There will always be an England

BlairBigBenI picked up one of the local newspapers this morning and there, across the top of page one, was a London Daily Telegraph story with a lede that the Brits have been expecting for some time now.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is to announce that he will convert to Roman Catholicism soon after his planned meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican tomorrow, according to church sources and his friends.

Mr. Blair, an Anglican, may even inform the pope of his intentions and seek his approval at the audience, which he is expected to attend with his wife, Cherie, a devout Catholic, and their daughter Kathryn.

The story covers almost all of the basics.

Let’s see. There’s the historical perspective (with the Anglican-state angle thrown in there for good measure):

There has never been a Catholic prime minister in Britain, although there is no longer a formal constitutional bar. However, Mr. Blair would have been aware that to convert while at 10 Downing Street could have caused a potential conflict with his role in choosing bishops for the Church of England.

The personal, what-happens-next angle:

It is likely that Mr. Blair would begin a private course of instruction with a spiritual director and would be expected to be formally received into the Catholic Church at a special service. His audience with the pope … will be his third visit to the Vatican in four years and reflects his growing fascination with Catholicism.

And finally, the section that has to leave the reader — especially a traditional Catholic reader — wondering, “Does reporter Jonathan Petre realize just how bizarre the words he is typing sound?”

Hang on for this:

Rumors that Mr. Blair intends to convert have been circulating in Catholic circles and in Westminster for years, but have grown increasingly strong as his departure from office nears. Friends say that he studies both the Bible and the Koran daily, and much of his political philosophy has been influenced by the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He is a particular admirer of the maverick German theologian Hans Kung.

Uh, that would be the liberal Hans Kung of Germany? The one who has never been known as a supporter of traditional Catholic teachings, the kind advocated by another German theology professor — that would be Pope Benedict XVI?

Methinks there is a very important angle in this story that has been buried.

But to Petre’s credit, the elephant in the Catholic sanctuary is finally mentioned — near the end — in material from an interview with Father Timothy Russ, the Blair family’s parish priest.

Three years ago his parish priest at Chequers, the Rev. Timothy Russ, disclosed that Mr. Blair had discussed becoming a Catholic with him.

But Father Russ added that Mr. Blair, whose views on a range of issues from abortion to stem-cell research are at odds with traditional church teaching, had “some way to go” on important moral issues.

In a new book, Father Russ also reveals that Mr. Blair even discussed the possibility of becoming a Catholic deacon, a position below that of a priest, which can be held by lay people.

In 1996, Cardinal Basil Hume, the late archbishop of Westminster, wrote to him demanding that he cease taking Communion at his wife’s church in Islington, although he added it was “all right to do so in Tuscany for the holidays … as there was no Anglican church nearby.”

Mr. Blair made it clear in a response that he did not agree, asking in a letter to Cardinal Hume: “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?”

In other words, Blair disagrees with the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on a host of crucial issues and has, in the past, even clashed with the local cardinal on whether he needs to become a Roman Catholic in order to take part in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church? I mean, is this man an Anglican or what?

Has anyone seen a good quote or two somewhere — this story could have used one — in which Blair offers insights into why he wants to convert into (and perhaps even be ordained in) a church with which he has such profound disagreements? Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen A.

    Oh, dear. What a confused man.

    There’s a name for a person in his nation who likes taking communion with High Church ritual, but “disagrees” with the Pope on all the moral issues: an Anglican.

  • VoxDilecti

    You said it Stephen A, you get seconded by this “Catholic-lite”

  • A reader

    In 1996, Cardinal Basil Hume, the late archbishop of Westminster, wrote to him demanding that he cease taking Communion at his wife’s church in Islington, although he added it was “all right to do so in Tuscany for the holidays . . . as there was no Anglican church nearby.”

    Mr. Blair made it clear in a response that he did not agree, asking in a letter to Cardinal Hume: “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?”

    What?!?!?!?!?! His wife’s Catholic priest knowingly and repeatedly gave the Eucharistic Host to Tony Blair – knowing that he was not a Catholic?

    That is so fubar!

    But if Pope Benedict XVI or any priest accepts Tony Blair while being knowledgeable about these views of Blair, and does not seek to get some clarification and/or renunciation as a prelude to his conversion … well, that is double-fubar!! I mean, Kung’s lay-level book THE CATHOLIC CHURCH: A SHORT HISTORY, like Brennan Manning’s THE RAGAMUFFIN GOSPEL, reads like what a Protestant Evangelical would write!

    And I’m not even Catholic.

  • Matt

    This is a side question, but why is that priest making public his conversations with Blair? They seem like personal, almost spiritual direction type conversations that ought to be kept private. And he wrote a book about them???

  • Corban

    Where are the press hounds pointing out the incoherence – or malevolence – of Balir’s position? This is a man who has consistently opposed any tightening of abortion laws, while very publicly supporting ‘gay rights’, to the point of forcing Catholic adoption agencies in England to accept ‘gay adoption’ or face closure.
    I hope the pope tells him to take a running jump.

