A few days ago, the press services were moderately abuzz with the news that Tony Blair had converted to (Catholic) Christianity from (Anglican) Neochristianity. Catholic Online reported: “In a private Mass at his residence chapel on Friday evening, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster received former Prime Minister Tony Blair into the Roman Catholic Church. Blair had been a member of the Anglican Church, however his wife and four children were all Catholic.” (Read the full story here.)
The reaction to the new “Great Convert”, perhaps the most socially prominent in England since John Henry Newman, was expectedly mixed. Catherine Pepinster of The Tablet and Stephen Hand of the former TCRnews, in a surprising convergence of opinion (since Stephen Hand’s pro-life advocacy runs directly counter to the consistent Antihumanism of Mr. Blair’s old public policies), gave their approbation with little reservation; and the Holy See welcomed him with “joy and respect”.
Others, however, ranged from being cautious on, to being openly suspicious of Mr. Blair, demanding to know if the convert had renounced his old anti-life public policies. In an article quoted by the analyst Damian Thompson, Mark Gordon wondered if the Church in England maintained a more lenient standard for “the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous”; and similarly, though in somewhat more jocular fashion, Mr. Diogenes wrote in a CWNews post entitled “Tony Blair recants position on abortion!”:
Well he did, didn’t he? And somehow I just missed the headline?
In order to be received into the Catholic Church, one must make a profession of faith, affirming that one believes all that the Church teaches. And the Church teaches that support for abortion is gravely wrong, and so now we know– don’t we?– that Blair recognizes his past public stance was gravely wrong. Don’t we?
The reservations are certainly understandable, since conversion theoretically does mean a comprehensive embrace of Christian teaching and life, as noted by Ann Widdecombe, herself an MP and a convert. In contrast, Mr. Blair’s policies as Prime Minister frankly contradicted the Church’s teachings against unjust war, abortion, and perhaps sodomy and euthanasia, hence the question: Did he really change his mind; and if he did, why hasn’t he said anything?
With due respect to the cautious commentators, however, I think the Church in England was right to receive Mr. Blair, and I am one with Stephen Hand in saying that “[w]e all embrace Tony Blair, returned to the ancient Faith”.
To explain: I think many of us are working under a misunderstanding of the Christian (=Catholic) doctrine of conversion. Theologically (I think), conversion is the subjective dimension of justification, the transformation by which flawed nature is elevated and healed by grace. Note how in the Council of Trent, the Church rejected the Lutheran doctrine of forensic justification, springing from the Manichaeanized side of St. Augustine, which saw salvation as a Gnostic jump from the demiurgic humanity of sin to that of grace. For in truth, the natural and supernatural orders are rooted in the same God, the latter a (supercosmically) higher mode of communion into which one grows by grace. (Thankfully, Mr. Kuyper’s revisionist Calvinism, with its emphasis on “common grace”, has begun to correct Neochristian theology.)
Conversion, then, is a grace-borne process that begins at baptism, and we can’t demand that it happen instantly in everyone: It takes time for the mustard seed to grow; and so the Church understands that the transformation of the Inner Self takes place differently in different people. Thus, in volume 1 of his magisterial Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, the Neochristian theologian Ernst Troeltsch noted how the Church, while setting up an exacting moral standard for her members, doesn’t demand that they all adopt it once for all on pain of excommunication, but allows them to grow into it according to their station, within the bosom of the Body of Christ. If this conversion is never completed within our lifetimes, we follow original Christian teaching in believing that it will be completed by the fires of love in the next life (see Matthew 12:32), through the merits of Christ and, in Him, of His Church considered as a mystical organism.
Maybe the problem is that we’re too excessively influenced by the Damascus model of conversion, based on St. Paul’s virtually instantaneous change from militant unbelief to total faith–so that, back in the 18th century, so intelligent a Neochristian minister as Jonathan Edwards actually demanded a “conversion experience” from his flock. What we perhaps fail to note is that conversion in Scripture and in Christian history is more nuanced by far, and more often characterized by fits and starts. St. Peter, after his call by Our Lord, long persisted in his worldly vision of the Messianic mission (hence the Dominical vade retro); and it took the tolle, lege episode, whatever its historicity, to finally effect St. Augustine’s moral conversion. Indeed, conversion for the most part resembles the experience of Elijah: hearing the soft voice of God not in but after the noise and the tempest.
Speaking of double standards, then, we cannot suddenly demand total instant conversion from our initiates simply because we are presently at war with Antihumanism and Liberal Fascism. Whatever the social situation, conversion is ultimately God’s work and follows His pace, notwithstanding RCIAs and catechumenates; and who was it (Simone Weil?) who said that many enter the Church through disapproved ways? It is surely unjust to withhold mercy from presumptively sincere beginners, when even the latae sententiae excommunication of mass-murdering abortionists (who just happen to be cradle “Catholics”) can be lifted upon their repentance. Of course, I don’t mean adopting a big-tent policy in the style of Anglicanism, but a sort of “basilica ecclesiology”, where conversion means walking down the nave to the altar rail to receive the Blessed Sacrament, and entering the church is but the start of the Greatest Pilgrimage.
This leads to the question of Mr. Blair’s theological conversion. Ms. Widdecombe rightly reminds us that a profession of faith is needed to formally enter full communion with Christ in His Church; but even adult initiation only plants the seeds of assent, and we must allow time for the infused virtues to mature. Thus Cardinal Newman understood that, beyond the articles of the creed, adherence to the other truths of the True Faith starts out impliciter; so unless Mr. Blair expressly denounces the life-related teachings of the Church, we must presume that he accepted them at least tacitly. If he’s not yet sufficiently comfortable with them to affirm them publicly, then let’s pray for him to gain that clarity and courage, rather than saddling him with doubt at the very beginning of his journey with God’s pilgrim People.
Personal Note: I can sympathize somewhat with the problem of accepting all of Christian teaching in one gulp. Even after my (hesitant) return to the Faith, it took me literal years to accept Humanae Vitae, the social teachings, and the Marian doctrines; and even now, I grapple with the post-Johannine clergy’s philosophical embrace (as opposed to the post-Leonine clergy’s prudential acceptance) of “Enlightenment” Liberalism with all its illogic and incoherence. Hence my own opinion: If Mr. Blair is still struggling with some aspects of Christianity, that’s no comedown, and, like I said, he needs our prayers. And this is mine:
Heavenly Father, we praise and worship You with Christ Your Son and the Holy Spirit as one God, and we thank You for bringing Tony Blair closer to salvation by making him our brother in Your one true Church. Grant him, Lord, ever-stronger faith, hope, and love, and grant us all the gifts of judgment and understanding, that as one Body of Christ we may ever glorify Your Name. Through Him we pray. Amen.
We are journeying together. If some of us stumble (and who does not?), then, following the New Commandment of Christ, the steadfast must help the faltering, admonishing if necessary, but loving always. Deus vobiscum.
Update: They say that observant Christians/Catholics now outnumber observant Anglicans in Britain. Though I cannot help but weep for the community of Hooker and Locke, I say Deo gratias for the faithful; for as Will Shannon recounts, “the story of Catholics in Britain is a story… of an underground religious culture that was distrusted and marginalized”, and if the story be true, then perhaps a Second Spring is truly at hand. One is reminded here of Fr. Faber’s original lyric for that famous hymn: “Faith of our fathers,/ Mary’s prayers,/ will bring our country back to thee…”