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No sects, please, we're British

The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens, Verso, pounds 7.95 A Simple Path by Mother Teresa, Rider, pounds 7.99 Christopher Hitchens attacks Mother Teresa; Mother Teresa defends herself; Robert Winder referees
There isn't much doubt that Mother Teresa is an icon. An Albanian nun who has taken the biblical injunction to love thy neighbour more seriously than most of us could bear, she has devoted her long life and great energy to the plight of the poor. In so doing she has become one of the reference points for moral debate in the west - Florence Nightingale meets St Francis of Assisi.

But where there are icons, there shall iconoclasm be also. Christopher Hitchens's new book is a sharp attack on her sainted status. He pores over pictures of Mother Teresa embracing the Duvaliers, accepting money from crooks such as Charles Keating, and praising Ronald Reagan's unhappy policy towards Ethiopia. He sees her not as a holy example of pure love in action, but as the head of a Catholic multinational, a zealot revelling in the misery of the have-nots.

Not everyone will agree with this uncharitable interpretation. Indeed, there might seem to be worthier targets for Hitchens's impressive scorn. Maybe it is a sign of the curious bind secular humanism finds itself in when it comes to do-gooders. To be sure, charity can have a Marie Antoinette- ish streak; it can seem merely a balm on the conscience of the rich - grease on the wheels of the machine that produces such destitution in the first place. And there is in Mother Teresa's own book plenty of evidence to favour Hitchens's thesis. The book has been "compiled" with her approval, and at times sounds suspiciously like an annual report("We are now in over I00 countries). Mostly, though, it reads like a self-help manual: the six essential steps to inner peace. Of course, it is a book about loving God - not a subject on which criticism can say much: it is a matter of faith. But it is noticeably a book about how virtuous it is to do good, not how useful. The emphasis is on the salvation of one's own soul; the "wretched of the earth", whose voices are not included, are merely the raw material for the spiritual exercises of their superiors. "The poorest of the poor," we learn, "are the means of expressing our love for God." Poverty is "a wonderful gift because it gives us freedom". And suffering is devoutly to be desired because it brings us closer to God - "without our suffering," she said once, "our work would be just social work".

These are awkward prescriptions, hard for a liberal, especially a fun- loving one like Hitchens, to swallow. Our suffering. Poverty undertaken freely is one thing - vibrant with the ascetic thrill of renunciation. But the grinding, choiceless poverty of Mother Teresa's "poorest of the poor" is of a very different kind, Non-believers will struggle to accept that the poor were put here for a purpose, and that this purpose is to help the faithful to win lottery tickets to heaven.

Mother Teresa seems to wish not so much to relieve suffering as to relive it, to echo the torments of Christ. She takes the view that the poor will always be with us - indeed that they exist to test our love. This is presented as a humble indifference to worldly matters; she is resolutely not "political", But an indifference (or hostlility) to change is itself, as Hitchens shows, an extreme political position. In his eyes, her campaign against contraception and abortion is really a way to keep the world full of miserable children, so that she can look after them.

It's quite bitter stuff. But in the end the intriguing thing about Hitchens's polemic is its slight sense of conservativism. What he really dislikes, you feel, is the evangelising cultish feeling - no sects, please, we're British. His true opponent, perhaps, is not Mother Teresa herself. He does not seriously claim that she is manipulative or hypocritical: there is no suggestion that she uses her impressive fund-raising powers to run a four-Mercedes lifestyle on the quiet.

His real target, one feels, should be the unquestioning, sentimental imagery with which the West is so happy to drape her. And this is not really her fault. It takes some sophistry to blame someone who does so much for not doing more, or for having one eye on heaven while she does it. On the level of ideas, her fundamentalism might well seem to require opposition, but her work is not just about ideas: it bears tangible fruit. Hitchens might well wish that her assistance came without strings - no prayers with the soup - but the prayers perhaps remain, in the absence of a more equal system in the world, a modest price to pay. While the war of ideas rages, people starve. While we wait for the world to change, someone has to man the bilges. And if it turns out to be someone whose ideas we don't much care for, well, tough. It is one thing to criticise Mother Teresa for her motives, quite another to criticise her work. Perhaps this is why Hitchens doesn't even attempt to. After all, missionaries have a duty to be messianic.