  • Irenaeus

    …a Catholic deacon, a position below that of a priest, which can be held by lay people.

    Uh…isn’t the position of Deacon an ordained position? Priests were once lay people. Does the author mean non-celibate non-priests?

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    I’m still trying to figure out what a “maverick German theologian” is…. I get a visual image of Sigmund Freud dressed in a plad shirt, work jeans, 10 gallon hat, chaps, boots, and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows…. most confusing…”Vell, zere are some zings a man just can’t run avay from, pilgrim.” …..

    Actually I think Prime Minister Blair deserves some serious credit here. There has been talk for a very long time about him wanting to become a Catholic, but he was wise enough to put off his formal discernment process and/or conversion until after he leaves office, because he did not want the Catholic Church to become a poltical football.

    In today’s political climate, this would surely have been siezed upon (ala Romney and JFK) and become fodder for “oposition research” press releases and Fleet Street every time there was a slow news day. The Right would have pulled out the ghost of Guy Fawkes and every anti-Catholic quote from Henry VIII on down… the Left would have jumped on it as a excuse to attack Blair’s willingness to fight back against Islamic Terrorists and Islamic Expansionsits, derisively calling him a “Crusader”, and the secularists and gays would have pulled out the strawman of “theocracy” as well.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Irenaus is correct and the news story is wrong. In the Catholic Church we deacons are ordained and thus are members of the clergy although we live what could be called a lay “life-style” since most of us are married and our primary financial support comes from jobs outside the Church or retirement income. A few deacons are full-time Church workers and get paid somewhat accordingly by the Church, but most “permanent” deacons are part-time donating their services or receiving small salaries to cover books, gas, other expenses, with maybe a little extra.
    Some of us do object to the term “permanent” deacons as all deacons are the same in holy orders. In fact, some deacon’s whose wife has died have gone on to the priesthood. And when was the last time anyone heard an Orthodox or Eastern Catholic married priest called a “permanent” priest. Yet if a married Orthodox or Eastern Catholic priest’s wife dies the priest can go on to become a bishop.

  • Martha

    This gossip has been floating around for ages. I’m willing to bet that they’ll still be discussing the possibility in five years’ time.

    What you don’t get is that converting to Catholicism in England has the whiff of aristocracy about it (yes, despite the immigrant Irish dragging down the tone). There’s still this half-horrified, half-titillated fascination, even amongst the chattering classes, with becoming a Roman. It still has that tinge of the exotic.

    The last high-profile convert was the Duchess of Kent (a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II) so that’s the way they’re thinking: members of the peerage, Prime Ministers, the great and good. It has less to do with actual religious belief and more to do with a certain glamour and celebrity gossip style.

    The ‘he will’, ‘it is expected’, ‘what will happen is’ tone of the article? Forget it! What they really mean is that ‘supposing that he were going to do this, we think the timing would be… and according to church rules, he would have to do…. and he might want to be …’ but there’s no more substance to it than an issue of any celebrity gossip magazine with Britney/Paris/Jen/Brangelina pictures on the front and breathless specualation about secret lovers/engagements/affairs/marriages/divorces.

  • Jacques

    I think that this post would fit well into a blog on “get religion does not religion”. It seems to assume that to be Catholic you have to agree with every single position of the Magestirium, without much understanding of the hierarchies of teachings. Hans Kung is a priest in good standing in the Church; I do not see why somebody who holds the same position as Kung would be disqualified from converting. I also assume that a good proportion of Catholics disagree with the Church’s position on intercommunion. I admit that the abortion issue is more complex, but the post seems to imply that there are much stricter litmus tests for conversion than there really are.

  • Jeff

    I’ve looked, perhaps not skillfully, and i’ve never found Mr. Blair speaking on record directly. But as a graduate of a verrrry liberal seminary (Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis), i’ve been used to the idea, and possibly never thought about it enough, that people who are deeply in conflict with an institution seek credentially as a part of their struggle to resolve that conflict, rather than turning away. But i’ve long been unsurprised by sharing classrooms with folks apparently hostile to the structure they seek recognition from, and i assume a mix of honest confrontation and unresolved parental issues.

    So Tony Blair feeling called to Catholicism, even while not quite believing in coherence with official doctrine, seems to almost naturally lead to either a) wanting to be a deacon, or b) angrily rejecting Rome, and he’s an a).

  • Jerry

    It is likely that Mr. Blair would begin a private course of instruction with a spiritual director and would be expected to be formally received into the Catholic Church at a special service.

    Beyond the Blair story, I wonder if the reporter got the entire process wrong. I’m not that familiar with the process but isn’t the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults mandatory at this point, including in the UK? It read to me like the reporter was referring to the pre-Vatican II procedure.

  • Attila the Nun

    Here the Pope gives Blair his first taste of Roman Catholic servitude, in other words, if you want to convert in, you better OBEY ME and give up the independent thought…

    Tony Blair’s eagerly awaited meeting with the Pope resulted in discomfort for the Prime Minister when he found himself on the receiving end of a stern lecture over his record in office.

