Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Royal Succession in a Post-Modern World

Hardly anyone in the US seems to care that Spain still regulates succession to its throne by giving preference to brothers over sisters (regardless of birth order), or that Denmark's Australian-born Crown Princess had to convert from her native Anglicanism to Denmark's official Lutheran Church when she married Crown Prince Frederick in 2004, or for that matter that the Netherlands' new Argentinian-born Queen had to adopt the Dutch protestant religion when she married the then Crown Prince Willem Alexander in 2002. But, when it comes to the rules for succession to the British Crown, then the world-wide interest increases dramatically.

Such increased interest has been heightened, of course, by two recent events - the birth of HRH Princess Charlotte to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the fact that her place in the order of succession (4th in line following her grandfather, her father, and her brother) will not change, even if in time she should acquire a younger brother. This novel change is itself the result of the going into effect this past March of the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, which (among other changes) switches from the more traditional form of primogeniture to the now currently fashionable "absolute" primogeniture that has already been adopted by Sweden (1980), the Netherlands (1983), Norway (1990), Belgium (1991), Denmark (2009), and Luxembourg (2011).

Hitherto, the British succession has been governed by the provisions of the 1701 Act of Settlement, which designated as Queen Anne's successors her closest Protestant relatives, "the heirs of the body" of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, whose son duly ascended the British throne in 1714 as George I. The Act of Settlement also famously excluded Catholics from the throne and forbade future monarchs from marrying Catholics.

However, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, Australia, on October 28, 2011 - the feast of St.Jude, patron of hopeless cases, and my own 16th anniversary of ordination - the 16 Commonwealth "realms" (i.e., the countries over which Elizabeth II reigns as Queen) all agreed to adopt legislation to change from traditional to absolute primogeniture and to end the prohibition on marrying Catholics. Each country having adopted the necessary legislation, the change in the succession law finally went fully into effect on March 26, 2015. Thus, the newborn Princess Charlotte will remain 4th in line even if she gets a younger brother, and she and other heirs to the throne will in future be free to marry Catholics. 

Personally, I have no particular preference in these matters. If the United Kingdom and the other realms over which Elizabeth II currently reigns wish to change the law governing who succeeds to the throne, that is obviously their prerogative to do. On this matter, I agree completely with the 16th-century England's heroic Saint Thomas More. When ordered to subscribe to the Act of Succession, More refused to take the required oath affirming the nullity of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the validity of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, but he was quite willing to accept the new line of succession that Parliament had adopted to replace Catherine's daughter with Anne Boleyn's prospective children. More's point was that, while King and Parliament had no authority to nullify Henry's first marriage, the succession issue was a matter of policy that the State could determine by law. 

That said, however, I think there are still some important issues worth considering in this connection.

The full title of the UK law is An Act to make succession to the Crown not depend on gender; to make provision about Royal Marriages; and for connected purposes. But, when introducing the proposed legislation in December 2012, British Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg referred to it as "a landmark bill to end the centuries-old discrimination against women in line to the British throne." 

The word "discrimination," as commonly used in contemporary polemical politics is intended usually as a debate-stopper. Nowadays, calling a practice, institution, or idea "discrimination" is a way of automatically devaluing it and devaluing the arguments in its favor - not necessarily on their merits (which no longer need to be debated) but on a priori ideological grounds. In this instance, the ideology is the contemporary consensus, born out of liberal individualism, that gender is not a legitimate basis on which to make distinctions in modern society. 

Fair enough, but the whole point (or at least a significant point) of having an institution like a hereditary monarchy is to maintain a "mixed constitution" in which some important pre-liberal values are preserved. The U.S. Constitution, for example, is a "mixed constitution," which includes a democratic branch (the House of Representatives) but also such elements as the Senate and the federal judiciary, constituted in a non-democratic manner precisely as a check on the democratic element in the government. One may or may not think that a particularly good thing for the country, and one is free to like or dislike these arrangements. But they exist to maintain or highlight certain other values, which deserve to be debated on their merits, not merely dismissed as "discrimination."

So, for example, to denounce the U.S. Senate as "discrimination" against voters in more populous states entirely misses the point of why we have a Senate in the first place. I myself would favor a more democratic system. But I think the reasons we have the system we have and the accumulated political experience of 200+ years of tradition still deserve to be debated on their merits, not simply dismissed as "discrimination" against more populous states.

Likewise, I do get the substantive (as opposed to ideological) point that there is plainly not much merit to maintaining male preference in royal succession. But, by the canons of liberal individualism, neither is there much merit in preferring the elder sibling to the younger - or for that matter in maintaining a hereditary system at all! What the hereditary system - and all its associated components - have going for them is the value of tradition and the values that this particular tradition highlights which are contrary to contemporary values. 

It is fine to change a tradition when warranted (as it is in this case). But one should never underestimate how even small changes in the most modest traditions can undermine the tradition as a whole (e.g., the Catholic Church's foolhardy tinkering with Friday abstinence in the 1960s). And that undermining can only be exacerbated by using historically anachronistic categories like "discrimination" when speaking about a pre-modern, pre-liberal, pre-individualism institution like hereditary monarchy. In the modern world, monarchy survives precisely because it embodies (in a person and in a family) a pre-modern, pre-liberal, pre-individualist priority of public community over private individual, of the common good over special interests, of duty over individual choice and self-definition. It is because these values are still worth highlighting even against the grain of contemporary liberal individualism - indeed are a useful corrective to contemporary liberal individualism - that monarchy can continue to play such a valuable balancing role even in contemporary liberal societies. 

So, while changes like recalibrating the rules of succession to be gender-neutral may be desirable and may make everybody feel better, how they are talked about and interpreted ideologically is also vitally important for the usefulness of the institution and the larger societal well-being that institution is intended to serve.

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