The news has hit the headlines of pretty much every British newspaper this morning: Mother Teresa has officially been made a saint. Following two successive confirmed miracles (don’t get me started), she is today being officially recognised.
With everything that’s happening in the world, why is this particular person getting so much posthumous airtime? The Catholic Church, after all, doesn’t enjoy the same access to our political system as the Church of England, so what’s the relevance here? Well, it’s quite simple really – Mother Teresa was a celebrity, with a very well-managed brand.
Ask most people what they think about Mother Teresa and they’ll say something vague about what a “good person” she was, how benevolent, self-sacrificing and generally lovely. I have absolute sympathy with this stance; that’s been the pretty consistent thread throughout the news coverage of her, both in life and after death.
I’m not going to go down the well-trodden route of criticising a person that Christopher Hitchens (who played the role of devil’s advocate in the discussions surrounding her canonisation) once famously dubbed “a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf” – that’s been done before, and by people with gifts of expression far superior to my own.
Much of the criticism levelled at Mother Teresa centres around the way she promoted views of the Catholic Church that many would see as dogmatic. Take her stance on contraception: “In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self. This turns the attention to self and so destroys the gift of love in him or her.”
Abortion? She didn’t hold back with that either: “I always say one thing: If a mother can kill her own child, then what is left of the West to be destroyed? It is difficult to explain, but it is just that.”
Perhaps not the most enlightened of views, to put it lightly (and somewhat ironically). The Roman Catholic Church, however, famously has no qualms with either of them, so it’s not surprising that they work in her favour. She wasn’t perhaps quite as vitriolic in her criticism of gay people as they might have liked, but I suppose nobody’s perfect. She in fact famously once stopped an interview when the interviewer used the word “homosexuals”, saying that they should be referred to as “friends of Jesus”. Cute.
I submit however that the reason she is being acknowledged by the Vatican in this ostentatious and rather costly fashion is much more to do with the fact that she represents the greatest PR victory of the Church in the past hundred years. A suitably charismatic appearance, a penchant for photo opportunities with Princess Diana (an incredibly successful and symbiotic brand collaboration if ever there was one), and a global fundraising brand (Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity has raised and deployed billions of dollars across the world) – this, all this combined with the public’s belief that Mother, or Saint, Teresa preached a deliciously palatable message of peace and love which bordered on the hippie. I’m not sure when the Roman Catholic Church last had an advocate who enjoyed her level of profile, at least not in a positive sense. I’m fairly sure that most members of the public would much more readily recognise an image of her than any of the last few Popes.
Perhaps even devout secularists such as I shouldn’t be too surprised that Mother Teresa is now being made a saint – the Church, in “honouring” her in this way, is ensuring the longevity of a brand that continues not only to raise the profile of their mission and messages, but surely raises considerable capital into the bargain. The question is: was a woman who preached virtue in suffering rather than trying to alleviate it and took money from dictators really that saintly at all?
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