There is still considerable fall-out in the United Kingdom from the announcement of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s conversion to Catholicism.
His formal reception into the Church last December was not unexpected, given that his wife Cherie was brought up a Catholic, the family has long attended Mass together, and their two older boys have been educated at the London Oratory School, one of the bestknown Catholic schools in the capital.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster, issued a statement welcoming Blair into the Church: ”My prayers are with him, his wife, and children at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together.”
But Mr. Blair’s long support for the homosexual-rights lobby, his compliance with successive government policies promoting abortion, and the passing by his government of a law legalizing a form of euthanasia all raised unavoidable questions about his commitment to the Church’s teachings.
Tony Blair never voted for any prolife measure at any stage during his time in Parliament. In 2007, his wife Cherie was guest of honor at the anniversary celebrations of the Family Planning Association, Britain’s leading organization promoting abortion and contraception. She cut a celebration cake and was photographed enthusiastically brandishing a condom.
In 2005, Cherie Blair hosted a major fund-raising event at 10 Downing Street (the official residence of the prime minister in London) to aid the work of Planned Parenthood. At that event a new program was launched called “Lust for Life,” which distributes condoms to teenagers. The condoms were specially packaged for young people and advertised as being in various fruit flavors. Mrs. Blair said she was supporting the scheme because she was the mother of teenage boys.
The Blair government passed the Mental Capacity Act—against passionate opposition from the pro-life movement— which will permit, and possibly even oblige, doctors to ban the giving of water to patients in long-term comas under certain circumstances.
The Blair government also introduced legislation for “civil unions,” a form of homosexual marriage. These same-sex unions now take place at town halls and other venues across Britain with all the trimmings of a wedding, effectively giving the couple the same legal status as if they were married. A celebration to mark this and other “gay rights” legislation was held at the House of Commons by Stonewall, a militant homosexual lobby group, with Mr. Blair making the main speech. He told the gathering that he had performed “a little skip of joy” when the legislation finally reached the statute book.
But the major clash between Blair as prime minister and the Catholic Church came on the question of homosexual adoption. Under legislation aimed at removing all restrictions of any kind on those living a homosexual lifestyle, all adoption organizations are now forced by law to offer children to homosexual and lesbian couples. The adoption agencies run by the various Catholic dioceses of England and Wales begged to be allowed exemption from the law, and a representative of the bishops held meetings with government officials to see if something could be arranged, but were informed that nothing could be done. The bishops have been given two years to see that the Catholic adoption organization comply with the law. The other option is for them to close.
A MIXED RECEPTION
Tony Blair’s entrance into the Church brought strongly worded statements from pro-life groups, notably the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). The society was founded in 1966 to fight the abortion law then going through Parliament. It eventually became law as the 1967 Abortion Act, but SPUC has continued its campaign, and is now a strong organization with branches across the country and close connections to many churches, especially to Catholic parishes.
“During his premiership Tony Blair became one of the most significant architects of the culture of death, promoting abortion, experimentation on unborn embryos—including cloned embryos—and euthanasia by neglect,” said John Smeaton, SPUC’s director. ”SPUC is writing to Tony Blair to ask him if he has repented of the anti-life positions he has so openly advocated throughout his political career.”
All of Blair’s family attended the ceremony at which he was welcomed into the Church, described as “moving” by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. News of the conversion made big headlines in Britain, especially as it coincided with reports that appeared to indicate that Catholics now outnumber Anglicans at worship on Sundays, although this is partly because of recent heavy Polish immigration.
Most Catholic commentators noted Blair’s consistent pro-abortion voting stance, but some others took a conciliatory view, emphasizing that it was Christmas, which ought to be a time of general goodwill.
Columnist Mary Kenny in the Catholic Herald wrote that the Blairs had been open to life in their own family, such as when Cherie unexpectedly became pregnant with a fourth child in her 40s. Suggestions that the child was “unplanned” or would be an inconvenience were dismissed and the couple publicly affirmed their joy at the news. Blair has always affirmed that he is personally opposed to abortion.
“When Mrs. Blair became pregnant with her youngest child, Leo, now seven, I heard Jenni Murray, presenting Women’s Hour on the BBC, saying that Cherie was ‘mad’ to continue with the ‘unplanned’ pregnancy. But she did,” wrote Mary Kenny, adding that Catholics should “do Tony Blair the honor of respecting his decision, and leaving his errors and flaws to his own conscience. Only whoever is without sin is entitled to cast brickbats.”
But this seems to be a lone voice: Catholic Herald editor-in-chief and Daily Telegraph columnist Damian Thompson wrote of Blair on his blog that ”in the eyes of the Church, he has the blood of innocents on his hands.”
Blair’s formal admission into the Catholic Church had long been a matter of speculation. Cherie Blair’s appearance in a black lace mantilla at Westminster Cathedral in 2005 at a requiem for Pope John Paul II made for a dramatic photo-opportunity, as did Tony Blair’s meeting with Pope Benedict in the autumn of 2007, at which he handed over gifts, including some manuscripts of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the great English Catholic convert of the 19th century whose beatification is expected to be announced within the next couple of years.
