To God alone be the honour and the glory

Amidst the wholesome grief that has accompanied the passing away of our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, much has been said of her virtues, which were manifest. Some Catholics have worried about the propriety of offering public masses for the repose of her late majesty’s soul, and others about her complicity in the various immoral Acts of Parliament which disfigured her reign. The former is a canonical question of some complexity. The latter raises a moral principle which should be clear to all the followers of Christ. While doing justice to her natural goodness and her stainless personal character, it is important that the faithful do not, in seeking to defend the second Elizabethan age, fall victim to the errors that defined the first. The duty of a Christian prince, even in his public functions, is first and foremost to Christ. The iniquitous Thomas Cranmer, in his imprisonment after the accession of Queen Mary, dreamt that his life was defined by a choice between Henry VIII and Christ, in which he gave his soul to the earthly tyrant. That choice is the essence of Anglicanism — the sect in which alas our late dear queen was raised — and it is not one that any Catholic, by definition, can ever make. The law of God transcends all putative earthly laws, and so “it belongs to the spiritual power to establish the earthly power and judge it when it is not good”.

The primacy of the spiritual, which Cranmer and his followers reject, is the necessary concomitant of the absolute rejection of sin. As St John Henry Newman famously asserted:

“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.” 

St John Henry Newman, Difficulties of Anglicans, Lecture 8

The Pope, the Bishop of Rome, is the visible head of the Catholic Church. He is the visible head not merely of the clergy or of the Roman Rite, but of all the faithful. This truth is not merely a certain theological doctrine but is a dogma defined by the Ecumenical Council of Florence and reaffirmed by the First Ecumenical Council of the Vatican.

“And so, supported by the clear witness of Holy Scripture, and adhering to the manifest and explicit decrees both of our predecessors the Roman Pontiffs and of general councils, we promulgate anew the definition of the Ecumenical Council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians; namely that the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold a worldwide primacy, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christian people.” 

Vatican I, Dei Filius

This headship flows from the universality of the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. This gives her jurisdiction to teach and to exercise supervisory authority over every area of human learning, worship and government. Certainly, innumerable arts and sciences exist which, remaining within their own boundaries, have no contact with the matter of revealed truth, but it is for the teaching office of the Church to judge when they have or have not strayed beyond those boundaries. The Holy Church must sit in judgment over the harmony or lack thereof of every other human assertion with the sacred deposit of divine revelation. Likewise, there are innumerable human actions which are “indifferent in their species”; that is, described in the abstract, they are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but in the concrete, every human action is either ordered to man’s true supernatural end or not, and is subject to the judgement of the Church, mother and mistress of the nations. As Pius XI explains:

“Hence it is that in this proper object of her mission — that is, in faith and morals — God Himself has made the Church sharer in the divine magisterium and, by a special privilege, granted her immunity from error; hence she is the mistress of men, supreme and absolutely sure, and she has inherent in herself an inviolable right to freedom in teaching. By necessary consequence, the Church is independent of any sort of earthly power, as well in the origin as in the exercise of her mission as educator, not merely in regard to her proper end and object, but also in regard to the means necessary and suitable to attain that end. Hence with regard to every other kind of human learning and instruction, which is the common patrimony of individuals and society, the Church has an independent right to make use of it and, above all, to decide what may help or harm Christian education. And this must be so because the Church, as a perfect society, has an independent right to the means conducive to its end, and because every form of instruction, no less than every human action, has a necessary connection with man’s last end, and therefore cannot be withdrawn from the dictates of the divine law, of which the Church is guardian, interpreter and infallible mistress.”

Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri (1929) §18.

Because every thought, work, word and omission will be brought into judgement, just as every art and every science, and every act and every decision aim at the attainment of some good, so must we never do evil that good may come of it.

As Oscar Wilde observed, the Catholic Church is strictly for saints and sinners only; for merely respectable people, the “Church” of England must suffice. Many decades ago, Fr James Morrow and Professor Elizabeth Anscombe were arrested for physically obstructing access to an abortion clinic. The judge had been expecting to deal with “nothing more” than a troublesome papist cleric and was horrified to discover the cleric’s co-defendant was the chair of the philosophy faculty at Cambridge and that their lawyer was the Professor of Law & Legal Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He was even more horrified by their defence that, the 1967 Abortion Act being null and void for conflicting with natural law, they were merely acting to prevent a criminal offence under section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. No law which is not derived from the eternal law has any force. It is no law at all, but rather an act of violence.

“[H]uman law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason, it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.” 

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IaIIae, Q. 93, A.2–3 (CCC1902)

The pope has no authority to teach contrary to the law of God. When, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, God prevents him from teaching contrary to divine law. On other occasions, he enjoys a presumption of reliability in faith and morals greater than that of any other individual, but it is not an unrebuttable presumption, and if anyone — even an apostle or an angel from Heaven — were to preach a gospel besides that which we have received, he would be anathema.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was the visible head of the United Kingdom. Just as the specific teaching of any given person legitimately entrusted with the duty to teach by the church does not thereby constitute “the teaching of the church”, so the vast majority of the actions of those entrusted with official duties by the United Kingdom are not thereby actions of the United Kingdom. An Act of Parliament is different. When Monarch, Lords and Commons act together, the United Kingdom itself acts and such an act cannot occur without the assent of the Sovereign.

Catholics do not hold with Luther that the ruler must have two personalities: that of the Christian and that of the Prince, which are in fact opposed. “Unless” as Boniface VIII defined “he invent, like Manicheus, two beginnings, which is false and judged by us heretical”. With Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6), we reject the idea that wickedness of which we secretly disapprove be trumpeted in our name. Neither public law nor constitutional convention can exculpate a ruler for having it proclaimed that he assents to a purported law directly repugnant to the law of God. Otto von Habsburg would often observe that it is none of our concern whether the cause of righteousness flourishes or fails. God decides that. Our task is to fight for justice and to fight with all our strength. To God alone be the honour and the glory.