After years of rumors and speculation about his religious beliefs, former British prime minister Tony Blair was officially received into the Catholic Church on Friday.
Blair was received into full communion by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, during Mass in the chapel at the Archbishop’s house in Westminster. He had been receiving doctrinal and spiritual preparation from the cardinal’s private secretary, Monsignor Mark O’Toole.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor commented: “I am very glad to welcome Tony Blair into the Catholic Church. For a long time he has been a regular worshipper at Mass with his family and in recent months he has been following a program of formation to prepare for his reception into full communion.
“My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together.”
According to the New York Times, aides say that Blair, who stepped down as prime minister six months ago, delayed his formal conversion until after leaving office to avoid politicizing his religious beliefs. His conversion in office would also have generated controversy because the prime minister’s duties include a role in the appointment of Anglican bishops.
Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, and their four children are Catholics. Blair had made a practice of attending Mass with them, saying he did so to keep his family together on Sundays.
In 1996, the year before Blair became prime minister, Cardinal Basil Hume wrote to him asking him to stop receiving Holy Communion at a Catholic church near his home. Blair obeyed, but according to aides he wrote back to the cardinal, saying, “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it.”
Some Catholics in Britain have raised questions about Blair’s conversion, citing among other concerns the Blair government’s stands in favor of lax anti-abortion laws, embryonic stem cell research, adoptions by homosexuals, and same-sex civil unions.
John Smeaton, director of Britain’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said in an interview published earlier this month in the journal The Spectator that Blair needed to clearly articulate a change of mind. “We need to hear a full repudiation from him.
Without one, having Blair as a Catholic is like having a vegetarian in a meat-eating club. It simply does not make sense,” Smeaton said.
Some indications of a change of heart have leaked through the virtual privacy fence Tony Blair has set up around his faith. Fr. Tim Russ, the pastor of the parish Blair frequented when he was prime minister, revealed to The Guardian that Blair confided his doubts about his administration’s stance on embryonic research several years ago. As the debate on embryo experimentation was going on in Parliament, Blair told Fr. Russ, "We are acting beyond our competence." The pastor took this to mean that Blair thought “matters of life were not within men's competence to decide.”
Former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe, who converted to Catholicism in 1993, also commented on Blair’s pro-abortion voting record saying, 'The crucial thing to remember is at the point you are received [into the Catholic church] you have to say individually and out loud: "I believe everything the church teaches to be revealed truth."
'That means if you previously had any problems with church teaching - as Tony Blair obviously did over abortion - you would have to say you changed your mind,' she told Sky News .
Meanwhile, Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, commented on Blair’s conversion to the Catholic faith. This is "good news that we welcome with respect," he said. "Catholics are glad to welcome into their community those who, through a serious and reflective journey, convert to Catholicism."
Archbishop Rowan Williams, the leader of the Anglican Communion, to which Blair had belonged, wished the convert every good in his spiritual journey.
Tony Blair is presently an envoy to the Middle East.