I have to confess that Prince Harry is the one member of the Royal family who’s succeeded in getting under my skin. It’s been pretty easy to dismiss the other members of this sadly dysfunctional family as remnants of an historic and unnecessarily expensive oligarchy that has little place or purpose in a modern democracy.
Oddly, for a dynasty that has a dark history of persecuting Catholics, and that still supports legal discriminations against us, there remains an inexplicable deference amongst many English Catholics to this increasingly toxic institution.
The Act of Settlement of 1701 specifically excluded Catholics or their spouses from becoming a monarch, stating that no sovereign “shall profess the Popish religious or shall marry a Papist”.
Despite the passing of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which finally allows a future king or queen to marry a Catholic, that person still cannot become a monarch themselves.
Those of us who watched the Accession Council meeting held just a few days after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and televised for the first time in its history, will also have heard King Charles III reading aloud the words:
“I,by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of My other Realms and Territories King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion as established by the Laws made in Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly by an Act intituled “An Act for securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government” and by the Acts passed in the Parliament of both Kingdoms for Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland. So help me God.”
Given all that, and both society’s and our Catholic Church’s commitment to equality, diversity, inclusion and equality of opportunity, this profound and very public discrimination against one particular faith group ought to exclude any amity between Catholics and the monarchy.
Which brings me neatly to Prince Harry and why, for all the resoundingly negative publicity he’s received, I can help feeling a degree of empathy with the man. One of the fundamental principles of the Windsor dynasty has been the notion that you may not have asked to have been born into the family, but born into it you were, and therefore you have rules to follow, one of which is never to question the institution.
On her 21st birthday on 21st April 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth declared in a broadcast: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” thus setting place the defining characteristic of her subsequent reign.
It could even be argued that such was the late Queen’s commitment to public service that little is really known at all of the human person behind the iconic, global Windsor brand. Almost everything we know about the late Queen Elizabeth is some category of PR, such was the control she and the family exercised over the media and their public interactions.
It was into this iron-clad dynasty that Princess Diana walked, and her two sons have known little else but the strictures and obligations of Royal life. William seems to embraced his destiny and all the limitations that come with it, but clearly as one destined not to become king, Harry must have wondered from an early age what it was all about, and where he was going.
Of course dating a well known American actress, and a woman of colour, was never going to get the Windsors popping the champagne corks, but the anecdotes are that the relationship was tolerated because most members of the Royal family thought it wasn’t going anywhere, and that the Windsor ethos would eventually re-assert itself. Harry’s typically wry observation that “dating an American actress was probably what clouded their judgement” goes down as one of the great understatements of the year.
At a human level there is a great deal of public empathy for Harry and Meghan. Clearly a very well-suited and very much in love couple, their struggles with overbearing parents, sibling rivalries and the need to cut their own, unhindered path in life are just an echo of the countless experiences of so many ordinary folk across the country.
Unfortunately, neither party is remotely ordinary, and the dichotomy that’s tearing Harry apart is that for all his dreams he can never be the bloke that just walks down the street. To make matters worse he’s still obviously smarting from a sense of injustice and outrage at the way he and his wife have been treated, and the brutal publicity machine that’s been brought to bear down on them both.
Unfortunately, taking to Netflix to put your side of the story is not only pouring fuel on the fire, but it’s engaging with the very mechanisms that Harry is trying desperately to extricate himself from. It’s really no good employing a team of photographers, video makers, journalists and editors to tell the world that you’re unhappy with the way photographers, video makers and editors have been treating you. As such the Harry and Meghan Netflix series is actually a tacit acceptance that you’re engaging with the whole process of judgement by media.
Sadly Harry does seem to be repeating exactly the same mistake his mother made. It’s an absurd expectation that you can court the media indiscriminately when you’re seeking positive publicity but that having created that unnatural interest, you can’t then demand a right to privacy when it suits. Privacy is the privilege of the anonymous – present yourself for public scrutiny and you negate your right to privacy. This is something that few celebrities seem to understand.
It’s perhaps understandable that Harry is carrying wounds from his experiences within the Windsor family. Quite apart from his feelings about the death of his mother, few would dispute that he – and more particularly his wife – have been treated with insensitivity and a lack of empathy by the Royal family. He was probably advised quite rightly to just walk away, and to make his own life. From the sound of it, that’s precisely what The Queen told him to do. But indignation is a dreadful thing that eats away at even the most resolute of souls.
The desire to right a wrong, to correct an injustice, and especially when it concerns a loved one, can shape or distort a life. In Harry’s case it’s in deep danger of being a distortion.
Watching the Netflix series I kept hearing in the back of my mind the anguished plea of Michael Corleone in The Godfather: “Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In!”
I’m sure Harry and Meghan are hoping that their Netflix documentary will exorcise their demons and, as Meghan said “at least put our side of the story”. Unfortunately the worst thing you can do when someone wants to pick a fight, is give them the justification to start one. The Royal family will now be obliged to respond to the documentary, and the whole destructive circus will roll on into yet another acrimonious chapter that will do no-one involved any good.
I’m sure Harry will be pretty familiar with the Sermon on the Mount; if not someone needs to tell him that Our Lord’s words will unlock his misery, and they are particularly apposite in Harry’s case:
“And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40)
Turning the other cheek has always been one of the trickier Christian principles to master, but if Harry and his wife are ever to find peace and a meaningful life for themselves, it’s advice they’ll have to heed.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian, and founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk