BOOKS:Holy writ on the poverty line

THE MISSIONARY POSITION: The Ideology of Mother Teresa by Christopher Hitchens, Verso pounds 7.95
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The Independent Culture
SAINTS, as devotees of the Independent on Sunday's weekly lives will recognise, are not easy. People of invincible conviction and uplifting purpose are rarely entirely attractive, particularly as handed down by the sort of hagiographers whose literally faithful accounts have given hagiography a whole new usage.

Take away the faith, and what it left is usually unbelievable and often selfish, the pursuit of personal spiritual ambition as prime motivator. Thus the eager embrace of martyrdom; and, just as frequently, the suffering of others seen as a sanctity-opportunity or useful illustration of a higher message.

This last is the burden of Christopher Hitchens's attack on Mother Teresa, the world's most famous holy woman. Not yet canonised because not yet dead, true: but you don't have to be a praying man to recognise the inevitability of the elevation. The media, with the blessing of the Catholic Church, has ordained it so; the sainthood of this small Albanian is merely embargoed.

Hitchens is quite clearly not a praying man. His view of Mother Teresa, as expounded by a television film last year and continued here, is unbothered by "awe and reverence". "It still seems astonishing to me," he writes, "that nobody had ever before decided to look at the saint of Calcutta as if, possibly, the supernatural had nothing to do with it." He is the first, he thinks, to approach the Teresan phenomenon using nothing but "the poor candle of reason".

What he sees pleases not. He finds her too tolerant of poverty and suffering, quoting her as saying, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot ... I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people". She ensures the continuation of poverty, he argues, by urging unceasingly her message that contraception and abortion are evil. She has received any amount in donations but has built no first- class clinics or hospitals. In Calcutta, there is neglect of pain; in San Francisco, homeless Aids sufferers are not allowed to drink or to watch television.

All of which looks bad in the poor candlelight of reason. By it, too, Hitchens can see clearly that what Mother Teresa is up to is "not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection". Well, quite, and doubtless Mother Teresa would agree, for the cult is called Christianity.

There you have Hitchens's problem. Mother Teresa is almost certainly a lousy nurse with obstinate and irrational views which seem downright antithetical to good social work practice. She is certainly an enthusiastic traveller who has been seen with some prettty dodgy fellows, from Mengistu to Duvalier to Captain Bob. She has also certainly been given a lot of money but doesn't seem to have spent much of it.

But these points are not worth the candle. To consider Mother Teresa without considering the supernatural, religious element that is part of her is pointless. You can take the Mother out of Religion, but you can't take the Religion out of the Mother. Believers believe in her unquestioningly because they believe. For unbelievers, she is an old-time figure who provides an agreeable nostalgia for the old certainties and simplicities. And that is as far as it goes. That is her role: token saint, shorthand for every comic and commentator. None of the unbelievers has the slightest intention of listening to a word she says or sparing the time to pay attention to the company she keeps. That is not what she is for.

Hitchens is too clever not to know this. He must know, too, that it would take a miracle to change it. She would have to be found with her fingers in the till or in a clinch with, say, the auxiliary sub-bishop of Buenos Aires. But he is still drawn into jumping up and down ever more wildly, pitching up with a vision of Albanian hordes sweeping the Balkans in pursuit of a Greater Albania under her approving, crusading banner. His attempt to get her to the till by recounting her failure to repay the money given to her by the American Savings & Loan fraudster Charles Keating is fascinating; but the fact that she herself has medical treatment in expensive hospitals and no one seems to care shows how hopeless his task is.

So, in frustration, he is left accusing her of inverted ostentation for going to the Vatican by bus; and of arrogance, for saying that she forgave him for making his television programme. Christopher, no one wants to know. The Mother remains inviolate.