Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa Sunday. She was a celestial figure to many, for sweating away in Calcutta with “the poorest of the poor.” By that oft-used term was meant the poor for whom a government “poverty line” would be a luxury. Mother Teresa took in street urchins, the hopelessly sick, and the dying — lost souls who were at death’s door. They were the poor that we Americans can hardly imagine. For the most part, one has to travel to the slums of “backward” countries to encounter them.
I first became aware of Mother Teresa when, in the early 1970s, I became friendly with Malcolm Muggeridge, the uniquely eloquent British journalist armed with a satirical style and biting wit. By the time I knew him he had become a major figure on the BBC, a memoirist whose memoirs had gained international literary acclaim, and a champion of Mother Teresa. In the 1930s he, a minor figure on the international left, had blown the whistle on communism as practiced in the Soviet Union, even before George Orwell. His colleagues in the British press did not welcome his revelations. His filings from Russia and Ukraine were making life difficult for them to practice their trade in Moscow, for he was exposing the famine in Ukraine that Stalin insisted did not exist.
Good old Walter Duranty filed stories in the New York Times from Moscow reporting that there was no such famine, much as in late 1984 — just before the Soviet Union went belly up — John Kenneth Galbraith reported the Russian economy to be humming along brilliantly, Moscow’s department stores brimming with goods and its streets crowded with gleaming new vehicles. The piece, published in the New Yorker, continued with this gem: “[T]he Russian system succeeds because…” Duranty won a Pulitzer for his reportage. Galbraith is still honored in Academe as one of the 20th century’s premier economists. Muggeridge is pretty much forgotten now, but he was not in the early 1970s.
By then he had produced a BBC documentary on Mother Teresa along with other BBC documentaries on religion and ancient times. He wrote books about her and he appeared frequently in America on the lecture circuit and on television. Bill Buckley featured him on his show, Firing Line. Malcolm had by then given up on communism thirty years before, and in the 1960s he gave up on pot, zoo sex, and other excesses of the 1960s youth culture, soon to be 1970s adult culture, then the culture. He was a somewhat unlikely champion of Mother Teresa. He himself was a reformed participant in his generation’s bohemian excesses but remained a rude and raucous contrarian. Still he adored the saint of the Calcutta slums.
“Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me,” was one of her favorite sayings he said, and he tried to live the same way. Following her he lived simply, abstemiously, and prayerfully. Taking Malcolm to a chic restaurant could present problems. I blame it all on Mother T. He quoted her often, marveling at how she got supplies to what became a series of convents in 138 countries. At the time of her death in 1997 her order, the Missionaries of Charity, included thousands of religious, mainly women, intent on serving the poorest of the poor. “The Lord will provide,” she told Malcolm, though she did keep Ronald Reagan’s telephone number on her Rolodex along with doubtless the numbers of countless other world figures.
In the last days, as her fame spread she acquired critics. Some medical experts who questioned her facilities’ hygiene, local Calcuttans who suspected her of giving their city a bad name, right-wing Hindus who believed she was intent on converting their co-religionists, feminists who think abortion is the true Eucharist. Her answer to all of them was as it had been for earlier critics, “We are not social workers, not teachers, not nurses or doctors; we are religious sisters. We serve Jesus in the poor. Our life has no other reason or motivation. This is a point many people do not understand.”
For days now I have been reading all the commentary about this singular woman of God. Of course, I also have been thinking of my old friend Malcolm who had spent so much time with her. Yet one comment I cannot fathom. It came from Pope Francis. He said on Sunday: “She made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created.” “Their guilt?” “The crime of poverty they created?” Who is his Holiness talking about, Stalin, Hitler, Castro, the corner pickpocket, members of the local drug cartel, George Soros? Could someone send the Vatican a book on economics, with the statistics about the reduction of world poverty over the last thirty years? Much of it has been achieved with market economics. As Steve Moore has written so many times, free market capitalism has done more to alleviate poverty in the world than any other system known to man, including charity.