The Null Device

Tony Blair's New Catholic Church

In the 1990s, Tony Blair took the helm of the Labour Party and modernised it, ditching its unfashionable brown-suited socialist tendencies and transforming it into a neo-Thatcherite centre-right party with really good PR (or "spin", as they called it). In fact, the spin was so good that it allowed it not only to "outflank" the Tories, pushing them into corners, but to manoeuvre into bizarre and impossible positions, such as supporting George W. Bush's faith-based invasion of Iraq.

Blair's luck ran out, and he left the floundering ship of New Labour. Now, however, he has turned his attention to modernising another organisation he has joined; namely the Catholic Church:

The former prime minister, who converted to Catholicism shortly after leaving office two years ago, said he disagreed with the Pope's stance on gay rights and controversially suggested that the Church should reform itself along similar lines to how he re-organised the Labour Party.
"Organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances," he said. u can either A: Hold on 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 we've got what we've got so let's keep it'. Or B: 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'."
Of course, there is a lot of merit in the content of what Blair is saying in this specific instance; on gay rights, in my (liberal, atheist, cosmopolitanist) opinion, the Catholic church is out of touch, and Blair is right. A lot of people, of course, would disagree; whether they are a minority as Blair says is another matter.

However, the other part of Blair's statement, about the Catholic church needing to reorganise along New Labour lines, is more thought-provoking. What would a Blairite New Catholic Church look like? Well, firstly they would ditch the unfashionable old-guard dogmas (such as condemnation of homosexuality and contraception, to name two); those who believed in these strictures would be allowed to remain in the margins of the church, much as the left of the Labour Party was, growing steadily into fusty irrelevance, though still occasionally putting on a good, if cranky, show to keep the old believers from completely jumping ship. Freed from these dogmas, the church would be free to move towards the centre and, in classic Blairite fashion, "outflank" rival religions, appropriating their ideas and pushing them further towards the fringes. We could expect Blairite New Catholicism to appropriate everything from new-age crystal healing to promises of an afterlife filled with willing virgins and repackage what works, only with much better presentation.

As with New Labour, presentation would be the linchpin of New Catholicism. The church would be rebranded extensively, with the centuries-old trappings given new designs, crisply contemporary yet with a comforting gravitas. The vestments worn by priests and altar boys would be restyled by Paul Smith or someone, and cathedrals given an overhaul by Damien Hirst, with stained glass by Banksy. And Jamie Oliver would do the communion wafers. The sacred music would have to change, with big-name stars being brought in to give it a facelift. Finally, the Catholic Church would have caught up to that other great innovation of contemporary religious practice, the celebrity centre.

The selling of indulgences would also see a return, with donors not only being able to procure absolution of sins, but in some cases, sainthoods as well. And given the tendency of some clergy to get into scandals, the Blairite faculty of spin could prove very useful.

There are 2 comments on "Tony Blair's New Catholic Church":

Posted by: Greg Thu Apr 9 03:11:59 2009

Another way of understanding the changes from Old to New Labour in England and Australia is that they gave up on their *core* belief, which was socialism. I wonder if the Catholic Church is willing to give up on its core belief: the existence of god? It has been their main stumbling block for centuries, and forces the organization to exclude everyone who is smart enough to realize that god is santa claus for grownups. Other denominations such as Anglicans have, de facto if not officially, stopped insisting that their members believe in god. In the post-god age we need systems of morality that are not based on belief in a supernatural policeman: a position that Dawkins and other modern thinkers have argued forcefully. Would the Catholic Church stake out this ground? If they don't, someone will: another religion, a political party, the Boy Scouts, indie pop ... there is a need for an organization for people to join that provides ethics without god.

Posted by: acb Thu Apr 9 10:52:57 2009

In this sense, Blair is a traditionalist. Either that or he's one of the numerous hypocritical atheists/agnostics Dawkins says are hiding within politics. Given that he became more publicly religious when he left office, I'd say the former.

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