Now they are ridiculous

The cult of monarchy is over, as the royal wedding fiasco shows. But Catholic cardinals should know

Traditional institutions with nowhere to go but down often have two phases of decline. When they first realise that the modern world is running away from them, they become dogmatic in their assertion of traditional values, as if by embracing orthodoxy they can re-create the time when orthodoxy was accepted by all. If they aren't totalitarian governments with secret police forces to impose their will, they can appear rather magnificent in their obstinacy. Even their critics admire their principled refusal to compromise with reality. But the pretence can't hold for ever. The gulf between what they say and what everyone does becomes so preposterous that they are pushed into the second stage where they must either reform or die.

The papacy of John Paul II was in the first stage of splendid stubbornness. Britain's monarchy is now ridiculous.

Who can doubt the scale of its crisis after the postponement of Charles Windsor's wedding? It has been commonplace for years to say that the conventional supports of Britain's monarchy have disappeared. The empire has gone and the Commonwealth means next to nothing to the majority of the British. The old concept of the British nation state is buckling under pressure from devolution, the European Union and globalisation. And, to top it all, when Tony Blair removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords he left us with the lonely anomaly of a hereditary head of state.

Yet for all the buffetings they have received, the Windsors had many other buttresses. I used to lose my temper when people said that the Queen had no political power, because they wilfully missed how the monarchical powers of the sovereign had passed to the executive and left the British with a prime minister who could declare war, sign treaties and stuff the quangocracy with his appointees. The past few days have shown how their twaddle was doubly wrong because it ignored how political and religious power supported the royal family.

If the Prince of Wales becomes Charles III he will be a priest-king: Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Meanwhile, the government will be his government and the civil servants and judges will be his civil servants and judges. It's all very well saying that he can't expect a prime minister or law lord or bishop to obey his commands. What he can - or rather could - expect was that church and state would legitimate his monarchy through thousands of acts of deference.

His expectations will be a tad less confident now. His decision to move his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles because it clashed with the Pope's funeral was made under pressure from church and state. The most spectacular was the pressure from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made it clear that he would rather go to the Vatican to attend the funeral than to Windsor to attend the marriage. The leader of a Protestant church was snubbing his future supreme governor so that he could pay his respects to a figure Protestants used to dismiss as heretical. The prince's adultery with the wife of a brother officer and his determination to remarry have lost him the respect of the very princes of the church he one day presumes to govern.

I suppose the archbishop would have stayed at home if Prince Charles had had the authority to insist on the point. Nothing the prince could have said or done, however, would have stopped the Prime Minister from going to Rome. Tony Blair's faith would have propelled him to the Vatican under any circumstances. Nevertheless it is striking that he could comfort himself with the knowledge that it would have done him far more damage politically to have been seen congratulating the prince than paying his respects to the late Pope.

To anyone who remembers the national celebrations of the Queen's silver jubilee or of the Spencer-Windsor marriage, this change is as extraordinary as the Church of England's decision to put ecumenicism before monarchism. As Linda Colley reminded us in her book Britons, Britain was forged as a Protestant nation by its wars against Catholic, absolutist Europe in the 18th century. In the 21st, the smart move for a British prime minister looking for votes is to be seen at the funeral of the absolute ruler of the Catholic Church rather than the wedding of a Protestant prince.

The repulsion at, or indifference to, a royal wedding marks the end of the 20th-century cult of monarchy. As crowns rolled off heads across Europe after the First World War, and the Windsors themselves were imperilled by the abdication crisis of 1936, first George VI and then Elizabeth II saved the monarchy by upholding traditional values of constancy and duty. For a long time they justified the pomp, the expense and grandiose political and religious claims on what was meant to be a democratic country. Even now, I can guarantee that when the Queen dies, there will be an outpouring comparable to the effusions that greeted the death of the Pope. Her critics will try to point out her bad side, but I doubt that we will find a large audience. In its own way, the dogged manner in which she has upheld the old values, decade in, decade out, has been admirable.

Yet it has also been a dead end. Her children could not follow her self-sacrificing example in a disrespectful modern democracy, even if they had wanted to, which they didn't. When they failed to live up to standards she set for the monarchy, the gap between the official version of a royal family that served the nation and the reality of a royal family that pleased itself became too great: respect swirled away and, inevitably, the monarchy became ridiculous.

Roman Catholics have had every reason to look on with satisfaction. Rightly so, in one sense, because the reaction to the Pope's death is a reminder that British anti-Catholicism is all but dead, in England at any rate. Yet they should not be too complacent.

Like the Queen, the Pope met the challenge of modernity by retreating into orthodoxy. As with the monarchy, the gap between what is said and what is done yawns. The Pope talked of human rights as loudly as the Windsors talked of self-sacrifice and duty, while ruling a church with a "servile episcopate" and "an intolerable legal system" in which "any pastor, theologian or layperson who enters into a legal dispute with the higher Church courts has virtually no prospects of prevailing", as Hans Kung, the dissident Swiss theologian, recently wrote in Der Spiegel.

Orthodoxy worked for the Pope. His successors will be less fortunate. They are going to have to choose between reform, which will promote schism, and upholding dogma, which will one day make the Church ridiculous as more and more of the faithful ignore it - and also promote schism.

After the Prime Minister and archbishop said they were going to Rome, the prince said he was going, too. If they have any sense, the cardinals should look out for his haggard and bewildered face and catch a glimpse of their future.