BLAIR’S TROUBLING LEGACY
The problems created for the Catholic Church in Britain by the Blair government continue to be of significance and will not be easily resolved. In addition to the adoption issue—on which legal experts are now working, but with scant hope of the Catholic adoption agencies being able to operate if they insist on complying with the Church’s teachings—there are issues concerning Catholic schools and the open proclamation of the Catholic understanding of marriage and family life.
Tony and Cherie Blair attended a major homosexual-rights festival at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2001, which drew headlines because of the squalid nature of some of the displays. It was sponsored by Stonewall, the same group that hosted the celebration in Parliament in 2007 after the final passage of legislation enforcing, among other things, the right of same-sex couples to adopt children.
Under restrictions imposed by the Blair government—now facing even further tightening under Gordon Brown’s premiership—the mere act of speaking about homosexual activity as sinful could possibly incur penalties. The issue raised by the restrictions will turn on whether or not proclaiming the Church’s teaching makes anyone feel demeaned or under attack.
Catholic schools are not exempt from this law yet to be tested in the courts, and it is not inconceivable that a teacher affirming the Church’s message as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church might face prosecution. The Catechism teaches that people with homosexual tendencies must be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” But, “basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,” the Church states that such acts “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
Catholic youth groups and lay organizations that work to teach and explain Catholic moral teachings are currently examining their legal positions in the light of the legislation. A new organization, the Thomas More Legal Centre, has been established by Catholic lawyers to offer support and practical help should court cases arise.
But no bishop has yet made any criticism of Mr. Blair’s part in ensuring that this legislation reached the statute book, nor has anything been said about his consistent pro-abortion voting record in the House of Commons or his support for the practice of euthanasia as established under the Mental Capacity Act.
Fellow convert and member of Parliament, Rt. Honorable Ann Widdecombe, who became a Catholic in the 1990s, summed up what is probably the common view among active Catholics. Noting Mr. Blair’s past record and also extending a general welcome to him as he enters the Church, she nevertheless says forthrightly:
The words are very straightforward and must be uttered clearly and aloud by each and every convert at the point of reception: ‘I believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.’
Therefore, unless he has been prepared to commit a significant act of perjury, Tony Blair now believes the opposite of much that he has stood for in the past, for his actions have also been straightforward enough: on free votes he has consistently opposed the Church’s teaching, for example on abortion and embryology.
He even opposed an exemption for Christmas Day and Easter Day when Sunday trading was deregulated and one of his last acts was to make it illegal for Catholic adoption agencies to refuse to place children with homosexuals.
No man’s past is a barrier to conversion. If it were, St. Paul would have been rejected by the early Church. It is, however, necessary Blair makes it clear that if he had his time again, he would have acted differently.
Columnist Andrew Pierce, describing himself as “an adopted gay man who spent the first two years of his life in a Catholic children’s home,” has called the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality “bigoted.” But he opposed the Labour government’s pressure on Catholic adoption agencies as “just plain daft. What sane gay couple would go to a Catholic adoption agency in the first place?” On the news of Blair’s conversion to Catholicism Pierce wrote: “Whether or not you agree with Catholics who like to practice what they preach—step forward Ann Widdecombe, Iain Duncan Smith, and Lord Alton—I admire their principles. But when did Tony Blair ever have any of those?”
AN ERA OF HIGH-PROFILE CONVERSIONS
There were a number of high-profile conversions to the Catholic faith in Britain during the 1990s, including five Anglican bishops, among them Dr. Graham Leonard, retired bishop of London. He is now a monsignor and living in retirement in Oxfordshire. Prominent converts also included Dr. William Oddie, the noted Anglican clergyman and author who went on to edit the Catholic Herald and is currently working on a biography of G. K. Chesterton; Charles Moore, who is the editor of the Daily Telegraph; Fr. Peter Geldard, who led the campaign in the Church of England against the ordination of women and is now a Catholic priest and chaplain to the University of Kent at Canterbury; and Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent.
It was reported last December that the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), a grouping of 17 parishes that formally left the Church of England a while ago to form a breakaway unit, is also seeking union with Rome. A letter signed by members, affirming acceptance of all the teachings contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, has been received by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. There has been no official comment on this yet from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and TAC has said that there will be no further public statements for the time being.
Individual conversions continue and many recent converts have made their mark on the Church in Britain. Denis and Valerie Riches, who worked for many years as Anglicans in the profamily lobby group Family and Youth Concern went on to become Catholics and produced a joint biography last year. Denis Riches founded Family Publications, which is now a leading publisher of Catholic books. Tom Longford of Gracewing Books is similarly a convert. Aghi Clovis, who with her husband Gregory runs the British section of Family Life International, is a convert from Islam.
A large number of convert clergy— some 400 Anglican ministers converted in the wake of the 1992 Church of England Synod decision to ordain women—have gone on to hold prominent positions, including Bishop Alan Hopes, an auxiliary in Westminster; Fr. David Goddard, now in charge of the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Sussex; and Fr. Peter Wilson, chaplain at London University.
The beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Victorian Britain’s most prominent convert, could be the inspiration for more to follow.
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