Blair to Join Catholic Church

It's one of the best-trailed conversions in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, an Anglican, is to be formally received into the Church in the next few weeks, according to The Tablet, a London-based Catholic newspaper. Blair has regularly, though quietly, attended Catholic services over the years with his wife and four children, all of whom are Catholics, and his conversion was rumored for the 10 years he was in office.

As his biographer Anthony Seldon points out in "Blair Unbound," post-9/11 security concerns made it increasingly difficult for the Blairs to go to public places of worship. So the Blairs arranged for a Catholic Royal Air Force chaplain to visit Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, virtually every Saturday to say Mass for the family in private.

While in office, Blair, 54, was reluctant to move across the aisle, as it were, in a country where the Church of England is the officially established religion, where the monarch is the supreme governor of the church, and where the prime minister, acting for the crown, signs off on episcopal appointments, including that of the senior prelate, the archbishop of Canterbury.

Blair, who left office in June, has always tried to keep his religiosity out of the public spotlight. As an elected head of government, his conversion would have sparked controversy not only because of the prime minister's Church of England role but also because Britain, despite the status of the C of E, is a resolutely secular country where politicians are discouraged from wearing their religion on their sleeves. Blair's former communications czar, Alastair Campbell, made it clear to Blair that he should steer clear of religion in all interviews. "We don't do God," Campbell once said pithily.

Though Blair didn't wear his faith on his sleeve, his beliefs were a strong influence on his foreign policy agenda over the years, including in particular his belief that governments have a moral duty to intervene in humanitarian crises. He had no doubt about the justness of certain causes: Operation Desert Fox in Iraq (1998), Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000), Afghanistan (2001) and, of course, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The 9/11 attacks only deepened Blair's convictions. To him, the war on terror is, as he once asserted, "a battle of values and for progress." Earlier this year one of his close aides told me, "There's no holding him back." Said another, "He's not a relativist at all. He's very Manichaean about it. It's cowboys versus Indians."

In 1992 Blair joined the Christian Socialist Movement and remains a member. In 1995 he told a reporter, "My Christianity and my politics came together at the same time." In 1996, a year before his Labour Party ended 18 years of Conservative Party rule in Britain, he wrote an Easter essay for a newspaper in which he said the Tories "have too selfish a definition of self-interest" and "fail to look beyond, to the community." At the time he was pilloried for this very un-British mixing of religion and politics.

Blair has shied away from such touchy matters ever since. I asked him in late 2001 if he drew a connection between his religious beliefs and his belief in humanitarian intervention. Blair became uncharacteristically inarticulate: "I mean, you believe what you believe in, but it's, I think, as far as possible, you're best to keep politics separate from your beliefs, is how I would describe it." He was much happier framing the argument in moral terms: "I think we should always act from a morally coherent viewpoint," he said, "as well as for simply practical reasons."

It is Blair's moral view that helps explain what some people saw as his strange-bedfellows alliance with President George W. Bush. Their views on Saddam Hussein and the international terror threat reflected a shared faith in the righteousness of confronting evil, a conviction rooted in their Christianity.

According to The Tablet, Blair is expected to be received in the coming weeks by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor in his private chapel at Archbishop's House. Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet, told the London Times, "The cardinal's involvement, as if he were Mr. Blair's parish priest, would suggest that the process of conversion did in fact begin during his tenure of No. 10 [Downing Street]." A spokesman for the cardinal said, "It is inappropriate for the cardinal to comment on an individual's faith journey. It is a private and personal issue."