The canonisation of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta will be hailed far and wide by those within and without the Church. She was the most famous, and most admired, Christian of the 20th century, even including the popes, whose office gives them a certain ubiquity. Her name became shorthand for sacrificial charity. Perhaps most remarkable of all, she remained virtually unique in achieving universal acclaim despite refusing to bow before the regnant culture.
There has been a deal on the table for several decades now for religious leaders. If they are willing to make their peace with the sexual revolution – divorce, contraception, abortion, cohabitation, artificial reproduction, same-sex marriage – then they will be celebrated, all the more so if they are simultaneously willing to adopt a progressive cause or two, the environment being the favoured one.
Making peace doesn’t mean explicit approval of any of the aspects of the sexual revolution; it is sufficient simply not to speak about those contentious matters too often, or to indicate that doing so is a rather pro forma exercise. That’s the path to a quiet life. Actually, better than that, for it is a life that can be celebrated by the Establishment: favourable press coverage, prestigious lecture invitations, knighthoods and peerages, honorary doctorates, corporate governance sinecures, the reflected glow of celebrity associations.
Those who have taken the deal are many. There are those who appear to have little other choice if they want to keep their beleaguered people in the public consciousness. The Patriarch of Constantinople is one such, who is just as apt to talk about environmental issues as he is life or the family. Another would be the Dalai Lama, who often sounds like an eastern self-esteem guru as he attracts Hollywood celebrities to take up the Tibetan cause.
There are those who take the deal but don’t have to, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is more inclined today to speak about oil production than he is to discuss theology. Whether sincerely embraced or not, progressive politics given priority over traditional doctrine ensures laudations from our cultural custodians.
The United States provides the best contrasting examples. Cardinal Roger Mahony, emeritus of Los Angeles, has such a poor record on sexual abuse that his successor, Archbishop José Gomez, attempted to prevent him from appearing at any public events on behalf of the archdiocese. Yet Cardinal Mahony is still very much a celebrated figure, having cemented his favourable public reception with his advocacy of immigration and workers’ rights. Contrast that with Cardinal Bernard Law, whose record on sexual abuse, though shameful, was not nearly as bad as that of Cardinal Mahony. Cardinal Law never took the deal that Cardinal Mahony did and is now persona non grata everywhere in the United States and a subject of unflattering Oscar-winning films.
Those who don’t take the deal – who refuse to accommodate the faith to the sexual revolution and insist on clearly saying so – face the ferocity of the elite consensus. Upon no one was this unleashed more than Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI, whose luminous theology and gentle demeanour did not spare him generations of slanderous characterisations, punishment for insisting on the verity of the Christian tradition on contested cultural questions. So common was this treatment that Ratzinger would refer to it as something of a perverse “canon” in one of his early interview books.
The same dynamic works at the parish level and is faced by every pastor who must decide whether to raise difficult issues and hard teachings.
All the more remarkable, then, is the figure of Mother Teresa, who did not blanch from talking about abortion as the “greatest destroyer of peace” when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, or in speaking about the immorality of contraception in the presence of Bill and Hillary Clinton at the national prayer breakfast in Washington. Just last year the Missionaries of Charity withdrew from adoption services in India after the government passed a law forcing them to place children with single parents and divorced and remarried couples.
Yet so radical and pure was Mother Teresa’s witness of Christian love that, despite being an implacable foe of the sexual revolution and all its pomps and works, despite her resistance to all the progressive ecclesial trends, despite her disregard for what used to be called the desire for human respect – despite it all, she was universally beloved and admired.
There was the anomalous hatred of Christopher Hitchens, but even the diabolical pays its own tribute to holiness. Her love for the Untouchables of Calcutta slums made her untouchable by the respectable despisers of the Gospel.
It was a mark of her extraordinary courage and charity, but does it offer a model for others? Does radical charity offer an evangelical method to touch hearts today? Or does Mother Teresa remain an utterly unique example?
Likely it’s both. Charitable service always attracts attention – and admiration. The works of mercy do constitute a valid means of evangelisation. But so much about Mother Teresa was as unique – the intensity of her work and the breadth of her reach – as the public approbation she received.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine.
This article first appeared in the September 2 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.