A Dissenter Speaks After Meeting Pope Benedict

Cherie Blair is known as a dissenter.

Britain’s first lady, who is herself a human rights lawyer, has views of the Catholic faith — even on matters of life and death such as abortion — that are profoundly at odds with the Church. But she recently has shown a softening to Catholic belief on matters like women’s ordination and the magisterium.

After her recent visit to the Vatican, she told Register Correspondent Edward Pentin a little of what’s going on.

A few years ago, you suggested that the Vatican change its approach to women. Did that form part of your meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on April 28? Do you still feel the same way?

That was said in the context of wider remarks. If I recall correctly, I said that I was not a theologian and as such did not have a theologically considered view on the question of the ordination of women — ultimately that is a matter for the Holy Father and the magisterium rather than the faithful to decide. However, I did say that I thought that more could be done to give women positions of power and influence in the Church. For example, I recall meeting some women who were chancellors of dioceses or served as judges on canon law courts. So in answer to your question — I think there is movement — positive movement and women are increasingly found in a cross section of posts in the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI recently completed one year as Pope. How do you feel about his pontificate so far? What would you like to see him do/change in the future?

The Holy Father has one of the most challenging tasks in the modern world.

He is a courageous leader who thinks deeply and teaches and writes with great authority. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), is marvelous and has quite rightly been very widely praised. I was delighted and moved that he chose to begin his teaching apostolate with a consideration of the nature and importance of God’s gift of love.

As for what I would or would not like to see him do or change — for me the papacy is not like that. The Pope is not a politician with a manifesto. The Pope, we Catholics believe, is chosen in and through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. The nature of leadership in the Church is quite different from that found in other walks of life. It is not a question of what I or any other Catholic might like or dislike about a particular pastor. It is the office which is important — in this instance the papacy.

Pope Benedict is following in the footsteps of what was a lengthy papacy. I think that Pope Benedict is already making his mark in very subtle ways. I have no doubt that he, too, will have a unique contribution to make to the life of our Church and world.


Do you plan on taking an even more active role in the Church in the future?

Yes, I would like to but it isn’t always easy to balance competing demands. My faith is certainly very important to me.

My politics and feminism come out of my faith. When I look back, it is faith that has formed me more than anything else. I would not be the person I am without it. So in answer to your question, I intend to keep on trying — there is always more that any of us can do to better live out our faith and provide a witness. With God’s grace I’ll try to do more.

You are in Rome to give an address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on the subject of children in need. Why is this area of interest to you and what are your greatest concerns?

I think it is a fascinating theme for the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. In my speech I chose to address it from three perspectives — first and mainly from what I have gleaned from 22 years of motherhood; second from my professional stance as a human rights lawyer and, third, what it means to me from a standpoint of faith.

In terms of my concerns, I think it is how best to articulate the communion of care and love between our youth and ourselves; how better to live it out in the world and in our Church; and how to negotiate some of the major challenges and threats that we face together, young and not so young.

The title of the plenary meeting mentions “vanishing youth,” but in many cultures — especially in the West — it is us, the adult population who are vanishing into full-time, all consuming jobs and selfish pursuits of limited value to us or our children; in other words into our egos. Yes, our children are in danger of following our footsteps into increasingly meaningless preoccupations. But we should blame ourselves, not them. And reform must begin here with us, not there with them. We need to rediscover the calling of parenthood, of responsible adulthood, of the caring and nurturing, of time “spent with,” which is the bedrock of every life-giving community, both sacred and secular, beginning with the family.

Our young people will be faced with even more challenging moral issues around the meaning of life, of death and of the preservation, not just of health but even youth and cosmetic appearance than faced us when we were young. And I am not sure we can put our hands on our hearts and say, collectively, that we have helped them a great deal in even beginning to resolve such dilemmas now and in the future. I speak with some passion and a deepening sense of concern, not only as a Catholic and a mother of four children but also as a human rights lawyer grappling with the complexities of a morally conflicted and increasingly secular world.

How can the Vatican and the wider Church improve its care of poor children?

I think few bodies do as much for the care of the poor or the young as the Church. Some 52 million children are in Catholic schools each year — nearly 12 million of those in Africa. The best means to eradicate poverty is to give a child an education. Rather than put the onus on the Vatican or the Church — in its institutional form — I think the onus should be put back on us, the People of God. The question should be: What can we do to improve our care of poor children?

In today’s globalized world, I think the answer rests in a globalization of values, a growing sense of solidarity with the other, with the stranger. Is this a new challenge? No it isn’t. Any social history of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions will talk about the tremendous upheaval and social turbulence of the time. The Industrial Revolution heralded a way of life that led to the creation of national consciousness and asked society to think beyond family and village life — to extend compassion.

Eighteenth-century citizens had to think nationally — to find solidarity with the stranger not just those known to them. The idea of kinship once so intimate was stretched from the immediately familiar and given a new expanse. Today, globalization asks for the same shift of perceptions. The dynamic is similar, but the scale is different, but perhaps no different to the scale which our forefathers had to embrace moving from village to national consciousness.

There is a continuum at work here, from family to village to town to nation to world. That challenge to think globally, while an emerging reality for us, is real for our children. In summary, I think the Vatican and the Church are leading the way in a whole range of issues from trade justice to climate change, which is doing much to enhance our human consciousness.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.