Tony Blair was given star treatment at Communion and Liberation’s 30th annual Rimini Meeting yesterday evening in Italy.
Billed by the organizers as “The Day of Blair,” the speech took place in a packed auditorium of mostly Communion and Liberation members who gave the former British prime minister and recent convert to the Church a rousing welcome.
Several thousand people filled the huge hall and stood up to greet Blair as he walked from the back of the hall to the front amid wild cheers. His press spokesman said it was the largest single gathering the former British politician had ever addressed.
Blair made many commendable points in his speech. He began by explaining how he had just come back from China and was impressed by how, despite continued restrictions on the Church, the country is drawing heavily on its culture and civilization and beginning to realize the limitations of “seeing a society simply as a technocratic or legal bargain between individual and state.”
He spoke of his “Third Way” approach to politics, the importance of rolling back the state to ensure individual opportunity, and the vital role of a social group apart from government and business — the voluntary sector — “to do those things that neither the market nor the state can do.”
Blair praised Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), for how it “enlarges and enriches” the idea of community and puts “God’s truth at the center of it.” He stressed faith and reason are in alliance, not in opposition, and he lauded the role of faith communities in bringing about peace.
“Too often religion is seen as a source of conflict and division. Show instead how faith is standing up for justice, for solidarity across peoples and nations, and how it’s doing so with those of other faiths we show the true face of God’s love, mercy and compassion,” he said to loud applause.
Asked at the end of his speech why he decided to join the Church, he said: “Frankly this began with my wife. I began to go to Mass, and we worshipped together. We could have worshipped in a Catholic or Anglican Church — guess who won? But as time went on, and I’d been going to Mass for a long time, it’s been difficult to put into words, but I felt there was something about the Church — not just the doctrine and teaching of the Church — but the universal nature of the Church.”
The crowd frequently applauded, and he received two standing ovations. “It was one of the greatest meetings of the last 30 years,” said the event’s host, Giorgio Vittadini, one that “will go down in the meeting’s history.” An Italian volunteer told me the next day: “Usually I don’t expect a politician to be humble, but he was — he gave a great speech, and funny too.”
But his words, and his reply to questions afterwards, never referred to any life issue, most significantly legalized abortion, embryonic research, and same-sex unions — all policies he supported as prime minister. It’s also not clear whether or not he accepts the Church’s teaching on these issues, as he has yet to publicly repudiate his previous support for them.
The point was put into characteristic clarity by Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, also a speaker at the Rimini Meeting this year, but who did not attend Blair’s speech.
“Let me speak plainly,” George told the Register afterwards. “The policies enacted by Tony Blair pertaining to the right of every human being to the protections of the law were reprehensible. It is shocking that Tony Blair did not renounce these policies and express regret for them before being publicly received into the Catholic Church. It is even more shocking that he has, since being received into the Church, given every indication that he continues to support policies that result in the destruction of innocent human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages of development in vast numbers.”
George added, “I’m a bit surprised to hear that Tony Blair received such a warm reception at this meeting. I can only infer that most of the people in the audience must have supposed that he had renounced these policies when he, in his ceremony of being received into full communion with the Catholic Church, stated that he believed everything that the Catholic Church taught and believed.”
A member of Communion and Liberation, a movement well known for its loyalty to the Church and its faithfulness to Church teaching, said Blair was given such a hearty welcome because its members wanted to congratulate him on his decision to join the Church.
Blair was received into the Church in 2007.