Politics & Policy

Mother Teresa: A Sign of the Church

A nun of the Missionaries of Charity holds a prayer card depicting Mother Teresa. (Reuters photo: Gary Cameron)
Behold, I tell you a mystery.

On Sunday, Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. This is to some extent pro forma, but the Catholic Church has long been big on forma, for good reasons.

There may be much rejoicing in Heaven; on Earth, there will be stupidity.

The Catholic Church, and the principal figures in it, have a great talent for inspiring strong opinions, and the strength of those opinions is, generally speaking, converse to the knowledge that the person communicating them has about the Church and its teachings. Ignorant or otherwise, the intensity of global public interest in all things Catholic seems to me significant in and of itself. The people of the world do not gather around their television screens and Twitter feeds when (with apologies to my former church) the Methodists make a change in their institutional leadership. Very few people outside of those who exist in the imagination of Garrison Keillor are much bothered about the Lutheran view of this or that. The Church of England and its ongoing convulsions regarding homosexuality? That is of interest to a handful of oddball American Anglophiles and a couple of million Africans who are probably going to end up Roman Catholics. Pardon me if I sound like an ultramontane chauvinist, but those are the facts.

What the world seems to intuit about the Catholic Church — what I intuited about it long before I became a member of it — is that there is something serious going on in it. Something true or something false, but something serious.

Set aside, for the moment, the metaphysical claims of the Church — God, Jesus, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment — put all of that in a box and close the box for a moment. Consider only the curious case of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, an obscure Albanian girl of no particular importance or distinction who will figure very prominently in the weekend’s news, and whose face constitutes a kind of worldwide cultural shorthand for goodness of a particular kind, consisting of dedication to the poor, the sick, the friendless, and the abandoned. What moves a young girl from Skopje to Calcutta, from a perfectly comfortable life to complete submersion in misery? Mother Teresa set out to find the ugliest set of circumstances she could and to install herself in the middle, to find the worst place in the world and make that her home.

Why did she do that?

It may be that the answer cannot quite be understood by those of us who have encountered lepers only as Biblical figures or as monsters (in the true sense of that word, meaning a kind of portent) in medieval literature. Beyond the miracles attributed to Mother Teresa, she certainly was involved in at least one anti-miracle: She inspired Christopher Hitchens to write something very, very stupid, denouncing her as a “fanatic and a fraud.” Fanaticism is a curious thing: One could argue, plausibly, that it was religious fanaticism that drove Mother Teresa and religious fanaticism that drove Osama bin Laden. Indeed, Hitchens made something very like that argument. But fanaticism drove them to very different destinations.

Why did it do that?

Mother Teresa was an uncompromising opponent of putting the unborn to death in the service of sexual and economic convenience, and for that many people will never forgive her. Her critics will make the same argument made by Margaret Sanger, the eugenicist who founded Planned Parenthood and enshrined her pseudoscientific views therein: Think of all the misery that might have been averted if the people suffering from that misery had never existed! “I am going to make you wish you were never born!” is a bully’s threat, not a philosophy of community life. But that idea remains very much with us, and, these being perverse times, it is the people who oppose that idea who are denounced as cruel, inhumane, or fanatical.

Mother Teresa’s challenge was twofold: to help those suffering avoid falling into the error of being sorry they had been born, and to help the rest of us avoid falling into the error of being sorry that had been born, or merely acting as though we were sorry they had been. When anti-abortion activists talk about the “seamless garment” of human life and human dignity, this is what they are talking about.

But we like finding the seams.

Poverty, contrary to the bedtime stories we like to tell ourselves, is not ennobling. It is a safe bet that many of the people Mother Teresa and her sisters have helped over the years were not especially good people, and that some of them were simply bad people. Perhaps you’ve seen something like this yourself, volunteering at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. For many people, the main problem presented by doing charity work is the sort of people one encounters. We are not supposed to talk about it, but the people helped by food banks and the like have a strange and powerful talent for changing one’s mind about the virtue of helping people at all. That certainly has been my experience, which is one of the many reasons you can pencil in my canonization for never.

We may have our eyes on the next world, but we live in this one. In this world, resources are limited and we must make practical allowances for considerations such as public safety. We make bright-line distinctions between the “deserving poor”​ (to use the antique phrase) and ordinary bums, and many of us resist the proposition that the instrumental killing of the unborn (who are guiltless) is in a deep and complex way related to the instrumental killing of heinous criminals (who are not guiltless). Some people have it coming, and some don’t. The quick-and-dirty version of ordinary justice is the situation in which everyone gets what he deserves.

A world in which we all get what we deserve isn’t nearly enough.

Mother Teresa struggled with doubts about her faith, but she remained until the end committed to the belief that a world in which we all get what we deserve isn’t nearly enough. (Some of us have more reason than others to think twice about the desirability of getting what we deserve.) The classical image of Lady Justice always is associated with scales and a blade. But so are butchers. Of course, we must weigh evidence and weigh considerations, and we must measure out justice with as much precision as we can. We must make the most of scarce resources and consider that which we sometimes still call, with as straight a face as we can manage, “the greater good.” But there is still a niggling voice insisting that we might be larger than our calculations; that charity might be larger than justice and encompass it; that, without descending to a merely legalistic quid pro quo model of thinking, we might, if we are minded toward such things, make a present investment in the future mercy for which we ourselves hope.

The poet Jay Parini, writing sympathetically at CNN.com, says he agrees that Mother Teresa deserves sainthood, which surely comes as a relief both to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and to the choirs in Heaven, but he also says that she was, in his view, “less than perfect as a human being.”

That, of course, is the point. If she hadn’t been less than perfect, Mother Teresa would have practiced virtue in the same way that planets orbit stars or that iron oxidizes in the presence of water. She was the same hot human mess as the rest of us, but chose to live as though she weren’t.

Why did she do that?

— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review.

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