From Thames to Tiber: Tony Blair and the politics of conversion
His formal instruction began four months ago, under the care of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-OConnors private secretary. The announcement of his reception was originally planned for June, when Blairthen still prime ministersaw Pope Benedict. But he was advised, on that occasion, to wait until after he stepped down. Things were not as resolved as they might be, he told the London Times at the time, giving a clue to some of the delicate negotiations behind the scenes.
Blair opted, instead, for a highly symbolic gesture, presenting Pope Benedict with three framed pictures of John Henry Newman, the famous nineteenth-century convert from Anglicanism who popedas Anglicans then scornfully put itin 1845, and became a cardinal in 1879. Here is a well-known convert who is on his way to sainthood, Blair told Benedict XVI. Ah yes, sighed the pope. But the trouble is that miracles in England are rather hard to come by.
There followed what the British papers called the papal chiding. Hes not the Messiah, hes a very naughty boy!, one paper headlined the meeting, quoting Monty Pythons film "Life of Brian." The Vaticans spokesman, Fr Lombardi, described it as un franco confronto, which The Times said was Vatican-speak for a row, but which Fr Lombardi insisted meant full, direct and friendly. Whatever it was, it was over hot-button issues with which Blairs premiership has been identified in Catholic minds: embryonic stem-cell research, gay marriage, abortion, the Iraq war. The Vaticans secretary of state was speaking to him on this occasion as a head of government; but that meeting was followed by another, ten-minute private one between the two men which Cardinal Cormac Murphy-OConnor was also hastily summoned to attend. It was at this meeting that the pope, the cardinal and the prime minister discussed the journey of his soul.
That journey has many starting points: his growing religious convictions at university, under the influence of an Australian Anglican priest, which led him into politics; his 1980 marriage to Cherie, and the Liverpool working-class Irish Catholicism of her family; and his own, developing political philosophy, which increasingly synched with the churchs social teaching. The distinguishing philosophical feature of the Christian religion, he told Third Way magazine in 1993, was the way it tied individual responsibility to that of society. This had led him, he said, to reinterpret the socialist message: social responsibility is important to reinforce personal responsibility, not as a substitute for it."
Faith and British Politics
But he was careful to keep his faith well below the radar as prime minister, for fear of being seen as a nutter," he recently told a BBC documentary. It is a grand irony that in the United States, where Church and State are separated by high constitutional walls, it is helpful for politicians to speak often of God; whereas in Britain, where the Anglican Church is by law established and the state is officially Christian, it is very advisable for politicians to steer well away from the subject. We dont do God, Blairs press secretary, Alistair Campbell, once famously remarked. And in his interview Blair explains what Campbell meant.
If you are in the American political system or others then you can talk about religious faith and people say Yes, thats fair enough and it is something they respond to quite naturally, he tells the BBC. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think youre a nutter. They sort of [think] you maybe go off and sit in the corner and commune with the man upstairs and then come back and say, Right, Ive been told the answer and thats it.
He is not exaggerating. Consider the reaction to a TV interview Blair gave last year in which he spoke of his agonies over the war in Iraq. That decision has to be taken and has to be lived with, and in the end theres a judgment that, well, if I think you have faith about these things is made by other people, he said, adding: If you believe in God, its made by God as well. The headlines? GOD TOLD ME TO GO TO WAR, SAYS BLAIR.
Little surprise, then, that Blair has kept his religious views private, and even less surprise that if he was tempted to convert in office, there was no shortage of counsel against the idea. There would be a host of questions: how can a Catholic oversee 200,000 abortions a year, appoint Anglican bishops, encourage British experiments on embryos, approve gay marriage? These are not questions asked of Anglican, atheist or Protestant prime ministers, because public opinion assumes that these are not beholden in the same way to a higher authority. But for a practicing Catholic, it is a no-win. Vote with the Vatican, and you are a Roman stooge; vote against, and you are a hypocrite. Both are politically fatal.
A papist prime minister?
