Last week the Old Bailey in London put on-line records of more than 100,000 trials between 1674 and 1834.
Among them were the cases of ‘notorious papists’ who suffered appalling death sentences for offences such as saying mass.
Thankfully such intolerance is no longer part of British life (that’s now left to our Muslim brethren) and good manners have replaced the hard-line bigotry of Protestantism.
Yet, not all of Britain’s anti-Catholic legislation has been repealed.
The 1701 Act of Settlement, for instance, prohibits a British monarch or possible heir to the throne from marrying a Catholic.
It’s a law that was enforced as recently as 1988 when the Duke of Kent’s son married a Catholic and he was forced to renounce his right of succession.
Even though the law violates article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which upholds the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the British Establishment has always been reluctant to change it.
Blair Avoids the Tower
But despite the remnants of religious bigotry in English law, when reports surfaced of Tony Blair’s plan to convert to Catholicism no outcry ensued.
Britain, it seemed, was now a secular state in all but name.
Nevertheless Blair, long suspected of being close to Rome, was careful not to draw attention to his religious preferences, perhaps mindful of a legal provision that makes it a criminal offence for a Catholic prime minister to advise the monarch on appointments to the Church of England.
Tony, or ‘Tone’ to the chums, had no desire to end up in the Tower of London. As well, there’s never been a Catholic Prime Minister of Britain and he wasn’t going to be the first one – which also might help explain the secrecy surrounding his intention to convert to Catholicism and to leave the decision until he was on the point of departing from office.
Blair’s wife and four children are practising Catholics and for 30 years he was considered a closet Catholic who was canny enough to put politics before faith. He was often spotted attending Mass, alone or with his family, in Westminster Cathedral where he took communion until the late Cardinal Hume told him not to, as he was not a fully fledged Catholic.
Nevertheless he continued attending Mass at the church near Chequers and receiving communion at every possible opportunity, including from Pope John Paul II in 2003.
In fact his Catholic leanings so much alarmed the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, George Carey, that he was advised he should also be seen at ‘an Anglican or free church act of worship’ on the odd occasion.
Not A Protester
Blair’s interest in Catholicism goes back to his student days at Oxford, and it was significant that the gift he gave Pope Benedict during his most recent visit to the Vatican was a portrait of Cardinal Newman, Oxford’s most famous nineteenth century convert.
What seems certain is that Blair’s conversion does not appear to be born out of an angst-driven religious protest and his new-found faith seems to have had a long gestation process.
He certainly was no Protestant protesting against Protestantism nor did he ever give any indication that his apostasy had anything to do with the perception that many Church of England bishops have yet to realise they might actually be atheists.
Keeping his religious cards to his chest was no doubt due to suspicions still prevalent in Britain and the US that Catholic politicians take their orders from the Vatican, as was the case in this country before the Irish Catholic Church irredeemably disgraced itself with one scandal after another.
Blair may have also been conscious of the hilarity he generated following disclosures that he knelt with Bush in the White House to pray for guidance before invading Iraq.
Blair as Genghis Khan
Whether or not the Almighty ever sent down his wisdom on him is very much open to question, but for many conservative Catholics his conversion runs the risk of turning him into the worst Catholic since Genghis Khan.
He certainly hasn’t allowed his enthusiasm for the ‘old religion’ to intrude on sensitive moral issues.
Civil partnerships for homosexuals went ahead under his stewardship, including the right to adopt children.
Nor did Blair attempt to limit abortion rights even though he claimed to be ‘personally opposed to abortion’ while his stance on embryo research and cloning has been criticised by Catholic groups as anti-life.
The British version of SPUC (the Society for the Protection of the Unborn) even initiated a prayer cycle in the hope that he would show ‘repentance on life issues’ and publicly repudiate his ‘anti-life’ positions.
They also accused him of promoting the distribution of the morning-after pill to teenagers, of forcing Catholic schools to teach sex education which included the promotion of artificial contraception, and of backing a Mental Capacity Bill that, they said, would lead to routine euthanasia.
But it’s Blair’s participation in the illegal and calamitous war in Iraq that raises eyebrows about his new life as a born-again Catholic. With half a million Iraqi civilians dead, the question arises how he can square his bloodthirsty, imperialistic adventures with his conscience.
Or to paraphrase the writer, Ilka Chase, is it a case that when men are usually at their most religious they behave with the least sense and the greatest cruelty? It might be too cynical to say (but we’ll chance it anyway) that in the light of the horrors he helped instigate in Iraq he’s the best argument to date for abortion on demand and the morning-after pill!
Certainly when he goes to confession and attempts to tell the truth on Iraq he’s in for a lorry load of Hail Marys.
Blair’s Life of Brian
So far the British public is somewhat bemused at reports of Blair’s planned conversion to Catholicism.
Their wonder, however, is tempered by the delight at seeing him exit national politics, having become heartily sick of him and his policies which are perceived as inimical to Christian principles and, indeed, in many cases to basic principles of humanity and justice.
The likelihood is that his conversion will not at all impinge on British politics and, as he fades into political obscurity (no doubt muttering his mea culpas), his new role as committed Catholic will be likened to the crucifixion of Brian in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, the scene when Brian’s mother comments reprovingly: ‘He’s not the Messiah … he’s a very naughty boy!’
And that will be a fitting testimony to Blair, the Catholic.
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