The Hellfire Club

Here is Christopher Hitchens on the recent publication of Mother Teresa's letters -- and how they reveal her severe doubts about her faith. Needless to say, he wishes she'd expressed those doubts more publicly and perhaps refrained a little in her attempts to save the starving of Calcutta spiritually while doing far less for them medically or economically. More predictably, The Dallas Morning News editorial board finds that the letters only confirm Mother Teresa's humanity -- as part of her "spectacular triumph of the human spirit." This, then, also surely explains her embrace of the Duvalier clan, the dictators of Haiti, and her acceptance of (and refusal to return) more than $1 million from savings-and-loan fraud Charles Keating, Jr. Just trying to be more human.

Mr. Hitchens mentions his role in testifying against Mother Teresa's beatification and canonization. Several years ago -- well before God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything -- book/daddy had dinner with the Sulfurous Scribe and wrote about his (failed) prosecutorial efforts:

Taking his shot
British writer plays devil's advocate to Mother Teresa
by Jerome Weeks

Christopher Htichens is a rare bird these days.

Not just because he's a British-born journalist who writes about American politics -- as well as a contentious, left-wing contrarian who energetically supports the war in Iraq.

Mr. Hitchens has also played "devil's advocate" -- against Mother Teresa. This would seem an outsized case of windmill-tilting and nose-thumbing. While she was alive, the Nobel Prize-winning nun often topped international polls as the most admired person on the planet. Last month, she was beatified by the Catholic Church -- the second major step toward sainthood after being found "venerable." Yet Mr. Hitchens testified against her -- at the request of the church.

A devil's advocate is not the Keanu Reeves character in an Al Pacino movie. When an individual is being considered by the church for sainthood, a "postulator" is appointed to make the case for that candidate. The devil's advocate, on the other hand, is the person who presents the evidence against sainthood. He's called that because, obviously, in trying to keep candidates out of the ranks of the saintly, he's like a corporate recruiter for the sinful side.

But still, no demons, no pitchforks, no special effects. The advocatus diaboli, as he's called in Latin, is merely the opposing counsel, a prosecuting attorney with a flashy title. Officially, he's even known as the "Promoter of the Faith." It was an honorable position. Before he became Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), Prospero Lamartini served in the post for 20 years.

It was an honorable position, that is. The church did away with it 20 years ago. Nonetheless, Mr. Hitchens was specifically requested by the Vatican to bring evidence against Mother Teresa. That's as close as ordinary mortals get these days to donning the devil's robes in an ecclesiastical court.

Mr. Hitchens was an obvious choice to raise hell.

His 1995 book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, aggressively attacked the famous nun's reputation as a selfless servant of the poor. He questioned her relationships with some unsavory global characters and the efficacy and purpose of her missionary work in Calcutta, India. He also co-wrote Hell's Angel, a documentary about Mother Teresa produced by Britain's Channel 4.

In his book and documentary, Mr. Hitchens pointed out that Mother Teresa associated with (and applauded) the Duvalier clan, the dictators of Haiti. She accepted a donation of more than $1 million from Charles Keating, Jr., the convicted savings-and-loan fraud. Paul Turley, the Los Angeles deputy district attorney in that case, sent her a letter stating that the money she received was not Mr. Keating's to give, that it was stolen from hundreds of small investors. Mother Teresa never returned it.

On a broader level, Mr. Hitchens argued that Catholics and non-Catholics all over the world gave money to help Mother Teresa with her efforts among the poor and sick of Calcutta. But, he maintained, she and her order, the Missionaries of Charity, have not so much provided physical or medical aid as they have simply worked to convert the poor. The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, called the care dispensed at her clinic "haphazard" at best.

"Her clinic is just as threadbare as when she began," Mr. Hitchens said recently in Fort Worth. "Yet she said with pride that she's built more than 500 convents in 125 countries."

Mother Teresa was always candid that her goal was ministering to what she saw as the poor's spiritual needs and not their medical or economic ones. "We are not social workers," she once said. What was needed, she said, was more prayer, more faith. As for her association with what Mr. Hitchens termed "the corrupt and the worldly rich," the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator in her case, pointed out that Jesus himself sat down with Roman tax collectors.

Many in the Catholic press have called Mr. Hitchens' charges "slurs" and even "bizarre." Bishop Salvadore Lobo of Baruipur, India, labelled Hell's Angel a "very distorted" depiction of the beloved nun and her work.

The objections have often focused on Mr. Hitchens' vitriolic atheism. He's hardly impartial to religion: "I'm hostile to it," he told Free Inquiry magazine in 1996. "I think it is a positively bad idea, not just a false one. And I mean not just organized religion, but religious belief itself."

