VATICAN CITY — As the supreme governor of the Church of England, King Charles III is expected to continue his mother’s friendship and esteem for the Catholic Church, but it will form just part of his broad interest in all Christian denominations, other world religions, and his seeming religious fervor for environmental concerns.
The new monarch, who immediately acceded to the throne following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8 and will be crowned May 6 in Westminster Abbey, has long had close ties with the Catholic Church. As heir to the throne, he spent many years supporting Catholic charities, as well as often speaking out on behalf of persecuted Christians, including working with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
He welcomed Pope St. John Paul II on his historic visit to Canterbury in 1982 and has made many trips to the Vatican, including meeting in private audience with John Paul II in 1985 and attending his funeral in 2005, meeting Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, and visiting Pope Francis in 2017.
In 2019, he represented the queen at the Rome canonization of St. John Henry Newman and penned a commentary for L’Osservatore Romano in which he praised how, through his Catholic faith, Cardinal Newman had contributed so much to the Catholic Church and his homeland.
“I know of nothing which would lead me to think that he isn’t strongly supportive of the faith and devotional life of his Catholic subjects and of Pope Francis,” said Anglican Archbishop Ian Ernest, director of the Anglican Centre in Rome.
But how does King Charles understand the Catholic faith? Does he recognize the differences between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, and how might he influence relations in the future?
“He will certainly be aware that the Roman Catholic Church teaches transubstantiation and that the Church of England does not,” said Gavin Ashenden, a former Anglican bishop and chaplain to the queen who was received into the Catholic Church in 2019. “He is probably aware that the Church of England only recognizes two sacraments against historic Christianity’s seven.”
Adrian Hilton, editor of the popular Anglican website ArchbishopCranmer.com,also believes Charles is aware of the denominational differences and recalled how, during his visit to John Paul II in 1985 with his then-wife Princess Diana, he had wished to attend Mass with the Pope, upon which the queen intervened. But to Hilton, this suggests “that he sees the Church as one and rather laments divisions within.”
“He is clearly aware of sacramental differences and interecclesiastical tensions, but doesn’t view them as primary issues of salvation,” he said. “That he gifted the Pope [in 1985] a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People also suggests that he views the Church of England as an expression of Catholic continuity.”
Does He Relate to Jesus as Lord?
But asked if Charles sees the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion as equals in the service of the same Lord, Ashenden said he sees “no evidence in Charles’ public language that he relates to Jesus as Lord” and noted that he “has chafed at the exclusiveness of Christianity and only recently committed himself to Anglicanism.”
Ashenden could not testify to Charles having any special interest in the Catholic Church per se; rather, he believes Charles has gravitated toward “spirituality, both Islamic and that of Greek Orthodoxy,” but added that this appears to be no more “than observer status” and that Charles’ affection for Orthodoxy is more diplomatic than personal.
Asked if Charles was perhaps closer to the Greek Orthodox Church, similar to his father, the late Duke of Edinburgh, who was a member of the Greek royal family, Hilton said: “This is difficult, not least because he has manifestly changed his mind on some theological issues over the years — as I guess we all do — so his thinking on Eastern Orthodox Christianity 20 years ago may not be what it is today.”
Still, Hilton said he senses Charles has inherited a “deep respect for Orthodoxy and also the cosmology of Universalism,” and Mount Athos, which Charles has visited several times, “represents to him a cultural history, spiritual unity and interfaith harmony which supersedes the divisions within and between Jerusalem, Rome and Canterbury.”
The new king is reportedly a more high-church Anglican than his mother and predecessor, Queen Elizabeth II. Might that perhaps make him closer to the Catholic Church?
“The truth is more likely to be that his sense of aesthetics is more developed than his mother’s, which means he is less averse to ritual than she was,” said Ashenden. “I don’t think this translates into personal allegiance.”
Hilton said he believes Charles is “relaxed about women priests and bishops” in the Anglican Communion and that they do not “present any sacerdotal or ontological difficulties for him at all.”
“’Full unity’ is not as important to him as respectful and peaceful coexistence,” he said.
As for whether Charles could conceivably change his denomination, Hilton said the King “is as likely to convert to Catholicism as he is to Orthodoxy, which likelihood I would rate as zero. He has sworn to be ‘Defender of the Faith,’ and while Henry VIII might have earned that title in defense of the Catholic Church, Charles III has his feet firmly planted in his mother’s understanding of the established church.”
“He won’t want to go down in history as the monarch who reneged on his coronation oath,” Hilton continued, adding that he will abide by the constitution to give royal assent to parliamentary bills. “He may occasionally do this through gritted teeth, but so did his mother,” he said.
Read it all in the National Catholic Register