Monday, June 25, 2007

Will Tony Blair Convert to Roman Catholicism?

Speculation was published on page one of yesterday's Washington Times, after Blair met with Pope Benedict in Rome. And there's more today on the possibility of Blair's "pope-ing" to "RC" in the Irish Independent:
Faith has always been part of Cherie's life, and when she and Tony met in 1976, she seems to have influenced him in the same direction. Although she is, of course, far from being that stereotype, the "right-wing Catholic".

She is, rather, a Left-wing Catholic, much concerned with prisoners' rights and with other social-justice issues. On sexual morality, Cherie is progressive on gay civil rights - she has acted, as a lawyer, for lesbian fiscal equality: but on issues touching abortion, she is quietly supportive of pro-life causes.

Tony's own mother, Hazel, had actually been an Irish Protestant from the Donegal region. In fact, the family left Ireland soon after Partition. This may have influenced Blair in his commitment to a settlement in Northern Ireland. In any case, Hazel Blair died when Tony was a young man, and after that, Cherie became his guiding light in matters spiritual.

They married in an Anglican church, but later, Tony took to accompanying his wife and growing family to Mass.

All four children have been baptised and all have been raised as Catholics.

Indeed, he was so enthusiastic about Mass-going that Cardinal Basil Hume had to ask him to refrain from publicly taking Catholic Communion: there was, and is, as yet no agreed arrangement on inter-communion between Catholics and Anglicans. (Wars, after all, have been fought over "transubstantiation" versus "consubstantiation".)

For at least the last five years, it is said, Blair has been a Roman Catholic in all but name. His final conversion experience is dated to the birth of his fourth child, Leo.

And yet, his religious convictions have remained a mystery to a broad swathe of British Catholics, who feel that Blair's value-system shows scant evidence of Catholic values. There are already jokes going around imagining Tony Blair's "First Confession" as a full member of the Catholic church.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Father, I killed 600,000 people in Iraq .."

Three Hail Marys and a firm purpose of amendment, for many British Catholics - who are in the majority anti-war, as is the Pope - is not a sufficient tariff of repentence.

Tony's voting record on specifically Catholic issues, such as abortion, embryo stem cell research, and adoption rights for gay couples have also been at odds with official Catholic doctrine.

Yet this perhaps explains why he has not felt free to "pope" until after he leaves office. Perhaps he felt it would be not politically wise for a British Prime Minister to vote the Catholic ticket when in office. And it mightn't run well in Belfast, either.

For all the airy talk of multi-culturalism, Britain is still a Protestant country. No Roman Catholic has ever held the highest political office in the UK: no Sovereign, nor member of the Sovereign's family, can marry an "RC" without forfeiting all privileges.

The Duchess of Cornwall's biographer, Christopher Wilson, now claims that Princess Anne would have married Camilla's husband, Andrew Parker-Bowles, in 1973 - that he was the love of Anne's life - but for the fact that Parker-Bowles was a Roman Catholic, and that put him beyond the Pale.

Commentators sometimes state that Ireland is a "theocracy", as it still retains such folklorique customs as the Angelus bell: but the Irish State has never practiced official and codified religious discrimination to the same degree as Britain has.

THERE is no office of state in the Republic, nor in the previous Irish Free state, closed to anyone on grounds of religion: and indeed, the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, was a Protestant.

Tony Blair's decision to "pope" is, from now on, a personal one.

But the more significant political and constitutional question is - when will it be acceptable for a political personage in the UK to be a Roman Catholic while still inside 10, Downing Street? Still an untested question.