Blair converts to Catholicism

And so it came to pass...the former PM has, finally and formally, joined his family in their Roman Catholic faith. John Rentoul charts his conversion

Tony Blair was proved right yesterday, when the news that he had finally been received into the Roman Catholic Church was hailed by political opponents as a chance for him to "commune with the bloke upstairs" and change his views on abortion, embryo research and Sunday trading.

Mr Blair was received into the church by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, in the chapel of the Archbishop's House in Westminster on Friday night. His wife, Cherie, a Catholic, was his sponsor, and his four children, who have been brought up Catholics, are believed to have been present.

The Cardinal issued a statement saying: "I am very glad to welcome Tony Blair into the Catholic church. My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together."

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, which Mr Blair has left, said: "Tony Blair has my prayers and good wishes as he takes this step in his Christian pilgrimage.

"A great Catholic writer said that the only reason for moving from one Christian family to another was to deepen one's relationship with God. I pray this will be the result of Tony Blair's decision in his personal life."

Mr Blair made no public statement. The former prime minister recently explained in a television interview why he did not discuss his religion: "You talk about it and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter." Voters tended to think that religious politicians "go off and sit in the corner, commune with the bloke upstairs and then come back and say 'Right, I've been told the answer and that's it.'"

Ann Widdecombe was the first politician yesterday to suggest that the Catholic church should tell Mr Blair "the answer". The Conservative MP, who converted to Catholicism in 1993, said on Sky News: "You have to say ... 'I believe everything the church teaches to be revealed truth.' And 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."

John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), agreed: "Tony Blair became one of the world's most significant architects of the culture of death, promoting abortion ... and euthanasia by neglect. SPUC is writing to Tony Blair to ask him whether he has repented of the anti-life positions he has so openly advocated."

Mr Blair began a formal "programme of formation" to prepare for reception into full communion shortly after leaving No 10 in June, according to his spokesman. He has attended Mass with his family for 20 years, and was used to taking Communion in his parish church in Islington until, after he became leader of the opposition in 1994, it became a sensitive issue. He was asked, as a non-Catholic, to refrain from Communion by Cardinal Basil Hume. Mr Blair reluctantly agreed.

For most of his time as PM he brushed aside talk that he would convert, saying in June 1997: "I am not proposing to do that." And, especially in his first term, he had an abrasive relationship with the Catholic bishops. After one spat in 1999 with Cardinal Thomas Winning, head of the Catholic church in Scotland, Mr Blair said he was sick of "effing prelates getting involved in politics and pretending it was nothing to do with politics".

Towards the end of his time in office, speculation grew that he would convert just before he stepped down or soon after. For security reasons after the Iraq war, the family stopped going to church and had private Masses at Chequers, which added to the air of mystery.

At the beginning of this year, Mr Blair was accused of siding with the Catholic church in a cabinet dispute over gay adoption. Catholic adoption agencies were resisting new legislation to require them to consider gay potential adopters, and Mr Blair negotiated a compromise. He was annoyed by the idea that Cherie was behind his desire to accommodate Catholic concerns. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

Indeed, Cherie has long been an outspoken opponent of papal teaching on issues such as birth control and women priests. Despite her views, she, Mr Blair and their children have been granted audiences by the current Pope and by his predecessor.

When Mr Blair visited Pope Benedict XVI three days before leaving office in June, his gift to the Pope was a scarcely disguised statement: a frame containing three photographs of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most famous of English converts to Rome. Since Mr Blair stood down, the talk grew more securely based as his plans for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation took shape. The foundation, launched early next year, aims to promote understanding between world religions.

Mr Blair's former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, who described himself as "a pro-faith atheist" on BBC's Newsnight in July, deflected the question about an imminent conversion. "That is a matter for him and his Maker. I'm saying nowt."

On Friday, the latest "When will Blair go?" story came to an end, another transition accomplished.

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