Former British prime minister Tony Blair has become a Roman Catholic, church officials said Saturday, ending widespread speculation that he would switch to the faith of his wife and four children.
But as Catholic leaders welcomed Blair into the fold, immediate questions were raised about whether the 54-year-old had now renounced his liberal views on contentious areas like abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research. A spokesman for the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, said Blair had been "received into full communion with the Catholic Church" at a private mass on Friday night. Murphy O'Connor, who took the ceremony, praised the conversion of Blair, now the international community's special envoy to the Middle East. "For a long time, he has been a regular worshipper at mass with his family and in recent months he has been following a programme of formation to prepare for his reception into full communion," he said. "My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together." Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi added: "Catholics are glad to welcome into their community someone who has followed a serious and reflective path towards Catholicism." The leader of the worldwide Anglican communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, also wished Blair well. Blair's conversion from Anglicanism had been expected for a long time. He regularly attended Catholic mass alongside his wife Cherie, a lifelong Catholic, while prime minister and only attended Anglican services on state occasions. One of his last acts as premier was to visit Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, fuelling speculation that a switch was imminent. But converting earlier could have been tricky, because of his role in peace talks between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, his government's legislation on same-sex partnerships and his role appointing Church of England bishops. His former press chief, Alastair Campbell -- who once told journalists "we don't do God" when Blair was asked about religion -- told BBC television: "His faith does matter an awful lot to him as people who've worked with him, those who have known him, they've known that for some time. "And it's something that I suspect he probably felt he couldn't do as prime minister, he's done it now." There is no legal or constitutional bar to a Catholic being British prime minister although there has never been a Catholic premier. Some commentators suggest that Blair will struggle to reconcile his Catholic faith with certain political decisions taken by his government such as allowing same-sex couples to enter into legally recognised civil partnerships. Lawmaker Ann Widdecombe, from the main opposition Conservative Party, who became a Catholic in 1993, said being received into the faith meant stating publicly: "I believe everything the church teaches to be revealed truth." "And that means if you previously had any problems with church teaching, as Tony Blair obviously did over abortion, as he did again over Sunday trading... you would have to say you changed your mind," she told Sky News television. John Smeaton, head of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said he would be writing to Blair to ask whether he has "repented of the anti-life positions" he advocated during his political career. "During his premiership Tony Blair became one of the world's most significant architects of the culture of death, promoting abortion, experimentation on unborn embryos, including cloned embryos, and euthanasia by neglect," he added. The extent of Blair's religious faith and how far it influenced his political decision-making was of regular interest in Britain. He was once asked by an interviewer whether he prayed with US President George W. Bush and appeared to suggest in another interview that he would be judged by a higher power for his controversial backing of the 2003 Iraq war. Blair told a recent BBC television documentary that the British electorate would likely see any politician who wore his religion on his sleeve as a "nutter".
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