“The Queen”: A lesson in duty

On a golden alpine summer evening in 1992, I unexpectedly found myself in conversation with Prince Nikolaus von und zu Liechtenstein, younger brother of that micro–principality’s ruler, Prince Hans Adam II. Prince Nikolaus, a very serious Catholic and a patron of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, held what he laughingly described as “the country’s two most important offices,” namely, ambassador to Switzerland and, a distant second, ambassador to the United Nations. Somehow, the course of the conversation turned to the latest troubles of the Prince and Princess of Wales — at which point Prince Nikolaus, who knew them both, said something quite arresting: “I told Charles that it was a bad idea to marry her — that it wouldn’t work because she wasn’t born to the blood.”

Since the prince was far too intelligent to imagine anything akin to a genetic predisposition to rule, I asked him what he meant by the fact that the former Lady Diana Spencer hadn’t been “born to the blood.” He explained that royalty in the modern world was a very strange business, especially because it involved a lifetime of duty, and duty performed under intense scrutiny by an often unscrupulous press. Unless you had been raised from childhood to do that — to accept the duty, including its many boring bits, and to weather the scrutiny — you just weren’t going to be able to hack it.

I had several occasions to ponder the prince’s remarks in the five years between our conversation and Diana’s demise — as I also did recently, while watching the best movie I’ve seen in years: “The Queen,” a humane, funny, and ultimately wise docu-drama, set during and immediately after Diana’s death in a 1997 Parisian automobile accident. If Helen Mirren doesn’t win the Oscar for her brilliantly understated portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, there is no justice in the world; kudos are due, too, to Michael Sheen for his spot-on portrayal of prime minister Tony Blair and to Helen McCrory for her rendering of a slightly daffy Cherie Blair. “The Queen” is more than a great entertainment, however. It’s a contemporary parable about the superiority of duty to ambition, and of real human emotions to media-savvy spin.

The dramatic fulcrum of the film is the effort by then-newly-confected prime minister Blair to convince the Queen that she must follow the modern media conventions and join, if in a dignified way, in what amounted to a national nervous breakdown. The Queen, Blair suggests, must be seen to feel her people’s pain. Elizabeth II has a different view: her first responsibility, she believes, is to her young grandsons, Princes William and Harry, who are staying with her at Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands. Trained to a royal stoicism during the Second World War, Her Britannic Majesty doesn’t propose to turn herself, or her grandchildren, into the emotional playthings of a nation coming unhinged.

As the pressure from what the late J.P. McFadden used to call the “tablouds” intensifies, however, the Queen begins to understand that the monarchy itself may be at stake, and that the vow she had taken on the day of her coronation may, now, require her to do things she never imagined herself doing: like publicly confessing grief in a televised address to the nation — a necessary, if distasteful, concession to the out-of-control circumstances of the therapeutic society gone bonkers.

Yet if the Queen changes, Tony Blair changes more. This self-conscious modernizer, whose wife would cheerfully scrap the monarchy, comes to understand that there is far more to successful public service than the spin-machine he has installed at Number 10 Downing Street. There is duty, exemplified by the Queen, who is prepared to put up with ridicule, even hatred, for what she believes to be right — for what she believes she ought to be and do. If the Queen eventually must bend, however slightly, to the mob, precisely in order to do her duty, then the prime minister must grow up — fast — in order to be the success he so desperately wants to be.

Enjoy the film. But ponder the lesson, too.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash