The Blairs challenge the Pope over gay sex and condoms

As a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, Tony Blair must know that Lent is a period for repentance, quiet reflection and taking stock. Which makes it all the more curious that the former Prime Minister has chosen the holiest time of the year to take on the Pope, of all people, on the position of the Catholic Church in today’s society.

Mr Blair began last month with an article insisting political leaders needed to “do God”. Then, last week, he directly criticised Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican for their “entrenched attitude” towards homosexuality.

But while his words were applauded by gay rights campaigners, Mr Blair sparked a withering response from leading Catholics by comparing the Church with a political party that needed its own Clause 4 moment to change with the times.

And now, Mr Blair’s wife, Cherie – one of Britain’s most prominent Catholics – has also directly challenged Pope Benedict. In an interview with The Times of Malta, Mrs Blair described the Pope’s assertion that condoms worsened Africa’s Aids epidemic as “rather sad” and said the scientific evidence refuted his view. In Malta to publicise her autobiography, Speaking for Myself, she said last week: “We do have to understand that there is concern about promiscuity. But there’s also a real concern about saving lives and I absolutely believe, and scientific evidence shows, that condoms do save lives. Therefore, when there’s a choice between endangering and not endangering life, we should also choose life.”

Defending the right of Catholics to use contraception, she added: “I think it’s a matter of personal conscience in the end. I don’t feel bad about making those choices and I don’t feel the Catholic Church feels bad about me making those choices.”

Mr Blair, in his interview with the gay magazine Attitude, said: “Organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances.

“You can either A: hold on to your core vote, basically, say ‘Look let’s not break out because if we break out we might lose what we’ve got, and at least we’ve got what we’ve got, so let’s keep it’. Or B: you say ‘Let’s accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change and actually reach out’.”

The apparently coincidental attacks on the Vatican from a couple who have done everything to court both Pope Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, have raised eyebrows. Mr Blair’s fiercest critics say it is typical of a man who believes he is God to try to lecture the Pope. But while many would find it difficult to disagree with the Blairs’ remarks on homosexuality and contraception, the ex-prime minister’s comparison of Catholicism with a political party has caused widespread bemusement, even among supporters.

Since leaving Downing Street, Mr Blair has created an inter-faith foundation, become a familiar figure in the Holy Land as the quartet of international powers’ Middle East envoy, and, two Christmases ago, converted to Catholicism. He already attended mass regularly with his family and he took communion with Pope John Paul on the eve of the Iraq war. In a Radio 3 programme on faith, broadcast on Friday, Mr Blair said his religious faith was a “comfort” to him at all times, before risking controversy by adding that a “single day” did not pass by without him reflecting on the Iraq war.

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