It is not the constitutional bars in themselves which prevent a Catholic prime minister. The head of state, the queen, on whose behalf the prime minister technically governs, must swear to uphold the Protestant faith; even poor Prince William will be unable to marry a Catholic without giving up the thronean astonishing anachronism incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
But the only impediment to a papist prime minister is a long-dead clause of Act of Emancipation (1829) which prevents an adviser to the queen being a Roman. The queen has had plenty of Catholic advisers over the years, so no problem. But like many elements of the unwritten British Constitution, it has never been put to the test. British politics has largely deferred to the consensus that if you start to unpick one strand of the messy ball of wool, the whole thing will unravel, and pretty soon youll have disestablishment and the horror of French secularism. In politics, Britons prefer our own form of secularism, a practical atheism beneath a thin veneer of Anglicanism.
A little indication of what would have lain in store for the Catholic Blairand a signal of why Cardinal Murphy-OConnor and the Vatican were stalling himcomes in recent Telegraph article headlined "To many of us he isnt a nutter but a hypocrite." Damian Thompson, who is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, points out that Catholics have not forgotten that the former PM, although claiming to oppose abortion, consistently voted with hard-line pro-abortionists at a time when he was already attending Mass. This they regard as sickening hypocrisyand they wonder why Cardinal Murphy-OConnor is so silent on the matter.
But this assumes that somehow Blair could have voted against his own party and Government on such issues; the press coverage would have been radioactive. And it overestimates his own power: he lost a battle, earlier this year, to grant the Catholic Church an exemption from anti-discrimination laws that outlaw Catholic adoption agencies from refusing their services to gay couples. We have no idea how much he wrestled with these issues: while his government backed embryonic stem-cell research, he is known to have believed that the state was exceeding its competence on the issue.
The road to Rome
One can only imagine the struggles on his journey across the Tiber. Blairs background is in liberal Anglo-Catholicism; his favorite theologians are Leonardo Boff and Hans Kung, not Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He belongs to an ecclesial tradition in which the gate is wide, and bridges more important than borders. When, many years ago, he was reprimanded by Cardinal Basil Hume, the former Archbishop of Westminster, for publicly receiving the Eucharist at Westminster Cathedral, he accepted the rebuke but in a letter to the Cardinal asked: What would Jesus have made of that?
Most Anglican converts (3,981 adults were received in 2005) are impressed by the Catholic Churchs doctrinal clarity, impatient at the Church of Englands eternal wranglings over gay priests and female ordination, admiring of Catholic churchgoing (Catholic Sunday attendance now exceeds Anglican Sunday attendance, despite there being 25m Anglicans and only 4.2m Catholics) and its confident othernessits sacramentality and very un-British mysticism and supernaturalism. Yet most attractive to Tony Blair is the churchs vast international reach, its commitment to the poor, its capacity for mobilization against injustice, and its courage to stand firm on unpopular issues.
Yet it is a big leap for him to accept the Magisterium, to assent to dogmas, to promise obedience to positions which, were he to have adopted them publicly, would have killed his political career at the starting blocks. Which is why, now that he has become a Catholic following four-month preparation, it is worth pausing before using a word like hypocrite."
It is one thing is to hold Catholics in public life to account: to question how Judge Antonin Scalia can be in favor of the death penalty, or John Kerry of abortion. But it is another to call them hypocrites, to pretend to know what choices faced them, and why they took the decisions they did. Politicians are not lackeys; they must govern in favor of the common good in a pluralist society. If a Catholic can only serve a government whose every act chimes with his conscience and with church teaching, he cannot be a politician.
Prying into a mans conscience is something we can do only with trembling, which is why it is left to spiritual directors and priests under the seal of confession. Tony Blair has satisfied them that he assents to all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God. The rest of us can only hold out our hands in welcome, rejoice at his homecoming, and be glad that our own JFK momentwhen a Catholic prime minister one day opens the door of No. 10 Downing St.has inched a little closer.