Monday, January 14, 2008

will he explain?

Towards the end of December, Anne Widdecombe wrote a very balanced piece analysing former PM Tony Blair's decision to convert to Roman Catholicism, and raised the issue - fairly, I felt - that given his consistent pro-choice voting record on, for example, abortion and embryo experimentation, it is incumbent upon Blair to at least explain this in the public arena.

Blair's reception into the Catholic church has kept many columnists in beer-money, but not all have got Miss Widdecombe's point. Writing in the 12 January issue of The Spectator, Charles Moore throws a not-very-veiled accusation of hypocrisy at Miss Widdecombe when he asks "Doesn't it occur to her that she, as a Catholic, should be killing the fatted calf in Blair's honour?"

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has written to Mr Blair and it is perhaps ironic that given the timing of his conversion the letter was published just before the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It quotes from Evangelium Vitae (on the value and inviolability of human life) Paragraph 73, which states that to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law [in favour of abortion or euthanasia], or to vote for it" is never justified.

Although this is a document from a Pope, it addresses an issue that applies to all of humankind. Surely the keystone right of all human rights, however you define the term, is the right to life, because without a living subject the other rights might as well have been written by Spike Milligan on speed. (In legal terms, a foetus becomes a person upon its first breath, it is true: but no matter what you think of this definition, it has to be admitted that "legalese" is a specialised technical language for use in court and between lawyers, and its terms do not always correspond with the dictionary definitions of words. In this language a limited company is a person, but nobody gets charged for murder if one goes bust.) Pope John Paul II recognised the universal import of the primacy of the right to life by addressing Evangelium Vitae to "all people of good will". He cites St Paul, who said that "the requirements of the law are written on [our] hearts, [our] consciences also bearing witness".

However, if you are a Roman Catholic, then it is not controversial to state that you should try to obey the Pope. Catholics believe, moreover, that the Pope, united with the Bishops of the world in the teaching authority of the Church, can make an infallible statement which Catholics have to abide by when the Pope is speaking in the realm of faith and morals. Spotting infallible statements has become a growing industry within and outwith the RC Church, as they aren't always signposted. But in the case of Evangelium Vitae John Paul II does everything but supply a neon sign announcing that an infallible statement is contained inside. He starts by stating that the Second Vatican Council "addressed the matter forcefully, in a brief but incisive passage" which is from Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). The passage isn't long; having been published in 1965 it could have been written yesterday, and is worth looking at:

"whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men [sic] are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator." (para 27)

John Paul II continues in Evangelium Vitae:

"Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral."

I've come all this way to show that Blair, having taken this decision to join the Catholic Church that he appears to have been planning for some time, owes an explanation to Catholics as to why he has voted the way he has on life issues while he was limbering up to swim the Tiber, and another one to Anglicans as to why their Church was good enough while he was Prime Minister, then seemed lacking somehow once he had stepped down. Nobody's asking for a public show of repentance, that's between him and God, something along the lines of "I did x because y" would at least show an awareness on his part that more was expected from him - not least from all of those Christians outwith the RC Church who have a deep respect for life.

Perhaps it was once the case, as Ann Widdecombe says, that Blair felt he could "do what he liked, whenever he liked, and how dare anyone else get in the way". Perhaps those days only ever existed in the minds of sychophants seeking promotion and he was taken in.

But now he needs to have the courage of his convictions to say that he believes that some things are objectively right, and others objectively wrong. The only alternative to this is to make major moral decisions on the basis of how you feel when you get out of bed. That's no way to "build up treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys" (Luke 12:33). The road to Hell is lined with wobbly-lipped soundbites; let Mr Blair stand up in good conscience and for good conscience.

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