Great Britain has its 1st Catholic prime minister, to the great surprise of most Britons

Boris Johnson, Carrie Symonds
(Image credit: Rebecca Fulton / Downing Street via Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in the office since 2019, "recently came out as Catholic, to the concern of British Catholics, some parish priests, and parliamentarians," and to the surprise of even some of his closest political allies, Catherine Pepinster reports at Religion News Service. Johnson was baptized Roman Catholic, his mother's religion, but was confirmed in the Church of England at Eton and is not generally known to be a churchgoing man.

On May 29, though, Johnson married his longtime girlfriend Carrie Symonds at Westminster Cathedral, the seat of English Catholicism, and the Catholic Diocese of Westminster then declared that husband and wife were both baptized Catholics and Westminster Cathedral parishioners. (Symonds is Johnson's third wife, but they were allowed to wed in the divorce-hostile Catholic Church because Johnson's first two weddings were civil and thus not recognized as valid under canon law, Pepinster explains.) The couple gave their baby son Wilfred a Catholic baptism in September.

So, Johnson appears to be Britain's first Catholic prime minister. And given the history of Britain since King Henry VIII, that's a very big deal, University of London constitutional expert Peter Hennessy, who is Catholic, tells Religion News Service. After hundreds of years of post-Reformation discrimination, Catholics have slowly moved into positions of authority in recent decades, he said, and Johnson's "appointment as prime minister is the completion of the Catholic stealth minority's rise to influence."

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Johnson may not be the ideal Catholic role model, but his newly revealed religion is more than just a curiosity. Britain is culturally secular, but "Roman Catholicism alone still has a contested place in Britain," Pepinster writes. "By law, the monarch cannot be a Roman Catholic," and "under the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, no 'person professing the Roman Catholic religion' is allowed to advise the monarch on the appointment of Church of England bishops," which is in the prime minister's job description. Johnson will likely deputize Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland for that role, RNS reports.

Jonson's evident Catholicism may make dealing with Northern Ireland's growing Brexit troubles harder, too, but it also creates another special — or "indestructible" — bond between Britain and the U.S., where President Biden is only the second Catholic elected president. Read more at Religion News Service.

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