I don’t believe that Tony Blair is the Antichrist, nor that Pope Benedict is. But I won’t be surprised to see accusations of this kind being thrown around in the wake of an astonishing interview which Ruth Gledhill reports, in an article in The Times (also picked up by Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream) and a blog post. At least according to Ruth, the world’s highest profile Roman Catholic convert of recent years has publicly criticised the Pope’s and the Roman Catholic church’s teaching on homosexuality. She reports on her blog that
In an interview with the gay magazine Attitude, Tony Blair says he wants to urge religious figures everywhere, including the Pope, to reinterpret their religious texts to see them as metaphorical, not literal.
But what did Blair actually say? Did he really call on the Pope to reinterpret the Bible? Not quite. Here is the only part of the full interview, almost at the end, in which the Pope was even mentioned – the interviewer Johann Hari’s questions in bold:
But why do you think so many of the world’s most senior religious figures disagree? The Pope said in a speech that ‘homosexuality is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder’, and even compared the tolerance of homosexuality to the destruction of the rainforests.
Again, there is a huge generational difference here. And there’s probably that same fear amongst religious leaders that if you concede ground on an issue like this, because attitudes and thinking evolve over time, where does that end? You’d start having to rethink many, many things. Now, my view is that rethinking is good, so let’s carry on rethinking. Actually, we need an attitude of mind where rethinking and the concept of evolving attitudes becomes part of the discipline with which you approach your religious faith. So some of these things can then result in a very broad area of issues being up for discussion.
That’s when I understand why religious leaders are very reluctant. But I sometimes say that organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances. You can either hold to your core vote, basically, you know, say: “Look, let’s not break out, because if we break out we might lose what we’ve got, and at least what we’ve got, we’ve got, so let’s keep it”. Or you say, “let’s accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change, and actually reach out”.
Can you foresee a situation where in your lifetime or mine, we would have a pro-gay Pope, for example?
I don’t know, is the honest answer. I don’t know. Look, there are many good and great things the Catholic Church does, and there are many fantastic things this Pope stands for, but I think what is interesting is that if you went into any Catholic Church, particularly a well-attended one, on any Sunday here and did a poll of the congregation, you’d be surprised at how liberal-minded people were.
That’s quite a radical line for a Catholic: to say that the average Catholic congregation speaks for the Catholic Church more than the Pope does?
Well, I’m not going to say that! [Laughs] On many issues, I think the leaders of the Church and the Church will be in complete agreement. But I think on some of these issues, if you went and asked the congregation, I think you’d find that their faith is not to be found in those types of entrenched attitudes. If you asked “what makes you religious?” and “what does your faith mean to you?” they would immediately go into compassion, solidarity, relieving suffering. I would be really surprised if they went to “actually, it’s to do with believing homosexuality is wrong” or “it’s to do with believing this part of the ritual or doctrine should be done in this particular way”.
So not really a declaration of war by Blair on Benedict, much more a call for rethinking on this issue. And he is probably right. I doubt if my own position would please Blair, and certainly not Attitude magazine, but it would also be strongly opposed to the anti-gay prejudice and unwelcoming attitude found in many churches. Blair certainly makes a good point that to maintain its membership the church has to keep up with the times, not to retreat into conservatism for fear of upsetting some of its core members – but I would not take that principle as far as Blair seems to, allowing it to influence central areas of doctrine and ethics.
Will Blair be able to remain in the Roman Catholic Church after this? I guess the Vatican authorities, already hit by recent bad publicity about another British convert, Bishop Richard Williamson, will pretend not to have noticed this interview. It certainly won’t make them happy, but nor will it infuriate them as much as it would have done if Blair had really called on the Pope to change his teaching. Maybe it will actually stimulate some rethinking and appropriate changes of attitude, although I trust that it will not lead to a change in the church’s core teaching on homosexuality.