Saturday, December 29, 2007

Why Blair had to keep his Catholicism in the closet

Just in case you have any doubts about the importance of history, then can I suggest you study the case of Tony Blair's conversion to the Catholic faith?

Rumours of Blair's conversion have been swirling about for years, and with good reason. His children have been raised as Catholics and he accompanied his wife, Cherie, to Mass for practically his entire time as British Prime Minister.

In addition, and on occasion, he received Holy Communion at Mass even though he was not in full communion with the Catholic Church.

But he delayed becoming a Catholic until he had stepped down from office. Why? Because of history, that's why. Britain has never had a Catholic prime minister and he wasn't sure it was ready for one yet.

Also, and as he admitted, he was reluctant to draw attention to his religious faith -- Catholic or otherwise -- in case he was branded a ''nutter''.

In the British imagination, the ferocious anti-Catholic propaganda of the late Tudor age still looms large. It was captured in fine style by the recent movie, 'Elizabeth: the Golden Age', and also by its predecessor called, simply, 'Elizabeth'.

In those movies, Good Queen Bess is depicted as a tolerant, modern-minded type, impatient with religious differences. Her enemies, especially the Catholic ones, are invariably depicted as unpatriotic, disloyal, intolerant, narrow-minded, murderous and bigoted.

The Black Legend of Catholic Spain is polished off and put on display once more. If Catholics are fanatical, then the Spanish are the fanatics' fanatics.

And let's not forget Bloody Mary, who ruthlessly persecuted Protestants in memory of her late Spanish mother -- Catherine of Aragon -- and because of her own commitment to her Catholic faith.

All of this has been pretty devastating for the image and reputation of the Catholic Church in England. To be seen as both unpatriotic and fanatical is rather a lot to be lumbered with. Tony Blair knew full well that if he became a Catholic while still in office, he would be pinned with both of these labels.

Maybe this is why he bent over backwards to support every piece of ultra-liberal social legislation that ever passed his way, much to the chagrin of many of his new bedfellows in the faith.

Of course, the curious thing about British and English history is that it doesn't really support the sort of anti-Catholic and anti-religious prejudice found among the uber-secularists that dominate the British and English intelligentsia.

In fact, apart from the admittedly black stain of anti-Semitism (which persisted until recently and is found, for example, in the novels of Charles Dickens), prior to Tudor times England was a fairly peaceful land religiously-speaking.

It was only when Henry VIII forcibly converted his realm to the Protestant faith that England became a place of widespread and mostly State- imposed religious strife.

It was the Tudors who forced many Catholics to divide their loyalties between their monarch and the Church, or rather to see it as their patriotic duty to make England a Catholic country once more.

And was Spain's attempt to bring England back within the Catholic fold so surprising? During the Cold War, neither the West nor the East much cared for countries leaving their respective camps and would use force if necessary to ensure this did not happen.

In fact, if anything the violence that followed on from Henry's fateful decision to sever ties with Rome isn't an argument against the excessive power and influence of religion, but the excessive power and influence of the State.

It was the State, after all, which decided that an entire people would have to change their religion at the point of a sword.

Tony Blair decided to his satisfaction that his country was not yet ready for a Catholic prime minister. He was almost certainly correct.

In fact, it can barely tolerate a Catholic minister, let alone a prime minister.

When Ruth Kelly was appointed Britain's Education Secretary a few years ago, there was a general liberal caterwaul about her faith and her apparent membership of Opus Dei which is both Catholic and Spanish, a real double-whammy guaranteed to revive all that Tudor propaganda.

And when the Italian government tried to have Rocco Buttiglione made a member of the European Commission in 2004, the loudest outcry came from some of the British MEPs who decided being a Catholic is incompatible with holding certain public offices.

To this day, therefore, Catholicism is viewed by many people in Britain (and Ireland, let it be said), as a threat to the body politic. Until recently, it was seen in Britain as unpatriotic and fanatical.

Now it is seen as undemocratic, irrational and, if you'll give it an inch, violent. The attempt is therefore made to drive it out of politics in the name of tolerance, although to a Catholic that tolerance looks an awful lot like intolerance.

Certainly the effect is the same. Ask Rocco Buttiglione or Ruth Kelly.

Better still, ask Tony Blair. What an indictment it is of British politics that he couldn't become a Catholic until now.
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