Or is he actually a pagan? (Photo by Rebecca Fulton / Downing Street via Getty Images)

June 1, 2021   5 mins

It would have to be him, wouldn’t it? If any twice-divorced man with “at least” six children could somehow wangle a third marriage in a Roman Catholic cathedral, it’s Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Once again he gives the impression of leading a charmed existence, free from the constraints endured by ordinary mortals. Once again he’s been accused of acting as if the rules — even those of Holy Mother Church — are for the little people.

In this particular case, the little people are Johnson’s fellow Catholics, many of whom have made great personal sacrifices to abide by the teachings of the Church — especially those on marriage and divorce. So the news of Boris and Carrie’s wedding ceremony at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday must have come as a shock. It certainly came as a surprise to me.

But perhaps it shouldn’t have. There are some people in this life who are blessed — or, rather, cursed — with the ability to get away with almost anything. Boris Johnson is one of them. And as if to prove it beyond doubt: there he was, at the altar, getting away with it again.

Except that he wasn’t.

It’s not as if the happy couple snuck into the Cathedral, with a tame priest in tow, and got married in defiance of ecclesiastical authority. No, this will have gone through the proper channels and will have received the appropriate approvals. Indeed, given the circumstances, I’d be surprised if Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, was not informed.

Unless a colossal error has been made or false information has been supplied — and there’s no evidence of either — then this marriage took place within the rules.

And so on to the second charge in the case against Boris’s nuptials — which is that he exploited a loophole in canon law: that his two previous marriages are not recognised by the Catholic Church. If it did indeed come down to a technicality, then Boris could be accused of violating the spirit of the law, if not its letter.

There’s plenty who’d just love to do that. For the zealots of the Unreformed Church of Remain, Boris is already guilty of the gravest possible sin (getting Brexit done); and thus, if he can be accused of others, that would be a bonus.

Among the experts trying to explain canon law to a confused public, the consensus is this: that the ceremony that took place in the cathedral on Saturday, was not — from the point of view of the Church — Boris Johnson’s third marriage, but his first.

The Church does not deny that the first two marriages took place as a civil arrangement under the secular law of the land. However, the Church’s primary concern is with marriage as a sacrament.  And here we need to understand what the Church means — and absolutely believes — a sacrament to be.

It’s more than just another word for a ritual or a ceremony. The Catholic Church recognises seven sacraments, including Matrimony, and each of these have a particular set of rituals associated with them. However, the ceremony is a visible sign of something more important: the dispensation of divine life to God’s people through His Church.

So, when the Church marries a man and a woman it isn’t some theatrical performance to make the happy couple’s special day extra special (at least that’s not all it is). Nor is it solely the Church’s blessing upon the tribal rites of a particular time and place — the hatches, matches and dispatches universal to every human society. It’s also more than a means by which Christians proclaim and celebrate what they believe.

Rather, what a sacrament is first and foremost is a channel for God’s grace and power. It is a gift that changes reality at the most fundamental level. Thus it is through Baptism that a person becomes a member of the Church. It is through Confession that sins are absolved. And it is through Matrimony that a man and a woman enter into a lifelong union that is authored by God Himself.

I cannot stress enough that this is what faithful Catholics actually believe. Just as God is not a metaphor, His divinely instituted sacraments are not metaphors.

You may think that this is all very weird — which is fine, because it’s meant to be weird. In fact, the main problem with getting outsiders (or even Catholics themselves) to understand Catholicism is not that they find it strange, but that they don’t appreciate the full extent of its strangeness.

Ever since the Reformation, and arguably long before, people have tried to translate the things of God into purely human language. And, up to a point, that’s fine — as long as one remembers that, like trying to fit a quart into a pint pot, the translation is incomplete.

Here’s just one example, a tweet addressed to Boris Johnson from the comedian Katy Brand: “A nice touch to have your previous marriages struck out by the Catholic Church. Gives it all a lovely Tudor flourish.”

Eighteen thousand likes, but zero understanding. The Catholic Church didn’t “strike out” anything. Boris Johnson’s first two marriages were not entered into as Catholic sacraments — and are thus not the Church’s business. The question of striking out does not even arise.

The Church’s business is marriage as a Catholic sacrament — and it is in this context that it will not allow divorce, because it cannot put asunder what God has joined together. In some circumstances, the Church will annul a marriage, but that is only a recognition that the marriage, as a sacrament, never existed in the first place because it was not freely or properly entered into.

And thus we come to the real issue regarding Saturday’s big event — and that is the question of Boris Johnson’s sincerity. Though he was baptised a Catholic, evidence of his commitment as an adult to any form of Christianity is somewhat patchy. As for what he’s said himself about his religious beliefs, he’s best known for likening them to a faltering radio signal:

“I suppose my own faith, you know, it’s a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio when you’re driving through the Chilterns. It sort of comes and goes. I mean sometimes the signal is strong, and then sometimes I’m afraid it just vanishes. And then it comes back again.”

One might also ask about the spiritual radio station he’s been tuning into. Indeed, some might suspect that the signals he’s sent and received are closer to the Bacchanalian worldliness of classical paganism than to the heavenly fixations of Christianity.

If that was, and still is, his outlook on life, then the commitment he entered into on Saturday cannot have been made in good faith. To go through the motions in that state of mind would be an act of such cynicism as ought to revolt his closest friends and shock even his worst enemies. It would also shame the Church authorities for failing to detect the imposture.

But who are we to judge? Last year, Boris Johnson almost died; his son, Wilfrid, was born (and baptised); and he led his country through its most testing time since the Second World War. Experiences like that change people.

Perhaps it was just the wording, but the Prime Minister’s Easter message this year sounded awfully close to a profession of Christian faith:

“But if there’s one thing British Christians have shown us this year it’s that Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” not just today but every day. His teachings, and the message of his death and resurrection, permeate through every aspect of daily life.”

What we can definitely say is a profession of Christian faith are the words that Mr and Mrs Johnson would have said in Saturday’s ceremony. In the Catholic Church, Matrimony is unique among the sacraments in that the minister of the sacrament — that is to say the conduit of God’s grace — is not a priest or a bishop, but the two people being married.

So let’s hope they meant every last word.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.