But, Mr. Hitchens noted, no one has disproved his assertions about the Duvaliers, the Keating money or Mother Teresa's consistently ultra-conservative views. (She opposed the reforms of Vatican II, for example, and supported a proposed ban on divorce in Ireland while supporting Princess Diana's own divorce.)

Still, he said, when it came to handling her beatification, Father Kolodiejchuk was "a fair-minded guy." Attempts to reach Father Kolodiejchuk, who was said to be traveling in Calcutta, were unsuccessful.

Mr. Hitchens was one of several non-Catholics who testified -- among hundreds of witnesses whose testimony filled some 34,200 pages of what is called the Acts of the Diocesan Inquiry.

When he received his letter a few years ago from the Vatican asking for input, "I thought, terrific, because I thought I would go to Rome," Mr. Hitchens recalled. "Possibly even to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctine of the Faith, which is in the old Inquisition office." Maybe he'd find a few leftover thumbscrews lying around. Mr. Hitchens said he'd even pay for the trip himself.

But it turned out that his appearance was overseen by the Catholic archdiocese in his adopted home, Washington, D.C.

No plane trip, no thumbscrews.

"It was just a ride to Catholic University," Mr. Hitchens grumped. He can see the spire of the campus from his apartment.

Under Pope John Paul II, the canonization protocol has been greatly streamlined. The process was once infamously and painstakingly slow, requiring two verified miracles for beatification and two more for canonization. When St. Theresa of Lisieux was canonized in 1925 -- 28 years after her death -- it set a modern speed record. In comparison, Queen Isabella -- the one who bankrolled Christopher Columbus -- is still waiting, 499 years after her death.

The snail's pace was intended to dampen any faddish enthusiasms. The church would not be buffaloed. Mr. Hitchens likes to quote the 19th century British historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, who observed that one of the great achievements of the church was its "containment" of fanaticism.

But in a 1983 "apostolic constitution," John Paul II fast-tracked the canonization process. The four-miracle reqirement was cut to two. The devil's advocate position -- created in 1587 -- was abolished.

Since then, John Paul II has become the most prolific saint-maker in history, having canonized 476 people and beatified more than 1,300. Together, all of his 20th century predecessors canonized 98.

Well before her death in 1997, Mother Teresa was being hailed as a "living saint" and "the saint of the gutters." And now the Macedonian nun has been beatified faster than anyone in modern history. It took only five years, three months.

That's partly because Archbishop Henry D'Souza of Calcutta petitioned for a waiver of the five-year "cooling off" period that the church had imposed before a person could be considered for beatification. The pope agreed. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrinal overseer, said after Mother Teresa's death, "I am not privy to the innermost thoughts of the Holy Father, but I think he wants it [her canonization] speeded up."

The resulting inquiry wasn't the most august process, Mr. Hitchens said. He likened it to "a seminar hearing in a rundown college." He met with a three-member tribunal in a paneled room at Catholic University -- one of 14 such tribunals worldwide in Mother Teresa's case.

The journalist began by thanking the committee for the chance to present his objections.

"'As you know,' he recalled saying, 'I am not a believer, not a member of the faith, and so whom you make a saint is none of my concern. It's very decent of you to ask me into your internal affairs. But to the extent that the word sainthood or beatification has a secular meaning regarding an exemplary person, I would like to enter a dissent.'"

They accepted a copy of his Mother Teresa book as evidence, and then proceeded through 263 questions -- "a standard questionnaire from Rome that everyone has to fill in," Mr. Hitchens said. "There is no deviation. I had to simply check 'yes' or 'no' or 'no comment.'"

The famously combative journalist was disappointed once again. There was no debate, no probing questions, "no dialectical opposition," he said. Instead, when the questionnaire was done, he was politely told the record of his testimony would be processed quickly.

Father Kolodiejchuck submitted all of the testimony to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints (the Vatican office that handles canonization). The cardinals and bishops voted. The pope concurred. Mother Teresa can now officially be called "Blessed."

Before she can be called "Saint," another verified miracle is needed. Not surprisingly, Mr. Hitchens dismisses the validity of the first one, the disappearance of an abdominal cyst from a Hindu mother.

But given the enormous popularity of Mother Teresa and given the reverence in which she's held both in the church and out, the only question now would seem to be whether John Paul II will live to see her canonized.

As for the dissenting Mr. Hitchens, he believes "I was restrained by the rules from making my best case."

But he consoles himself with this thought: "I did represent the devil pro bono."

copyright, 2003, The Dallas Morning News

August 30, 2007 10:24 AM |



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