The Vatican has confirmed the rumor, earlier circulated by the Italian bishops’ daily newspaper Avvenire: Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be canonized this year. A decision only right in itself, but also a prime opportunity to acknowledge a certain politically incorrect truth: Mother Teresa’s ministry to the poor in India was a microcosm exposing Christianity’s moral universalism, unique among the world’s religions, something that post-Christian Westerners dabbling in Hinduism and pursuing other strange gods have failed to notice.
Mother Teresa detested publicity and insisted that her fans look towards Christ, not her; she was unwillingly a celebrity. According to Gallup, Americans admired her more than any other twentieth-century figure. Eighteen years after her death, books, films, and postal stamps commemorating Mother Teresa appear frequently.
Her popularity in the West has coincided with a decline in Christian fervor and a surge in interest in Eastern religions. Already in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche was greatly influenced by Hinduism, while European explorers to the Himalayas claimed to have found spiritual liberation. Today, however, this process has reached a pinnacle. Although many parishes and presbyteries in the West are emptying, yoga classes are full (despite the warnings of Father Gabriele Amoth, Rome’s official exorcist, of yoga’s devastating spiritual effects). While previously millions of Americans turned to Fulton Sheen or Billy Graham for spiritual advice, millennials listen to Deepak Chopra.
The pivotal point was the 1960s, when Westerners increasingly began to reject their parents’ Christianity. To them, the religion was dogmatic, hypocritical, and bigoted. Rather than improving mankind, Christianity was allegedly obsessed with sex. The 1960s generation looked to Indian gurus, yoga, and Transcendental Meditation for inspiration.
Mother Teresa’s work among the poor in India, however, serves as a petri dish in which we can test a hypothesis: are Eastern religions truly better for humanity than Christianity?
Today, India is an up-and-coming economic powerhouse, boasting the world’s largest middle class. Extreme poverty is, however, still rampant in India, and will likely continue to be so for a long time due in large part to Hinduism.
Dalits, previously known as “untouchables,” are excluded in India’s caste system based on their parentage, bad karma, and occupations (for example, butchers are “untouchables” because of their contact with animal carcasses, as are janitors as a result of their contact with human waste). For centuries, they have been victims of violence and segregation. The caste system originates in the Hindu scriptures.
Recently, there have been improvements in the treatments of Dalits. Mahatma Gandhi fought for their emancipation. India’s 1950 Constitution officially bans discrimination against “untouchables.” In 1997-2002, a Dalit – K.R. Narayanan – even served as president. However, the quarter-billion Dalits continue to face inhuman treatment. They constitute more than 90 percent of illiterate Indians, and according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, every day three Dalits are raped, two are murdered, and two have their houses burnt down. Contact with Brahmins is strictly prohibited, and Dalits walking through upper-class neighborhoods can be killed. Orthodox Hindu leaders sanction all this. Today, many Dalits convert to Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism to escape the caste system.
For Mother Teresa, caste made no difference. She was famous for helping India’s poor, who were often untouchables. Many upper-caste Indians simply walked indifferently past starving, sick, and filthy Dalits. In Hindu teaching, it was their own fault they found themselves in such circumstances: they had done bad things in a previous incarnation or chosen an unclean profession.
Mother Teresa was part of a greater phenomenon: the Church runs more hospitals, orphanages, and leprosaria than any other institution in India. If this is because of a desire to proselytize, as Hindu radicals like Mohan Bagwat argue, then the Church is quite ineffective: a mere 1.7 percent of Indians are Catholic.
Unlike Hinduism, Christianity preaches a universal ethical system. From Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman to St. Paul’s insistence that there is “neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free man,” the faith preaches identical treatment of all. Ethical universalism makes Christianity unique among the world’s religions. In Islam, the kaffir is treated as inferior, and the Koran even permits jihad against him. Until the president of the Mormon Church had a tête-à-tête with God in 1978, blacks couldn’t serve as priests. There are many similar examples.
Not only is Christianity unconcerned with ethnicity or class, it also preaches forgiveness and equal treatment of all, regardless of past transgressions. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, Christians are taught to look past their brethren’s sins and treat them with respect. While the Hindu caste system rejects people based on their professions or sins in a previous life, Mother Teresa never asked the poor if they were sinners (she already knew that all humanity, including herself, has sinned since the Garden of Eden).
There is no shortage of intolerance in Christian history. During the colonization of the Americas, Spanish Catholics used violence to convert Indians. In the Middle Ages, Christian leaders in much of Europe enclosed Jews in ghettoes. Nowhere, however, does the New Testament sanctify these abuses.
What’s more, abuses on the part of Christians often met with a strong Christian reaction: medieval popes issued bulls condemning blood libel charges; Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas was Europe’s most impassioned defender of the Indians; and Pope Paul III issued bulls threatening excommunication for those who enslaved indigenous Americans.
Human beings are naturally inclined towards tribalism, towards viewing the Other as a lesser being. Most of the world’s religions reflect this, and Hinduism, which so many Westerners have flirted with after shunning the faith of their fathers, with its caste system is no exception.
May the upcoming canonization of Mother Teresa be an opportunity for us to study her example and see that, contrary to the West’s fantasies about Eastern religions, Christianity more than any other religion sees all men and women as made in the image and likeness of God, and equal in dignity.