Monday, 25 June 2007

Blair & The Church

Having flirted with Catholicism for much of his life, Blair is now going to start the formal process of conversion.

I spent the first 18years of my own life being raised as a Catholic, and the next eight years in the pre-Blair-ite Labour Party before it was ruined. So I am inclined to simply say that the two parties thoroughly deserve each other. But then on reflection; Blair’s late conversion is symptomatic of his spineless careerism.

There can only be one possible explanation of why he didn’t take the step sooner; being a Catholic in this country is simply not a great career move. The 1701 Act Of Settlement prevents a Catholic from taking the position of monarch and also prevents a monarch from marrying a Catholic. But even Blair’s ambitions probably don’t go that far. Instead I am sure that he is aware that, although it is not constitutionally prohibited, Britain has never has a Catholic prime minister.
Why is this ?

One reason is xenophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice. With the exception of a few Brideshead-type aristos, and some quirky pockets such as part of Lancashire, Catholicism in England did not really survive the Reformation. There is therefore something distinctly ‘foreign’ about it. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century with mass immigration from Ireland, and to a lesser extent other parts of Europe, that there was a Catholic revival. (A phenomenon that we see again now with the arrival of Polish immigrants).

Even in that nation of immigrants, the USA, Catholicism was considered to be the faith of undesirable newcomers. White Anglo Saxon Protestants defined themselves as an elite to resist swamping by the later arrival of the Catholic hordes from Ireland, Italy, Poland and the Hispanic countries. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president, had to defend himself against the accusation that Catholicism was un-American.

But there is also a totally justifiable suspicion of Catholics in public office.

Whilst it may seem reasonable to say that religious faith is a personal matter and need not influence the political process, no good Catholic would ever accept this . Because Catholicism is not a faith based simply on the individual's own supposed relationship with God.

Alone of the major world religions, Catholicism extends acknowledgement of the authority of the Church to a doctrinal point. It is what separates Catholicism from Protestantism: God’s will is supposedly not just revealed to the individual by the study of scripture, but by the active role of the Church that acts as God’s agent on earth. This point also separates Catholicism from Judaism and Islam, who both have no priests but only teachers to help the faithful interpret the scriptures. It may come as a shock but not even the most extreme fundamentalist imam claims the same divine authority as a humble Catholic parish priest.

Which is why Catholics in public office are always going to be problematic; their ultimate loyalties are always going to lie with the Church and not with the electorate.

In English history it is the same phenomenon expressed in both the homicidal fanatic Guy Fawkes and the noble refusnik Thomas More.
On the otherhand, I’ve always believed Oliver Cromwell to be much mis-understood on this matter. He certainly was pretty intense when it came to his own personal religion belief, but he was quite happy to extend this to others, even, and unusually for the times, to the Jews. But not to the Catholics.

They could not be trusted to put loyalty to the sovereign body of parliament before that of loyalty to Church. Which is why the Catholics were the most die-hard adherents to the King’s cause and encouraged him to seek alliances with the Irish, the French or the Spanish, just about anyone other than their own countrymen. And to be fair Cromwell had the same objection to Presbyterians who were willing to assist a Scottish invasion to further their Church’s cause.

Cromwell’s view of the Church was that of a congregation of like-minded individuals who were free to join, leave or set up their own congregations.
If we must have any religion at all (I’d much rather we didn’t) his is the only version that is compatible with a democracy.

And if all this sounds like an obscure historical rant, ask yourself could you trust a Catholic politician to set aside the Church’s view on abortion rights, homosexuality or sex education, if it ran contrary to the mandate of his party or the electorate as a whole ? And why not form a party to honestly express Catholic views ? This is what the Christian Democrats did in Europe, and such a party has always been Blair's spiritual (!) home.

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