Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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December 23, 2007


After a long spiritual journey, Tony Blair, England's former Prime Minister, was received into the Roman Catholic Church on December 21 by Cardinal Cormac-Murphy, the head of the Catholic Church in England. Blair has observed that he had not been a religious person until he went to Oxford. There he began to see the role of religion as providing a satisfactory meaning for life. The death of his mother in 1975 has been said to have renewed his spiritual committment while at Oxford. A more defined spiritual committment was occasioned by his dating, in the late 1970s, Cherie
Booth, a practicing Catholic and a barrister like himself. She was later named "Queen's Counsel". While dating, Blair began attending Catholic Mass before he became Prime Minister. The couple were married on March 29, 1980 in a Church of England ceremony. They have since had four children.

In 1996, while Labor Party leader, he was reprimanded by Cardinal Basil Hume for receiving Holy Communion while not really a Catholic. The Cardinal's criticism left Blair, as he later said, "bemused". During his decade (1997-2007) as Prime Minister, Blair began worshipping regularly at Saturday evening Mass at Westminster Cathedral until security concerns prompted him to attend Mass at 10 Downing Street, and also at Chequers, his country residence. It was there that he established a close relationship with Father Timothy Ross and participated at Mass with his family. He later turned to Father John Walsh, a chaplain with the RAF, and a Father Mark O'Toole, who undertook the preparation for his reception into the Church. There has been no indication as to when he made the decision to convert. He has said he delayed because of his position as Prime Minister. In that office, he had weekly audiences with the Queen and had a role in the appointment of Anglican bishops. He was also involved in sensitive peace talks regarding Northern Ireland.Constitutional questions had also been raised. The Emancipation Act of 1829 conferred full civil rights on Catholics with the exception that no one in public office, who was an advisor to the Queen, could be a Catholic. This rule seems to have fallen into disuse, as evidenced by many historical departures from the rule.

Reactions to Blair's conversion extended over a full range. The Anglican archbishop wished him well on his spiritual journey. As evidenced in Letters to the Editors and blogs in the London newspapers that I reviewed on the Internet, there was much approval and some bitter criticism of him and rather extreme dislike of the Catholic Church. Much of the negative criticism focused on his joining in the Iraq war with President Bush and other unspecified acts in his official capacity. He received harsh criticism from many Catholics because of his acceptance of same-sex marriage, stem cell research, and abortion. I could not find his precise position on the latter issue, except for indications that he had opposed legislation that would have resticted abortions to earlier periods of pregnancy. Some of the Catholic criticism was addressed to the Church for receiving into its membership one with views such as Blair possessed. Today's NY Times describes at some length these criticisms. The article also reports that when Blair visited the Pope last June, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, papal Secretary of State, "laid out the Church's objections to some of the Blair government's legislation in uncompromising terms".

Catherine Pepinster, editor of "The Tablet", eminent Catholic periodical, observes that when a former Prime Minister becomes a Catholic, it signals that "Catholicism has come in from the cold in this country". She calls for Catholics to rejoice in Blair's conversion "with joy and not an unseemly triumphalism". She recognizes that some Catholics will not receive his reception with graciousness because of "Mr. Blair's voting record on issues such as abortion". She points out that since he is no longer an MP and has declared in his reception that he accepts all the teachings of the Church, he "may of course take a different view today as to what he believes and accepts on controversial life issues". But she finds that all politicians, like Blair, "have to act according to their consciences and negotiate the tricky path between their own beliefs and their work in the public arena". This is reminiscent of John F. Kennedy after his 1960 speech in Houston to Protestant ministers. A minister commented to him, "You said that if you found a conflict between your church and the constitution, you would resign the presidency". JFK swiftly shot back, "No, I did not say that. I said if I found a conflict between my conscience and the constitution, I would resign the presidency". Deepening this dilemma faced by politicians, Ms. Pepinster declares that we Catholics "are encouraged to realize that your belief is not parked at one side when you are not at Mass...Life and faith are a seamless robe".

It is of interest, that given many of Blair's long-standing public views, his reception as a member of the Church has been so warmly welcomed by the Pope and his Cardinal Archbishop. Have they somehow resolved the dilemma for themselves that increasingly faces Catholics in public life?

In scanning the London newspapers on the Internet, I came upon an article stating that Catholics are now in the majoriy of church-going Britishers, aided, after Britain joined the European Union in 2004, by a great influx of Catholic foreigners from Poland, Lithuania, and parts of Africa and Asia. Anglicans are second; Pentecostals, third, having recently surpassed the Methodists leaving them in fourth place.

Tony Blair now takes up his post in Jerusalem as the envoy of the Middle East diplomatic quartet - the UN,the US, the EU, and the Russian Federation. Our prayers go with him.