There will always be an England

BlairBigBenI picked up one of the local newspapers this morning and there, across the top of page one, was a London Daily Telegraph story with a lede that the Brits have been expecting for some time now.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is to announce that he will convert to Roman Catholicism soon after his planned meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican tomorrow, according to church sources and his friends.

Mr. Blair, an Anglican, may even inform the pope of his intentions and seek his approval at the audience, which he is expected to attend with his wife, Cherie, a devout Catholic, and their daughter Kathryn.

The story covers almost all of the basics.

Let's see. There's the historical perspective (with the Anglican-state angle thrown in there for good measure):

There has never been a Catholic prime minister in Britain, although there is no longer a formal constitutional bar. However, Mr. Blair would have been aware that to convert while at 10 Downing Street could have caused a potential conflict with his role in choosing bishops for the Church of England.

The personal, what-happens-next angle:

It is likely that Mr. Blair would begin a private course of instruction with a spiritual director and would be expected to be formally received into the Catholic Church at a special service. His audience with the pope ... will be his third visit to the Vatican in four years and reflects his growing fascination with Catholicism.

And finally, the section that has to leave the reader -- especially a traditional Catholic reader -- wondering, "Does reporter Jonathan Petre realize just how bizarre the words he is typing sound?"

Hang on for this:

Rumors that Mr. Blair intends to convert have been circulating in Catholic circles and in Westminster for years, but have grown increasingly strong as his departure from office nears. Friends say that he studies both the Bible and the Koran daily, and much of his political philosophy has been influenced by the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He is a particular admirer of the maverick German theologian Hans Kung.

Uh, that would be the liberal Hans Kung of Germany? The one who has never been known as a supporter of traditional Catholic teachings, the kind advocated by another German theology professor -- that would be Pope Benedict XVI?

Methinks there is a very important angle in this story that has been buried.

But to Petre's credit, the elephant in the Catholic sanctuary is finally mentioned -- near the end -- in material from an interview with Father Timothy Russ, the Blair family's parish priest.

Three years ago his parish priest at Chequers, the Rev. Timothy Russ, disclosed that Mr. Blair had discussed becoming a Catholic with him.

But Father Russ added that Mr. Blair, whose views on a range of issues from abortion to stem-cell research are at odds with traditional church teaching, had "some way to go" on important moral issues.

In a new book, Father Russ also reveals that Mr. Blair even discussed the possibility of becoming a Catholic deacon, a position below that of a priest, which can be held by lay people.

In 1996, Cardinal Basil Hume, the late archbishop of Westminster, wrote to him demanding that he cease taking Communion at his wife's church in Islington, although he added it was "all right to do so in Tuscany for the holidays ... as there was no Anglican church nearby."

Mr. Blair made it clear in a response that he did not agree, asking in a letter to Cardinal Hume: "I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?"

In other words, Blair disagrees with the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on a host of crucial issues and has, in the past, even clashed with the local cardinal on whether he needs to become a Roman Catholic in order to take part in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church? I mean, is this man an Anglican or what?

Has anyone seen a good quote or two somewhere -- this story could have used one -- in which Blair offers insights into why he wants to convert into (and perhaps even be ordained in) a church with which he has such profound disagreements? Just asking.

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