Mother Teresa canonisation: playing devil’s advocate

In the waning years of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church was in the midst of a crisis that one could describe as existential. Even leaving aside its association with some of the vilest dictatorships that this century produced, or their then-unrecanted denunciations of human-kind’s greatest scientific accomplishments, or the scandalous way in which excuses were made for the behaviour of child rapists, the fact would still remain that  secularism had for centuries been steadily chipping away at their moral reputation. Certainly, it would be wrong to suggest that the Catholic Church was at any point at risk of slipping into obscurity, but to say that their prestige had taken some knocks would be an understatement.

With this in mind, one can hardly blame the then-Pope John Paul II for canonising more saints than any of his predecessors, one of whom was, of course, AnjezÎ Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, known to the world as Mother Teresa. To casual observers, this was perhaps an obvious choice. Who better to serve as a figurehead of the Church than a holy woman whose decades of work with the poor is known to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and whose alias was rapidly becoming shorthand for a person of impeccable morals and selfless devotion to the wretched? So eager was the Vatican to enrol Teresa of Calcutta into their bloated roster of saints that they fast-tracked the beatification process, ignoring the ancient stipulation that any potential saint should have been dead at least five years before the wheels could be set in motion. This cooling-off period was enforced to guard against unworthy characters being carried to sainthood on a wave of popular enthusiasm, and so the looming question was, and remains, whether or not the Catholic establishment had in this instance fallen into such a trap.

Without wishing to dig too deeply, one precondition for canonisation Catholic officials could not ignore is that any candidate must claim at least one documented, indisputable miracle. In Teresa’s case, the alleged suspension of nature’s order was the disappearance of a tumour afflicting a devoutly Catholic Indian woman named Monica Besra, who claimed that the miracle occurred when she applied a locket containing Teresa’s picture to the stricken area. Miraculous indeed, until one investigates further and discovers that a great deal of doubt is heaped onto the story by the testimony of Dr Ranjan Mustafi, the physician responsible for her care, who maintains that the ëtumourí was in fact a cyst brought on by tuberculosis, and that Besra’s recovery came about only after she had undergone several months of treatment. One should also note that Besra’s medical records were almost immediately confiscated by the Missionaries of Charity, Teresa’s own order, and that several officials at the hospital in which Besra was tended to have since spoken of the pressure applied by Catholic churchmen to play along with their narrative.

Teresa’s miracle then, is dubious to say the least. But what of her oft-touted missionary work? Surely a lifetime of far-reaching charitable endeavours should be a sufficient qualification for sainthood? Perhaps. But I for one would not describe her missionary work as particularly charitable. As the late Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor, but of poverty; anybody who believes it was her goal to eradicate hardship is badly mistaken. In her own words, she held that it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, and that the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people, and accordingly, the hospices ran by her order provided medical care that was sub-par at best and dangerously haphazard at worst.

The missionary multinational Teresa headed chose quantity over quality, opting to spend money establishing hundreds of centres worldwide at the expense of the treatment provided. Sisters allegedly reused syringes sterilised only by cold water, never regarded pain management as a priority and dispensed diagnoses with an alarming degree of imprecision, all while ministering incessantly to those in their care. And this was hardly the Sermon on the Mount.

The line taken by Teresa’s missionaries was a rigidly dogmatic, fundamentalist reading of Catholicism, which considered, for example, contraception and abortion the greatest threats to world peace, and overstepped the Vatican’s position on a number of issues. One would hope that the recklessness of spreading such ideas in the poorest corners of the globe would be plain for all to see, but for clarity, we are dealing with a woman who used her considerable influence to staunchly oppose the one known cure for poverty – the empowerment of women. The continuous cycle of pregnancy and childbirth in which deprived women the world over find themselves trapped was not just acceptable to Teresa’s organisation, it was desirable.

The views and opinions outlined in this piece belong entirely to the author, and are not reflective of the views of the wider Editorial team, nor Concrete as a whole.


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Charlie Dwyer

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September 2021
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