World·Analysis

Mother Teresa and the severe scrutiny of the modern crowd

Mother Teresa has plenty of critics, but David Perlich wonders whether anyone's reputation could endure the scrutiny of the modern internet crowd and come out unscathed.

The famous nun who will be officially declared a saint Sunday had her share of critics

Mother Teresa will be declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on Sunday. (Reuters)

Amidst the constant cacophony of online outrage, what with the vicious trolling, public shaming and revelations of every minor personal failing, is it possible to be considered truly virtuous?

On Sunday, Mother Teresa will be canonized — declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. In St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis will intone prayers, banners will be unfurled and several hundred thousand people will cheer this most recent addition to the saintly roll call. 

But not everybody thinks Mother Teresa is worthy.

The Albanian nun in her iconic white and blue habit spent a lot of time doing good works in front of TV cameras and the world's press, and it's that very fame that now has Mother Teresa's reputation under siege online.

Sainthood today

Before any road trip longer than 100 kilometres, my mother would ritualistically invoke St. Christopher. The purpose, supposedly, was to beseech the saint to keep us all from dying a fiery death in some mountain pass.

While plenty of faithful believe in the power of a saint who sits next to God and acts as protector and patron, many other Catholics nowadays see a saint as someone — just a person — who lived, or is still living, a life of exemplary virtue, worthy of imitation.

Like Beyoncé.
Popular singer Beyoncé captured the zeitgeist of public morality on issues of race and gender. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

In the increasingly secular West, where many scoff at the idea of praying to heaven for divine intercession and miracle cures, even non-believers seek virtuous people to extol and imitate. Beyoncé drops a new album capturing the zeitgeist of public morality on issues of race and gender, and pow! She's all but canonized by millions of fans and much of the media. 

Centuries ago, saints were also "acclaimed" by "the crowd." The true believers gathered together and spontaneously affirmed someone a saint. I was in the crowd at the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II and listened as the crowd began to chant, "Santo subito!" ("Saint now!"). And the Vatican listened, and rushed him through with the fastest canonization in recent history.

Yet, once we've built up our sacred or secular saints, we can't seem to help but tear them down. John Paul II's posthumous reputation has had to deal with the debate about "secret letters" he wrote to a married woman over the course of more than 30 years.

And pity poor Taylor Swift.

Once an online darling, there now seems no amount of charity work that can keep her from being accused of calculating artificiality, promiscuity and, according to a scathing indictment by noted feminist Camille Paglia, having an "obnoxious Nazi Barbie routine of wheeling out friends and celebrities as performance props."

It's the same harsh scrutiny used by those who take to the web to argue Mother Teresa was no saint, that she spent too much time cultivating personal relationships with the great and (not always) the good and performing in front of TV cameras.
Mother Teresa blesses reporters and photographers gathered in a courtyard. (Reuters)

Worse, she didn't affirm "correct" modern values. Like somehow it's a surprise that an elderly Catholic nun was against abortion and divorce.

But it's also true her stance on "beauty" through suffering was controversial. She certainly didn't make many allies with statements like, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people." The context of the statement and what exactly she meant are up for debate, but critics read it as colonialist and disturbingly masochistic.

Scrutiny of fame

The late journalist Christopher Hitchens had a helluva problem with Mother Teresa, and did his level best to kibosh notions of her virtue and holiness.
Late author Christopher Hitchens was fiercely critical of Mother Teresa. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

In a documentary titled, Hell's Angel, Hitchens says, "In a godless and cynical age, it may be inevitable that people will seek to praise the self-effacing, the altruistic and the pure at heart, but only a complete collapse of our critical faculties can explain the illusion that such a person is manifested in the shape of a demagogue and obscurantist and a servant of earthly powers."

Ouch.

He adds that unlike Mother Teresa, "All over this unhappy globe there are heroic volunteers putting up a selfless battle on behalf of the wretched of the earth."

Yes, there are legions of all-but-unknown people who try to alleviate suffering and comfort the sick and dying with far less fanfare than Mother Teresa did. Far fewer helicopter rides to visit adoring crowds, meetings with the Pope and visits to the White House.
Princess Diana meets Mother Teresa in 1992. (Reuters)

But fame brings influence, and influence can bring the ability to cajole/shame/convince the rich and powerful to act.

Today, fame also brings a whole new kind of scrutiny.

Acclaimed by the crowd

It's not that we shouldn't critique motives of famous do-gooders. It's a matter of choosing appropriate criteria.

You can't help but wonder if the lives of the "heroic volunteers" Hitchens refers to could withstand the withering critique of the internet.

If they became famous enough, and leveraged that fame, would their every opinion, action, belief and personal association pass muster better than Mother Teresa's? Would any of ours?
Pilgrims fill St. Peter's Square during the beatification ceremony of Mother Teresa led by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 19, 2003. The ceremony put Mother Teresa on the road to sainthood. (Reuters)

And where does that leave potential saints of the future? In the online public commons, one unpleasant tweet, one unfortunate photo, one "incorrect" stance on a social justice issue and your life of virtue can crumble.

How will we decide who is virtuous enough to be acclaimed by the crowd that brays on social media? The crowd that declares temporary holiness for some and savages others.

Beyoncé is on the side of the angels. And because it makes for a good news story, perhaps for a few days Mother Teresa will be, too.

About the Author

He has produced television, radio and online programming in Calgary since 1992 — including CBC's 2015 Alberta election special. He worked for Al-Jazeera in Washington, D.C., was the managing editor of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen and also reported as CBC's Vatican analyst in the 2005 and 2012 conclaves. He was born in Calgary, grew up on a farm, and now calls this city home.