    During a 25-minute face-to-face audience in the Pontiff’s private apartments, Pope Benedict XVI tackled Mr Blair on the continuing crisis in Iraq and the Middle East.

    Italian news agency reports said Pope Benedict also made direct criticism of New Labour laws allowing greater stem cell research on human embryos, easy access to abortion, same-sex marriages, and adoption by gay couples.

    Downing Street officials said the issue of gay adoption arose between Mr Blair and senior Vatican figures, not the Pope. But it was nevertheless an unexpected turn of events for Mr Blair, whose visit to the Vatican – his final foreign engagement as Premier – had been widely believed to presage his conversion to Catholicism.

    Friction even seemed to emerge as the Pope and Prime Minister appeared in public for the cameras. Mr Blair, joined by his wife Cherie, presented Benedict with a framed set of three antique pictures of Cardinal Newman, who converted in 1845 after more than 20 years in the Church of England clergy and is now a candidate for sainthood.

    Mrs Blair said: “I believe you are very familiar with him and he is on the journey to sainthood.”

    To which the Pope responded: “Yes, yes, although it is taking some time – miracles are hard to come by in Britain.”

    The gift was seen as a highly significant indication of Mr Blair’s wish to convert to the Catholic faith.

    After the meeting, the Pope’s office issued a strongly worded statement, saying the two men had a ‘frank discussion on the international situation, in particular the delicate question of the Middle East conflict’.

    The actual wording of the communique contained the Italian phrase ‘franco confronto’, literally translated as ‘frank confrontation’ – inflammatory language seen as highly unusual in Rome.

    The statement continued: “At the end, after an exchange of opinions on several laws recently passed by Parliament in Britain, he wished the Honourable Anthony Blair best wishes with regard to the fact he is leaving his position as Prime Minister.”

    It then commended Mr Blair’s ‘vivid desire to involve himself in particular for peace in the Middle East and for inter-religious dialogue’.

    But the statement was seen as indicating the Vatican’s continuing unease with the Iraq conflict, and also recent domestic legislation in Britain. In the language of diplomatic communiquÇs, ‘frank discussion’ is customarily seen as code for an argument.

    The statement was all the more surprising because the Vatican always uses carefully controlled language.

    Previously, meetings with world leaders including President Bush have been described as ‘warm and cordial’, despite the Vatican’s opposition to many of his policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Downing Street later talked in terms of a ‘successful meeting’. A spokesman confirmed: “Private discussions included the Middle East.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Apparently Attila the Nun has a problem with a Church having a leader at which–as Harry Truman said–”The Buck stops here.” However, history has shown the alternative to having strong leadership in a religion inevitably results in the moral and doctrinal anarchy and the constant fracturing of Christian communities which today afflicts what seems to be a large majority of non-Catholic churches. The current sad spectacle that is filling the news lately is the travails of the Episcopal-Anglican Church.

  • Ken

    RCIA is the normal route for coming into the Church, but it is not mandatory. I was received at a monastery by a monk who recognized that I had a sufficient knowledge of the Catholic Faith and that I was making an informed decision. Twenty years later, here I am.

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  • Tom Stanton

    Wow – the surprising thing here for me is that a) Tony Blair has any mind to be a religious anything and b) that if he had disagreements with Rome – he would go head-on in to this very-vocal pope’s office.

    Well – I for one think there needs to be a lot more coverage of this – thanks Tmatt for bringing it up.


  • Deacon Eric

    A Reader said: “is wife’s Catholic priest knowingly and repeatedly gave the Eucharistic Host to Tony Blair – knowing that he was not a Catholic? That is so fubar!”

    Actually, it is perfectly permissable. Note the following from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “When, in the Ordinary’s judgment, a grave necessity arises, Catholic ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and possess the required dispositions.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 1401)

    In most dioceses, the bishop (ordinary) allows the pastor to make such a decision, and determining whether “a grave necessity” is present is usually considered to be within the pastor’s purview.

  • Will

    Jacques, the question is why someone who disagrees with the magisterium on nearly everything would WANT to become a Roman Catholic. If it is just “smells and bells” he wants, there are numerous Old Catholic, Liberal Catholic (which explicitly does not ask you to BELIEVE anything), “Independent Catholic”, etc., jurisdictions.. or ANGLO-CATHOLIC parishes he could join.

    If all he values is the name… I can not avoid concluding that what is really important to him is grabbing onto the assets and goodwill of the brand name Roman Catholicism Inc.

    Similarly, a post on the “Independent Catholic” mailing list reported an occasion when Bishop Patricia Ford (presumably not the superdupermodel) of the Servant Catholic Church was addressing a group of Maryknoll sisters who were moaning about how oppressed they were because they can not be ordained. Finally she could not take any more, and said “You want to be ordained? Step up here, and I’ll ordain you right now.”
    Did they come forward? Did they blazes