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Sinner or Saint?

September 7, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Giving a blog post a title like “sinner or saint” might seem a bit odd for someone like myself who thinks neither really exists, but I think in this case it is appropriate because the person I am posing the question about is Mother Teresa, or “Saint Teresa of Calcutta” as she will be known in future.

Recently Pope Francis (who, as fas as Popes are concerned, I quite like) canonised Mother Teresa (who died in 1997) after a process started by his predecessor. Was this justified? Many people just naturally believe that she was a great person who helped the sick and poor, but she also has some very vocal critics, one of whom was Christopher Hitchens, a person who I really admired (and who we unfortunately lost to cancer in 2011).

So which is it: sinner or saint? Well I think it was a bit of both.

First, let’s get the silly idea of her literally being a saint out of the way. A saint must have been involved with a miracle (specifically a prayer to her after her death must have resulted in a miraculous cure) and this must be checked by a special group from the church. Needless to say, the supposed miracle is totally absurd and no sensible person would take it seriously.

But the miracle is largely irrelevant. Was her well known work with the poor and sick in India genuine? Well fundamentally it seems that she did set up hospitals to treat the sick and organisations to help the poor. And she raised a lot of money to help fund these missions.

So that sounds quite good. Maybe she was a saint in some way, even if she wasn’t in the strictly religious sense. Well yes, maybe, but there was the dark side to her activities as well.

First, the miracle. The claim is that a Bengali woman, Monica Besra, saw a beam of light emerge from a picture of Mother Teresa and cure a cancerous tumor. But the woman’s doctor had a slightly different story, because there was no cancer. The problem was a tubercular cyst which was cured by a course of prescription medicine. But the church’s team didn’t even talk to the doctor, so it is not surprising they reached the wrong conclusion. Of course, if they thoroughly investigated every case there would be no saints.

Second, the money. A lot of the funding she gained was from very corrupt sources and it is quite unclear where a lot of it went. There were no good records of spending so this could not be investigated properly.

Third, the standard of care. Standards in the centers where the sick were treated were very poor, with stories such as syringes being re-used and other poor health practices being common.

Finally, her attitude. The ultimate motivation for her work seemed to be more conversion to Catholicism than anything else. And she did not support women’s rights, birth control, or other progressive changes India really needed.

Would the world have been a better place if Mother Teresa hadn’t existed? I don’t know. I’m tempted to be generous here and say that at least she made some positive difference, despite the clear problems. And maybe calling her a saint is OK too, but why not just make people saints when they do good in the world and forget the ridiculous pretence of these silly alleged miracles?

Mother Teresa was a human being like the rest of us. Not a sinner or a saint. Just a flawed person who did some good things but probably did a lot of bad things as well.

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