A Faith That Can Move Mountains; AS BLAIR MOVES CLOSER TO CATHOLICISM, HOW THE POWER OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF CAN CHANGE POLITICS

Article excerpt

Byline: PAUL JOHNSON

T HE prospect that Tony Blair may become a Catholic fills some people with disquiet because of the constitutional problems which might arise. It fills me with joy because of the strength that I know, from experience, the gift of faith brings to those with difficult work to do.

Faith is, indeed, a gift. It is something extra, something added to the intellectual muscles and the emotional sinews of the personality.

It invests a life which may have been bustling and energetic, but ultimately aimless, with a new purpose, added determination and courage, and - not least - inner serenity.

You can pray for faith but you cannot demand it.

It is not there for the asking or, indeed, for the arguing. Some are born with it and keep it all their lives. They are the truly lucky ones who never experience doubt and the dismay it brings.

Others have faith, then lose it: a fate which would fill me with terror.

There are some - not many I think - who never have faith and who pass through life thinking they do not need it, that there is nothing beyond our narrow existence, and that death means annihilation. They miss completely what the poet Francis Thompson called 'the many-splendoured thing'.

Then there are those upon whom suddenly, after years of uncertainty and questioning, faith descends, like a blessing. One minute they are unsure. The next, a huge almost physical certitude possesses them, as though they had rushed into outstretched arms that enfold them. That, I imagine, is what may now be happening to our Prime Minister.

Many have written about this gift of faith. But even those with the pens of genius find it difficult to describe the coming of certitude. G. K.

Chesterton compared it to the distant ringing of church bells suddenly entering his brain.

Emotions Cardinal Newman described lucidly the process leading up to his conversion, but the essence of the final assent eluded him. It was too precious, beyond words.

St Paul, the most gifted writer on religion who ever lived, used the metaphor of blindness.

When he turned from persecuting Christ to believing in him, the moment of illumination was so overwhelming that he was stunned, sightless. It took him days to recover.

The coming of faith is a powerful, unforgettable event whatever the particular creed that enshrines it. Different temperaments require different degrees of austerity or richness. So Christianity and the Judaism from which it sprang are both, as they have evolved, broad churches which can accommodate all.

But many forms of Protestantism are minimalist.

Catholicism is maximalist. As Dr Johnson, himself a staunch Anglican, observed, Catholicism has all the rites and practices of the other Christian branches, plus many in addition.

It plays on the entire range of the religious emotions, and it has a certitude and clarity of definition that many other churches forgo or lack.

These, I imagine, are the qualities which draw Blair to Rome.

There was a time when 'Rome' signified trouble in British politics. Now it has no more real significance than the Guy burned every November 5.

Less than 40 years ago, the American conventional wisdom had it that no Catholic could ever be elected President.

Kennedy was. It made no difference. The subsequent verdict was that what was wrong with Jack Kennedy was not too much religion but too little.

As a Catholic myself, I was an object of suspicion when I was appointed editor of the New Statesman in 1964. Agnostic beards wagged and one of the directors, Leonard Woolf, the last sage of Bloomsbury, resigned in protest. …