by Garry O’Connor
The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin religare, meaning ‘to bind back’, and in the present climate, in a society awash with an ‘all-pervasive claim to victimhood’, and the escalating fear and often reality of violence, a ‘binding back’ in multiple ways, not least culturally, is needed. While the No. 10 press aides and the protagonists themselves have strenuously tried to keep religion out of politics, and in spite of the notorious British reticence in such matters, it both demands and needs a central place in the new twenty-first-century world picture or disorder. As for the recent growth of proselytising atheism, who would not rather listen to Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest scientific mind in history, than diehard secularists such as Richard Dawkins? Einstein wrote in his diary, ‘What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility towards the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the universe…. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.’ In declaring his personal creed he states, ‘The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is as stranger…is as good as dead.’ More mundanely, Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, in her timely book The Mighty and the Almighty (2006) defined the way her own country ill-advisedly tiptoedround the subject of religion.
Religious arrogance, or identifying oneself with the Messiah, could hardly be excused in Tony Blair, as it was by Dominic Lawson, as ‘unwittingly’ expressed. Cherie’s religious presumption has been of a more complicated and pervasive kind. Because she is a woman, and also an influential role model to other women, her beliefs have been both more invasive and convincing for other women, in particular those who put their gender first and their religion second.
Her revolutionary tenet, not exactly uncommon, and worthy of Lenin, which she holds with undiminished fervour, is that if you want to change an institution you join it and change it from within. In Why I Am Still a Catholic, published in June 2006, she averred:
‘Of course, like many Catholics in this country, I have doubts about some of the positions taken by the Church as an institution – for example, on contraception, or the role of women. But I am not one of those who believe that the only response is to walk away because you have a different viewpoint. I have been taught that you should stay and try and change things.
‘It’s like the Labour Party in the early 1980s. I wasn’t happy with the way it was going so I tried to help change it from within. Thankfully, we won that battle. And though the pace of change in the Catholic Church can seem slow, I believe that there are many people in this country – and not just in the laity – who are convinced of the need for it. That message, however, is not yet fully accepted by the Vatican. But, then, the Church isn’t just the Vatican. It is about all of us, the people of God as the Second Vatican Council put it.’
Father Beaufort, a priest from York, commented:
‘It would be terribly arrogant for any of us to suggest that we were somehow doing the Catholic Church a favour by gracing her with our membership. The idea that the Church is basically a human institution that has to be allowed to evolve to adapt itself to the spirit of the age owes more to Protestantism and to the modernist heresy condemned by Pope Pius X than it does to true Catholicism.
‘Ms Booth says she has some problems with certain positions taken by the Church ‘as an institution’, like the ban on contraception. But for Catholics, the Church is an institution unlike any other – a supernatural institution, founded by Christ. As the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church is the extension of His Incarnate Presence on earth, invested with divine authority to teach on matters of faith and morals. Catholics believe that the Pope, as successor of St Peter, is invested with the charism of infallibility. This means that no Pope, however sinful he is, can ever err when he teaches ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals.
‘As a moral issue, contraception is a good example of something that clearly falls under the Church’s teaching remit. To reject the Church’s clear, consistent and authoritative teaching on such an issue is to really deny the teaching authority of the Church altogether, and to cease to be Catholic.
‘Ms Booth also admits to difficulties accepting the Church’s position on the role of women. She doesn’t specify, but could she mean the Church’s restriction of the Sacrament of Holy Order to men? John Paul II made it quite clear that not even a Pope has the authority to alter the Church’s constant teaching on this matter.
‘To compare the Catholic Church with the Labour Party seems to miss the point that the Church is a divine institution. Yes, we all have a part to play in building up the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. Certain disciplines can and do change. But as far as doctrine goes, and the basic hierarchical structure of (male) bishops, priests and deacons, the Church’s role is simply to hand on what was given by Christ to the Apostles. In this sense, the Church is really defined by tradition. As for reform, we are always called to reform ourselves, by conforming ourselves to the Gospel of Christ, as handed on in the teaching of the Church.
‘The Church’s teaching on contraception and the priesthood will be substantially the same in 2,000 years’ time as it is today. It would be foolhardy to make such a claim for any other institution; but we can say it confidently about the Church because of our faith that she is not just any institution, but a divine one.
‘Ms Booth says that the Church is “all about us, the people of God, as Vatican II put it”. Yes, Christ founded His Church for our salvation. But the role of the “people of God” is primarily to listen and to learn, so that we can extend the sovereignty of Christ into every level of human activity. Vatican II didn’t change the constant doctrine that the teaching Church, or Ecclesia docens, is made up of the bishops in union with St Peter’s successor, the Pope. As the “people of God”, we have to be open to conversion from our preconceptions.’
The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI was a blow, not only to the left-wing liberal establishment of the English and Welsh bishops. Benedict sees the Catholic Church as a continuous organic whole, enlivened and united by the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, dismissing the view of the Church before Vatican II (1965) as bad and after as good, and calling such ‘ecclesiastical schizophrenia’ the ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity’.
On sin, Tony had pronounced that the concept of believing in it was ‘simple and important’, and that ‘this is an area that will become of increasing importance in politics’. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor agreed: ‘You cannot’, he said, ‘divorce religion and life.’ But through legislation, instead of listening and learning, and by this bringing ‘the sovereignty of Christ into every level of human activity’, New Labour provided and widened the opportunity for ‘sin’, in Christian and Catholic terms (if you believe in them) in many aspects of social and personal life.
