10 October 2023, The Tablet

Catholic Church ‘should not be afraid of change’ says Cherie Blair

Catholic Church ‘should not be afraid of change’ says Cherie Blair

Cherie Blair, wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, pictured here arriving at the Garter Ceremony at Windsor Castle earlier this year.
Maureen McLean/Alamy

Barrister and campaigner for women’s rights, Cherie Blair, has called on the Church to be more understanding of the needs of families and to have an open debate on birth control.

In an address to the Catholic lay-led synodal assembly organised by the international reform network, Spirit Unbounded, she welcomed the Synod on Synodality “as part of Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the Church”.

Talking about her personal faith, Cherie Blair said her first experience of the Church came through women, her grandmother and the nuns at Seafield Convent School in Crosby, Liverpool, who she said were “instrumental in my academic success and my career in the law”.

“At one time the majority of catholic girls in Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe were educated by nuns. Today, nuns continue to shape the lives of women in education, in medicine and especially in maternal health in many low- and middle-income countries.”

However, she said the Church’s track record on women is “at best mixed”.

While women are increasingly involved in theology, aid agencies and more recently in some roles in the Vatican itself, yet “there remains a strong sense that the Church does not do enough for women” and that “its structures, its teaching on matters such as birth control and its priorities do not always serve women well”.

Drawing on the working documents of the synod released in 2022 she said the consultations held in preparation for it had shown that, “There is almost unanimous affirmation that women love the Church deeply but many feel sadness because their lives are often not well understood, and their contributions and charisms not always valued.” She added, “I agree.”

Emphasising that the Church needs to change and should not be afraid of change, Cherie Blair said the synod showed how much can be done where there is a will and “that includes listening to women’s voices” and understanding the social and cultural context in which we all live.

Speaking about the contribution of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, she said globally women entrepreneurs are leading the charge in terms of innovation, community support, economic growth and leadership.

“We need to harness and replicate that story in our quest to reinvigorate the Church.”

She added that the Church is well placed to participate in the cultural shift towards true equality of opportunity. “If it makes it much more apparent that it is on the side of women and that the dignity of women is of vital importance as a deeply moral issue, then it will have profound consequences for all women, both within and without the Church.”

She said it would be good to see the Church do more to support the education of girls at a time when in some parts of the world it is being restricted.

Urging the Church to be more supportive of parents, she noted that the Church “has seemed to idealise motherhood”, and added, “But we need to hear more in support of fatherhood too. A really involved fatherhood that means men take their responsibility too for childcare and everything that involves bringing up the next generation.

“And perhaps the church might be more understanding of the needs of families including mothers when it comes to talking about birth control. A debate about these issues has been needed for a long time and I hope and pray that together we can finally, not only have that debate, but also see it transformed into action.”

Another speaker on Sunday was Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, who prayed that the voices of the 300 people who took part in eight listening sessions offered by her organisation over 2021-22 would be heard at the Synod on Synodality.

“The synod calls us to be creative, bold and loving in response to the Holy Spirit, just as the gospel does. Our participants spoken with the courage and parrhesia this moment demands. We pray that the voices of these women and those of the marginalised will carry through to the synod – will carry weight, hope and carry the Church to a new day.”

She underlined that the synodal dialogue would be “painfully incomplete if it does not address the widespread calls to open all ordained ministries to women” and added that the synod must listen to and “walk with those women called to priesthood for whom the time is now”.

Nate Tinner-Williams, president and editor of Black Catholic Messenger in the US, described America as “a land of fading human rights and massively inhuman wrongs”.

He regretted that “the era of Catholic Social Teaching has somehow now faded into an era of Catholic social bleaching where the world and the Church is to be made more holy by being made more white.”

He said he often had to “reprove my own church” in his witing and actions and “turn away from my Church just to get a glimpse of my own God, the suffering brown migrant, Jesus Christ.”

Nate Tinner-Williams sent a warning to the US bishops stating, “We cannot remain in the place that we are, or we will perish.”

Another speaker, Ugandan LGBT activist, who spoke under the pseudonym “Biggie” to protect her, appealed to Pope Francis to intervene with the President of Uganda to have the draconian anti homosexuality bill overturned.

“The majority of the LGBT community are living in fear,” she said. “Most of our (LGBT) community members lack food, and there are issues around medication,” as well as “a very big number of evictions because the bill states that a landlord who harbours a homosexual or an organisation working with homosexuals will be jailed. Twenty years in jail - so landlords are scared of renting their houses to LGBT persons.”

She said people are going through conversion therapy as their parents want “to make them straight so that they are not attacked”.

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