There’s a strong Catholic case for King Charles III being an interventionist monarch, says Joseph Kelly

Whilst the queue of people wanting to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II past seems to be growing by the minute, so too are difficult but important questions about the nature and future of the monarchy in Britain.

The death of Queen at the age of 96 was a national shock but hardly a surprise, nor was the desire for vast swathes of the public to participate in the public rituals surrounding her last journey. In a society driven social media and our imaginary proximity to celebrity, grand scale public occurrences of any kind are now participatory and empathetic events.

In the case of the Windsors, a dynasty found itself adrift in a storm when the age of the mass media arrived, and the family became increasingly overwhelmed by public interest in its personal and domestic affairs. From the abdication to the Peter Townsend affair, through the Princess Diana years and on to the Prince Andrew scandal and the William and Harry split, the microscope of the media and public curiosity has ensured that this particular royal family became ‘owned’ increasingly by their loyal subjects.

As we all try to slip quietly and respectfully from the Elizabethan into the Carolean age, it’s worth reflecting that whilst our late Queen is being eulogised for her unique reign and outstanding statesmanship, her familial legacy may be remembered somewhat less kindly.

Of course, there have been few families of any status in history that haven’t had one or two skeletons in their cupboard and incidents that they would prefer to be forgotten. British royalty, too, has had its own unique and mottled history, and in many ways the infidelities, fallouts and indiscretions of the Windsor dynasty could be recorded as a mere reflection of the domestic dramas common to many families in modern British society.

In this digital media age in particular there has been a constant drive to portray the present royal family as fundamentally ‘just like us’, when fundamentally they are not, and it’s actually pretty disingenuous to suggest that a large group of incredibly wealthy individuals living an inherited lifestyle of luxury, privilege and deference from birth to death can have many genuine understandings and experiences of the struggles faced by so many of their subjects.

For ordinary members of the realm this matters little, as empathy for the monarchy and their connection to reality derives not from a tacit acceptance of their extreme wealth and inherited status, but rather from their irresistibly scandalous family melodramas. Whilst this has filled many tabloid acres and will undoubtedly spawn numerous books and biographies in the decades ahead, a time is fast approaching when more fundamental questions will need to be asked about the moral and social legacy that our new King Charles III has both inherited, and helped to create.

One of the strange inversions about history and the progress of our planet is that actually you can change the past constantly, but you can do far less about the future. A disproportionate amount of our life is spent trying to make sense of, and mitigate, what HAS happened, rather than what MIGHT happen.

For the new King Charles III, moving the zeitgeist beyond what he has been and onto what he undoubtedly wants to be will present a formidable challenge, especially as there are powerful forces determined to prevent him from doing so. Already – like an ageing parent to a rebellious teenager – the language of commentary and expectation has begun to talk about the new king in terms of dropping his dreamy pretentions and having to keep himself well out of politics.

We know from past experience that Charles will have none of such sanguine advice, but he no doubt also knows that what was possible and tolerated as the Prince of Wales may not be permitted so easily as king.

One of the earliest, and for Catholics most depressing, examples of the challenge that lies ahead came in 1994 when Charles triggered a controversy over what was interpreted as his intention to change the coronation oath to describe himself as “defender of faith” rather than “defender of the Faith”. What seemed like an innocuous wish and rephrasing raised hopes amongst many faith groups, but sent profound shockwaves through the UK Church and political establishment.

It took some 20 years to persuade Charles of the serious ramifications of this intention. In February 2015 on the BBC Radio 2 Sunday programme, interviewer Diane Louise Jordan reminded The Prince that he had been described as ‘faith’s defender’ and pointed out that he had once described himself as ‘a defender of faith’. The Prince later published a reluctant clarification and semi-retraction on his personal website. It’s worth quoting it in full:

No, I didn’t describe myself as a defender: I said I would rather be seen as ‘Defender of Faith’, all those years ago, because, as I tried to describe, I mind about the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. And it’s always seemed to me that, while at the same time being Defender of The Faith, you can also be protector of faiths.