A longer opportunity for abortions, longer drinking hours, liberalising of cannabis, growth of casinos, wider and more useless sex education of the wrong kind (meaning one thing and one thing only, greater use of contraception and greater numbers of teenage pregnancies). Under the aegis of Tony’s espousal of population control the government funded international agencies which supported China’s population policies, in particular its cruel and inhuman treatment of women who are forced to abort or become sterilised if they want to breed more than one child. Gordon Brown, before he had children of his own, voted sixteen times in favour of abortion, including three times for abortion up to birth, and for disabled babies; for abortion on demand in early pregnancy; and to suppress information about abortions on disabled babies. He cut the VAT on morning-after pills from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent. He also in 1990 voted for destructive embryo experimentation.
At the same time, New Labour created secular sins for its atheist followers to feel comfortable in denouncing and outlawing, such as fox-hunting, smoking, the right of Catholic adoption agencies to differentiate foster parents on the basis of belief, and even, some would claim, normal married life. A mass of new laws criminalising what had been seen as ordinary if not entirely appropriate behaviour filled the statute book, while a controlling and bureaucratic surveillance state came into being, in many ways similar to that of the former Communist countries of eastern Europe.
Cherie’s views on contraception and women priests did not stop her scurrying off to Rome at the first available opportunity to seek an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. The visit, as Father Seed says, ‘has to be seen as a perk of the job’. While Cherie had followed form at the funeral of John Paul II in April 2005 by wearing a black dress and mantilla, in her short audience with Benedict she flouted protocol and wore white. The correct dress code was black: only Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Paola of Belgium and Josephine Charlotte, the wife of Grand Duke Jean of Luxemburg, as consorts of Catholic royalty, are entitled to wear white. This was deliberate. She would have known what to wear. Would she appear in court as a recorder in jeans and sweatshirt? Even Elizabeth II wore black when she and Prince Philip met John Paul. There is a kind of very English snobbishness, all too prevalent, that the Pope in Rome or anyone else shouldn’t presume to tell sophisticated lawyers like Cherie Booth what to believe and how to behave. Graham Greene, who would flout the rules even to the point of taking his mistress out to lunch with Father Philip Caraman, his father confessor (who was most upset), had something of the same attitude. It reinforces the notion that Cherie has a very grand idea of herself, but also that Tony supports and sustains her in her delusion. Ann Widdecombe commented, ‘She obviously thinks she is the First Lady. My message to her is that you are not a Catholic queen, my dear, and you never will be.’
It was a long way from those stalwart Catholic women of her Waterloo childhood, gathering in their living room rosary circles to pray together. But Cherie has been determined to keep her Catholic options open, like George Bush, who wooed the seventy-seven million Catholics in the United States by visiting the Pope three times during his first term. But she has kept in too with pro-abortion groups such as Planned Parenthood, and posed before their stand at a Labour conference brandishing a condom. In spring 2006 she delivered a paper at the Vatican Political Academy of Social Sciences, speaking about how children ‘are forced to grow up so quickly…having to take on the responsibilities of adults’ because they were neglected by older people. True in some cases for sure, although the trend in her own country was in rather the opposite direction, with children lamentably slowed down in their educational and maturing process, so that, as a head of department at a major public school observes, pupils of fourteen are five years behind the educational standard of those at a similar age ten years ago. In 2006 Cherie joined the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences as an adviser on social and legal issues.
Tony expressed one of his religious beliefs in the foreword to a pamphlet written by John Smith:
‘Christianity is a very tough religion. It may not always be practised as such. But it is…. It is not utilitarian – though socialism can be explained in those terms. It is judgemental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We all know this, of course, but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language. But when we look at our world today and how much needs to be done, we should not hesitate to make such judgements. And then follow them with determined action. That would be Christian socialism.’
Latterly, though, it had become hard to know what he thought. He would seem to waver, disappointing those who hoped he would respect the Church authority, especially over contraception. Falling in line with Cherie, in 2006 he attacked the Church over what he called a ‘blanket ban’ on condoms and committed money to spread their use in Africa. The Catholic view is that condoms encourage promiscuity and have therefore only a limited value. To promote condom use is, according to Catholic doctrine, only one degree away from promoting the use of prostitutes, or in other words, using sex as a commodity. Condom use is, however, the soul of the sex industry, which expanded enormously in the UK during Tony’s premiership, and now he endorsed this wholeheartedly. Red-light districts had proliferated in every town centre, with brothels their inner citadels of degradation for prostitutes. A recent example is the town of Ipswich, where in 2006 five such poor women were murdered. Some say the condom culture, or commodity sex, is leading to wholesale population decline: one extreme and even absurd prediction is that by 2900 there will not be a single European left in Europe, but there is truth in the trend. After ten years of the Blairs the UK was judged in a United Nations study to be bottom in the moral league of the twenty-one economically most advanced nations.
Cherie invited Pope Benedict XVI to visit Great Britain in May 2007, twenty-five years after John Paul II visited in 1982. He didn’t of course come, but if he had it could have proved a final example of Tony and Cherie’s ecclesiastical topsy-turvyism. Would they have taken His Holiness to visit Ipswich? In the event, and as a final theatrical flourish in his world tour before departure on 27 June 2007, Tony took Cherie with him to Rome for an audience with Pope Benedict. But this time there would be no Berlusconi to write in the sky with £20,000 worth of fireworks: ‘Viva Tony!’
Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. The Darlings of Downing Street, from which the above excerpt is taken, is an incisive probe into the Blairs’ tenure of 10 Downing Street and the New Labour project. The Darlings of Downing Street, published by CentreHouse Press, is available on Amazon Kindle and most other ebook platforms.