Tony Blair told Pope Benedict that he wants to become a Catholic, Vatican sources say, but the pontiff did not hesitate to criticise the outgoing British PM's policies on Iraq and other issues in what was described as a "frank exchange of views".
The Age reports that in talks lasting more than half an hour, Prime Minister Blair was left in no doubt that the Pope took a dim view of his record in office.
A statement issued afterwards by the Vatican said there had been a "frank exchange of views" on "particularly delicate subjects".
Such sharp language is deemed highly unusual for the Vatican, which frequently describes talks between the Pope and other heads of state and government as "cordial".
Vatican sources told reporters that the Pope was unmoved in his view that Mr Blair had been wrong over Iraq.
More so than his predecessor, Pope Benedict feels that Catholic politicians cannot separate their public lives from their private, it said.Italian reports also said the Pope had criticised UK laws allowing greater stem cell research on human embryos, easy access to abortion, same-sex marriages, and adoption by gay couples.
The meeting with the pontiff came four days before Mr Blair leaves office after agreeing to resign amid the British public's dissatisfaction with the country's involvement in the US-led war in Iraq.
Addressing reports that he was about to become a Catholic, Mr Blair told The Times newspaper on Saturday that the question of his conversion had not been entirely "resolved"."I don't want to talk about it," he said. "It's difficult with some of these things. Things aren't always as resolved as they might be."
Some commentators saw the fact that the Blairs gave Pope Benedict three period photographs of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a famous nineteenth century British convert to Catholicism, as a symbolic gesture signalling Mr Blair's own imminent conversion.
On the other hand Vatican sources point out that as a young theology student at Freising the Pope made a special study of Cardinal Newman, writing his doctorate on Newman's theology of conscience, and has supported moves to make him a saint, reports say.
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