It was very interesting that 20 years or more after I mentioned this – which has been frequently misinterpreted – the Queen, in her Jubilee address to the faith leaders, said that as far as the role of the Church of England is concerned, it is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

I think in that sense she was confirming what I was really trying to say – perhaps not very well – all those years ago. And so I think you have to see it as both. You have to come from your own Christian standpoint – in the case I have as Defender of the Faith – and ensuring that other people’s faiths can also be practised.

As we’ve seen this week as Charles took his oaths during the traditional Assession Council ceremony, whatever his private views our new king remains firmly and formally committed to the Protestant religion and, in a separate oath drawn up under the Acts of Union 1707, to “maintain and preserve” the “true Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church” in Scotland. By definition this not only excludes a Catholic from ever becoming a monarch, but effectively continues to disenfranchise Catholics and those of other faiths from full representation in the affairs of state.

That’s probably no bad thing, as the sight of members of our Catholic hierarchy amongst the Lords Spiritual in the Upper House would not only put the Church in the eyes of the faithful far too close to government, but would be a betrayal of much of our painful and hard-fought Catholic history. As St Thomas More said famously while on the scaffold awaiting his execution for defending Catholic principles over both king and state: “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.”

There is, however, good argument for a monarch taking his or her place in the political arena, or even presiding over it. Ironically, a monarchy established on Catholic principles could be just the kind of government that might get us all out of the fiscal and moral mess that we are in. Such considerations are nothing new; St Thomas Aquinas proposed just such an idea in a Letter, De Regno (On Kingship), written to the King of Cyprus. In it Aquinas identifies monarchy as both the best and worst forms of government – the worst when the monarch acts in their own interest, and the best when the monarch acts in the interest of others.

To his great credit – and our profound hope – Charles does seem committed genuinely to the latter. Whether or not he reigns as the best or worst of monarchs will certainly be down to his ability and determination to overcome history and protocols, and to control the will of an increasingly aimless and socially divisive parliament.

If he hasn’t done so already, King Charles III would do well to get hold of a copy of De Regno; it contains much that a wise king could learn from. At the heart of Aquinas’ thesis is the concept of a ‘unity of peace’, which he sees as far more than just an absence of war, but an internal harmony and balance in the state brought about by the determination to seek out justice for all, “Everything is uncertain when there is a departure from justice” says Aquinas. One feels hope when one realises this is a philosophical proposition already very close to Charles’ soul.

The Catholic Church’s test for a healthy state are the dual principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, which right now seem completely alien concepts to a government presiding over, and even actively building, a deeply divided and desperate society.

English history probably prevents us from ever accepting again an absolute monarch, but there remains a potential value, and even a critical importance, in having an independent  backstop to the absolute power currently in the hands of our civil legislators.  This takes us straight back to Aquinas, and in this case his his Summa Theologica: “the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, wherein one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rules are chosen by all.”

In essence, The king should hold an absolute veto over both the legislature and the judicial functions, whilst equally having a peaceful and democratic means of removing a king prevents autocracy. When you consider Aquinas’ proposal you understand why there has been such a powerful current to keep the monarchy well out of politics, even to the extent of ridiculing and demeaning the monarch should they get too close to the real levers of power and decision-making.

In this King Charles represents both our best – and yet most fragile – hope for change. On the one hand he is an instinctive mystic and philosopher who has had many decades to read, ponder and prepare for a reign of fiscal and societal ‘interference’; on the other hand his time is short, and the establishment has also had equal decades to prepare for his arrival.

No doubt there will be many interesting and turbulent days ahead, through which our new king – whenever he acts for the common good – can be assured of the absolute best wishes and support of our Catholic community.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and publisher, and founder of the

2 thoughts on “There’s a strong Catholic case for King Charles III being an interventionist monarch, says Joseph Kelly

  • September 15, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    Well balanced artricle and hopefully, our new King will requewsr a copy of Aquinas’s De Regno.
    A slight typo in the Queen’s age -she was 95 not 92 as in the article.

  • September 15, 2022 at 2:23 pm

    May I respectfully suggest that Joseph Kelly send King Charles III a copy of Aquinas’ ‘De Regno’ in a comprehensible and annoted translation with the expressed good will of all Catholics.

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