The answer to our problems in the materialist West is not more materialism

The news that Mother Teresa is to be canonised this September has met with mixed reactions in some non-Catholic circles, as any google search will indicate. This is not altogether surprising: the saints are not in the business of making the world comfortable or telling the world what it wants to hear. Mother Teresa, a saint, is, unsurprisingly, a reproach to the world.

Mother Teresa first started work with her sisters in one of the world’s worst slums in Calcutta. The sisters were there to care for the sick and the dying who had no one else to care for them. This is an important, indeed key point: the sisters would go out at night and pick dying people off the street, people who would otherwise have died alone and without love. They were then taken to the convent and looked after, treated with love and compassion, and given their dignity; but remember, these were people who no one else wanted, the very poorest of the poor of Calcutta.

It is perfectly true that Mother Teresa was not running a state of the art hospital, and she has been criticised for this. Her vocation was to serve the poorest of the poor as a poor person herself. It was to show the poor solidarity by being poor with them. That is a very specialised vocation. Those who wish to serve the poor with means, as opposed to without means, that is with hospitals and other care institutions, are free to do so. No one is hindering the critics of Mother Teresa from opening hospitals in Calcutta and elsewhere.

But the truth of the matter is, in Calcutta, and also in places like Britain, the care of the sick and the poor in expensive hospitals is by no means perfect. There are thousands of people in Britain who are lonely and unloved, and who have fallen through the cracks in the system of social services. And imagine how many more in India with its patchy social services. So, there remains plenty of scope for the vocation of Mother Teresa and her sisters, which is perfectly compatible with the philanthropy of others.

I have never been to Calcutta, but I have been to places like Kibera in Nairobi, which is similar, a vast urban slum. Yes, people there need money, and they need the things that money can buy, such as clinics. Mother Teresa and others like her are not opposed to that, but they are there to provide the type of care that money can’t provide. Poverty is not simply a lack of cash; poverty is disease of the spirit, a lack of love.

Mother Teresa was a Catholic; as such she was against contraception and abortion. And she was completely right to be. Both contraception and abortion are signs of the impoverishment of the human spirit, sins caused by lack of love. Our society, as she rightly pointed out, which kills its own children rather than accepting them as a great and enriching gift, is one of the poorest societies in the world, despite its evident wealth.

But the critics of Mother Teresa do not want to hear this, and certainly do not want to confront this truth. When confronted with the poor, they just wish there were fewer of them, and think that contraception and abortion are the answer to our social problems.

In Britain, we are rich; and yet we are at the same time, paradoxically, poor. That is a truth we need to contemplate. That was the message of Mother Teresa when she came here, when she visited Cardboard City in London: an unpopular message, hence the desire to discredit the messenger.

Mother Teresa was not a fundraiser, because she did not see money as the solution, rather it was often part of the problem: the solution was love. The funds that she received were channeled to other Catholic charities, by and large. Giving money to the poor is laudable; but it cannot ever be a substitute to a change of heart, or conversion.

The critics of Mother Teresa do not get her, or perhaps they do – perhaps they read her too well, and see in her a profound critique of Western self-absorption and materialism.

It is the vocation of the saint not to answer our questions but to question our answers, and no one does this better than Mother Teresa. The answer to our problems in the materialist West is not more materialism. She is, I am convinced, one of the great saints of our times.

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Dec 2 2016 cover