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Mother Teresa: A Challenge to the Consensus

I have little doubt you will have heard of Anjezë Bojaxhiu, but am equally sure the name won’t be ringing any bells with you. That’s because to most us, she is Mother Teresa or perhaps, if one is so inclined, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. And from the September of this year we will have another name for her- St Teresa. In a move that can hardly be called unexpected, the Vatican has recognized a second miracle in connection with Mother Teresa, enabling her to continue along the last stages of the canonization process. To many of us this might seem like an interesting anachronism- an out-dated process being performed by an out-dated organization that has no real relevance to our modern, secular society. And in some ways, we’d be correct. But I dare to suggest the canonization of Mother Teresa is, or at least could be, more than that. It is a reminder that our world is not the world, and that there exists organizations and systems that may seem totally alien to us, yet are totally natural to others. Moreover, it reminds us that the lives we live now- and the make-up of our modern society- are not in some way ‘inevitable’ or the ‘only option’ but the result of choices, both past and present, choices that could be, and should be, if not contested, then at least examined.

However, given the dismal state of religious education in this country, perhaps it would be best to first provide some background to both what a Saint is, and why the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) believes Mother Teresa is one. Unfortunately, as with so much to do with the RCC, the matter is complicated- sainthood can be viewed in a multiplicity of ways. For our purposes a distinction exists between a saint and a Saint (capitalization is key). The latter is a person for whom the RCC believes it can state with confidence that they are in Heaven. It believes it can identify a Saint (the ‘creation’ of a state strictly belongs to God) through the attribution of miracles to said Saint. The theology is, of course, more complicated than that, but for our purposes it will suffice. In the case of Mother Teresa, the RCC believes it has evidence of two such miracles, which is the necessary criteria for Sainthood.

At the same time, there is an informal process going on. To be a saint (with a small ‘s’) in the wider Christian Community normally means that the person in question has been in some way an exemplar of holiness- they have in their lives been some sort of witness to God’s goodness. This is where much of the controversy lies. Those supportive of the RCC’s plans for canonization point to the charitable work performed and co-ordinated by Mother Teresa in her role as the founder and Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity. Those more critical of Mother Teresa (spearheaded by the late Christopher Hitchens) have pointed to many more problematic areas of her work. Although this is not the place for such a discussion, I point interested readers to Hitchen’s essay The Missionary Position (1995) as perhaps the most sustained attack upon her contribution- they are criticisms that merit consideration, and certainly from a secular perspective seem very damning.

However, the holiness or not of Mother Teresa is not the topic of this discussion. Rather, regardless of the conclusion one draws about whether or not Mother Teresa is a saint (or a Saint, for that matter), the very fact that such a discussion is taking place should give us pause. Talk of saints, holiness, miracles and the like are far from common in the day-to-day discussion of our lives- to say of someone that they were a ‘real exemplar of the grace of God’ would at best raise an eyebrow or two, and likely earn a snort of derision. And yet, there are large numbers of intelligent, educated people across the world who would describe Mother Teresa in such terms. Moreover, the whole process of recognition of sainthood- with its assumption of Divine agency, the dogmatic authority of the RCC and the intercession of saints- is, if not directly opposed, not easily reconciled with the how many people today view the world. One possible response to this tension is to deny any validity to the entire concept of sainthood and to ignore the RCC as an anachronism. However, I would contend that to do so would be a mistake. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, I think recognition of the different approach- to ethics, value-systems, institutional authority- the RCC represents (and it is by no means alone amongst religious institutions in not being entirely ‘in-step’ with secular society) should force us to consider that secular society is not the ‘default state’ or an inevitability. Rather it is a result of choices- decisions made in how we educate people, how we invest authority, how we allocate resources. By no means am I suggesting that the RCC represents an ideal alternative to modern society, but that the very existence of the RCC and its activity in canonizing Mother Teresa is a challenge to the narrative that ‘there is no alternative’. And in the spirit of soon-to-be-Saint Teresa, if the Church cannot do something as grand as change the narrative, it should be enough to at least challenge it.

Jack Slater

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