“The poor give us much more than we give them,” said Mother Teresa in 1977, and from that time until her death, two decades later, the Nobel laureate did as much as she could to keep the spiritually rich poor in a position to maintain their holy generosity. The fundamentalist who signed her name to the defence of the rich and corrupt and oversaw the painful, sometimes avoidable deaths of the poor in her stinking hospices must have been especially fond of Matthew 26:11. “The poor,” said Christ, “you will always have with you.”
To give Teresa’s husband his due, though, this was an economic declaration made millennia ago. A possibly illiterate carpenter who, if he did exist at all, did not exist in the era of globalisation, must be permitted his naive shrug. Teresa, however, was cynical and modern enough to know that poverty and its attendant pain were not inevitable.
Poverty is often the conscious work of persons like Charles Keating, a Catholic financier convicted of defrauding many working Americans, or of dictators like Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier whose bloody-boot rule turned Haiti into a desperate abattoir. Pain can be the consequence of corporations like Union Carbide whose toxic pesticide leak in Bhopal claimed a reported 20,000 Indian lives and has resulted in legal findings of individual negligence.
Throughout her material life, Mother Teresa, whose canonisation has been announced by the Vatican to occur on September 4, defended these producers of poverty and suffering. To Charles Keating, from whom she had accepted a seven-figure donation for use in her widely criticised and rarely audited Missionaries of Charity, she offered a character witness. To Duvalier, from whom she had accepted the Haitian Legion of Honour to add to her vast collection of humanitarian trinkets, she publicly said that he “loved the poor” — and perhaps he did, given his efforts to ensure their existence. Of the Bhopal disaster to which she arrived in a blaze of publicity, she instructed victims to “forgive, forgive, forgive” — oddly, as the late Christopher Hitchens observed in his famous 1995 essay The Missionary Position, before the general public knew that there was a crime to be forgiven.
Teresa was a great fan of the poor and their suffering was something she fetishised with all the mediaevalism we now attribute to the world’s least palatable Jihadists. “Pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus,” she said. And, right up until about the time she was possessed by Satan before her death in 1997 — a Holy See representative was dispatched to remove him in a surgically efficient half-hour exorcism — she chiefly “helped” the poor and the suffering by making sure they continued to endure as much poverty and pain as possible.
There are many published and broadcast accounts of the soon-to-be-saintly nun’s very active role in suffering. There are reputable accounts of the unhygienic, dangerous and downright sadistic methods used by members of the order not only in Teresa’s flagship Kolkata Home for the Dying, but in Western properties. Only the Lamb of God knows all the indignities to which the gay men in her US HIV/AIDS hospices were subject before their death by decree of the beatified homophobe. Perhaps they endured the non-consensual baptism their Hindu and Muslim fellows did in India — Teresa reportedly encouraged her nuns to dab the heads of the dying with a spot of holy water and just make like they were being nice, if unqualified, nurses. Perhaps they were refused pain medication, subject to social isolation and shamed so as to feel the hallowed kiss of Jesus as, it is widely reported, so many others did.
Since Teresa has died — not, incidentally, by the vow of poverty she had made but after a stay at a pleasant Kolkata nursing home that does not promise holy suffering on its website but the very best modern medical care — the matter of her atrocious hypocrisy, fundamentalism and malice has been recounted many times. Even by the “miracle” woman whose medical cure first got her beatified. But on the eve of her canonisation, we cannot make the case against this foul ideologue enough.
Especially as the matter of Teresa’s sainthood falls to the most decent and candidly political papal opponent of suffering Rome has ever hosted. While Francis does not go quite far enough in his recent suggestion that condoms may be used to slow the spread of Zika (surely, HIV has earned an identical prophylactic hall-pass by now) he goes much, much further in the practical alleviation of suffering than any pope ever has. Unlike Teresa or many of his predecessors, he is not some nutter, heaven-bent on pain so that we all may rejoice in the pornographic spectacle of Jesus kissing the poor.
Francis has laid bare the ideological misreading of Matthew to justify contemporary poverty. And he has done so not only for the devout but for many in the world who once presumed, as Jesus did, that the poor would always be with us. Whether secular or religious, the view that the suffering poor are an unavoidable fact of life is toxic. Whether secular or religious, the view that compassion for the suffering poor elevates the donor is toxic. Slowly, Francis has done some commendable work in reversing this nonsense view, whether it is held by humanitarian liberals or pious Catholics. And it is an extraordinary shame that it falls to him to canonise such an extraordinary fascist.