The Pope rushes in where saints fear to tread

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The Independent Online
There is nothing apolitical about a canonisation. You might have died as close to heaven as it is possible to get, but you won't be made a saint unless powerful interests adopt you and put some money behind you. Even that will not be enough. You have to fit the current Pope's idea of what a perfect Christian is, and be someone whose life carries a message the Pope strongly believes in.

He is elderly, he is pious, he is Polish, and he tends to think the modern world is riding to hell on a condom. So Mother Teresa suits him perfectly. She thought much the same, and famously said so in her acceptance speech for the Nobel peace prize. That is no doubt why he has waived the rule that prevents candidates for sainthood being considered within five years of their death.

Even that interval is a lot shorter than it used to be. Joan of Arc had to wait nearly 500 years, Sir Thomas More 400. Teresa died only two years ago, but already miraculous cures are being reported in her name. No one seriously doubts that she will be proclaimed a saint sooner rather than later, perhaps as the Pope's millennial treat for the faithful.

Last week the Catholic Archbishop of Calcutta, Archbishop Henry D'Souza, initiated the process of investigation without which even the Pope's favourite person in the world would not make it to the next stage. The archbishop swore in a commission which will eventually call more than a hundred witnesses. New sub-commissions will be created elsewhere in the world to interview witnesses on behalf of the main commission.

Members are said to be willing to face up to the criticisms of Teresa's life as well as to hear from those who want only to sing her praises. The office of "devil's advocate" - a man appointed to root out all the faults he can find - no longer exists as such, but the commission's staff are sworn to impartiality. They will consider, for instance, the charge that Mother Teresa seemed willing to ally herself to any crook or tyrant who would give her money, such as the deeply unpleasant "Papa Doc" Duvalier and Robert on-the-make Maxwell. They will also no doubt take into account her standard and not entirely ridiculous reply to such critics - that the moral value of a gift is determined not by who gave it but by what it was spent on (though then there is a further question about what she did with all the money).

All of this slightly misses the point, however. The Catholic Church has been going through a period of great upheaval over the past 40 years. At the present state of play, the ancien regime remains in charge but new ideas still come creeping in regardless. It is possible to see here a parallel with Old Labour and New Labour: an Old Church and a New Church, coexisting uneasily. The Pope is Old Church and then some; the late Cardinal Hume would fit somewhere between the two, as a kind of John Smith figure.

His Holiness has been using canonisations as a way of signalling his feelings on these matters. Almost all the 280-odd saints he has declared since his election in 1978 correspond to a conservative type of Catholicism, which is not solely due to the fact they mostly come from bygone periods. There are all sorts of plausible candidates from the past whose canonisation would send a different and more modern signal - the great Pope John XXIII, for example, or the eminent Victorian Englishman John Henry Newman (still something of a hero to Catholic liberals), or even Oscar Romero, the archbishop gunned down while saying Mass because - there is little doubt - the right- wing regime in El Salvador did not like his courageous campaign against its human rights abuses.

It was very wise of the Catholic Church in the old days to insist on a long interval between death and sainthood. It left time for popular feeling to settle, for myths to lift a person's memory to the heights or for one-day heroes to be forgotten the next. It helped to keep the saint-making process clear of the fashions of the time, it avoided the sort of subtle spiritual corruption which is worse than the material kind, and it blunted the efforts of those who wanted to use a canonisation for ulterior purposes. There are plenty of those around, such as the ever- expanding right-wing Catholic organisation Opus Dei which has pushed hard for its hubristic founder Escrivar to be canonised in order to show to the world that God Himself supports Opus Dei.

Mother Teresa was that sort of Catholic too, definitely Old Church. The style of her piety was almost 19th century. The nuns in the order she founded were not the self-confident young women one sees in many contemporary religious orders, but the docile self-effacing "church mice" of The Nun's Story days. Though Mother Teresa prayed for the dying whom she took into her shelters, the medical attention she gave them left a good deal to be desired. Some who saw her at work were intensely moved, even letting the experience alter their lives. Some came away wondering whether Mother Teresa wasn't just a little bit too much in love with the suffering of the poor, for their, or her, own good.

This is where Old Church confronts New Church - a battle that will not really be decided until the next papal election, or even the one after that. And the issue of sanctity is, quite rightly, at the very heart of the matter. Is holiness a purely other-worldly quality? Or has it got something to do with justice in this life - not just with how we treat other people individually, but whether we exploit them economically, denying them their rights, turning our backs on causes and only treating symptoms, ignoring what the Pope himself has called the "structures of sin" in society (by which he appeared to mean not just state communism but also the global domination of American-style free-market capitalism). If justice is part of the definition - and those who say it does can cite the Old Testament prophets - then Mother Teresa, remarkable though she was, might not be judged such a just woman after all. In the theology of the New Church, not being just means not being holy, not being holy means not being a saint. Even if she is a Hollywood producer's (or a Polish Pope's) perfect idea of one.