal. He will tell you that it is hardly novel for a cradle Catholic to leave the practice of the faith, contract more than one marriage lacking canonical form, and then return to the Church to marry again. Neither is it unusual for such a Catholic to be granted more than one declaration of invalidity where applicable.
Unfortunately, more than one person has spitefully argued on social media that by having his previous marriage declared invalid, Boris has made the children of this previous union “illegitimate.” Leave aside from the kind of animus it must require to call someone a bastard to spite the father. These arguments are also wrong.
Canon law has a long memory, and it’s not unheard of for, say, a king to seek an annulment. In such cases, questions of legal legitimacy are more about the right to succession than about being horrible to someone on Twitter. For this reason, the law specifically recognizes the children born of putative marriages later declared null or invalid to be just as legitimate as those born of valid marriages.
Other critics, half grasping the concept of canonical form, fulminated that the Church apparently only recognizes Catholic marriages between Catholics in Catholic churches, and considers everyone else’s marriages to be invalid. But this, too, is wrong.
The Church does hold that only a marriage between two baptized Christians is a sacrament. But she considers all marriages entered according to its essential properties and elements to be valid, whether between Buddhists, atheists, Hindus, or anyone else. The only exception the Church makes is for Catholics, who have the added requirements of canonical form.
Many also claimed the Johnsons had been given a special perk by being allowed to marry in Westminster Cathedral, and that the Church was publicly favoring the prime minister despite his chequered marital history. But in fact, since Boris lives in Downing Street, the cathedral is his proper territorial parish. According to canon law, that is where their marriage is meant to be celebrated. In fact, they would have needed permission from the Church to marry elsewhere.
Despite all the sound and fury, the only exception afforded to the couple (as the Westminster diocese declared in a statement after the fact), was the temporary closure of Westminster Cathedral for security reasons.
Ed Condon is editor at The Pillar.
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