Brit Royals: Could a Catholic Girl Become Queen?

The British royal family is all about tradition. But even this august institution has to confront the realities of the 21st century. For more than 300 years, it has been an inviolable rule that neither monarchs nor their spouses can be Roman Catholic. The rules of succession also require that a first-born son gets the top job, bypassing any older sisters. Those restrictions could finally be history, according to a report today in London's Guardian newspaper.

The Guardian, which often advocates anti-monarchist positions, says advisers to Prime Minister Gordon Brown are currently reviewing proposals to abolish both these long-held rules. A Brown spokesman neither confirmed nor denied the report, explaining only that "changes to the law on succession would be a complex undertaking … requiring the consent of legislatures of member nations of the Commonwealth." The changes are reportedly part of a much broader constitutional review currently on the desk of Wilf Stevenson, who is a close friend of Brown's as well as his new constitutional adviser. That may give the reforms—long pushed by human rights advocates—their best shot at passage in years.

Like so much else involving the monarchy, the proposed changes are largely about image. Britain's 4.2 million Catholics, the country's second largest religion, have long complained that the specific ban against their faith but not others institutionalizes religious discrimination. It means—theoretically, at least—that members of the royal family would lose no privileges if they married, for example, a Jew or a Muslim. But choosing a Roman Catholic would mean giving up any hope of wearing the crown. Many Catholics were outraged this spring when Autumn Kelly, a 30-year-old Canadian, converted from Catholicism to the Anglican church before her marriage to Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne (and Queen Elizabeth II's oldest grandson). If she hadn't made the switch, her new husband would have lost his place as 11th in line to the throne (after Princes Charles, William and Harry, a bunch of other uncles and cousins and his own mother). Her decision helped re-ignite calls for reform from Catholics and others in both the U.K. and Canada.

The anti-Catholic rule dates back to the 1701 Act of Settlement, which states that only Protestant heirs of Sophia, granddaughter of King James I, could take the throne and that neither Catholics nor those born out of wedlock could remain in the line of succession. Males were also formally decreed to take precedence over females (although this was already the accepted practice). The preference for males is just as controversial as the religious prohibition among anti-monarchists and feminists. In this case, even the Queen, on the throne now for 56 years, has come down on the side of change. Back in 1998, she announced that she had no objection to having the crown pass to the monarch's oldest child, whether male or female. Her personal history makes male dominance seem particularly outdated: she only got the job because her father, King George VI, had no sons. It's a stand that is unlikely to have any practical effect for decades since there are already two generations of males in direct line ready to reign—her son Charles and grandsons William and Harry. But this kind of adjustment isn't unprecedented: Sweden changed its rules of succession in 1980 so that the monarch's eldest child, regardless of gender, became the heir. This made Victoria, born in 1977, the Crown Princess over her younger brother Carl Philip, born in 1979.

How long it would take to enact these reforms is unclear. Approval by the British Parliament and other Commonwealth nations could take years. By then, perhaps Prince William will have finally married his longtime girlfriend, Kate Middleton. If their first child is a daughter, she can thank her great-grandmother for the crown.