Home > News > Columnists > Rajeev Srinivasan
The saint business
October 17, 2003
It requires only a slight change in perspective to understand the whole rationale behind the M Teresa sainthood circus, which will culminate in a major song and dance on October 19th. That perspective is: the Vatican is the world's oldest, largest and richest multinational corporation. And perhaps the most rapacious. Microsoft, eat your heart out!
As such, it runs on sound business principles: brand building, competition, promotion, strategic alliances. The saint business is a perfect example of promotion and brand building: it gets enormous free publicity (that money cannot buy) for the overall Vatican brand, and by positioning a particular individual forcefully, it allows for brand extension/new product development, opening up new customer bases.
The current Pope understands this basic fact. His is clearly a keen business brain. He also believes more is better, for he has manufactured more saints in his tenure than all his many predecessors put together! So much so that an 85-year-old Italian cardinal, Silvio Oddi, was moved to criticize what he called the 'saint factory' in his memoirs. (http://www.christusrex.org/www1/news-old/4-96/es4-14-96.html )
Between 1978 and 1999, the Pope created (http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/vatican4.htm ) 283 saints plus 819 beatifications, a near-world record already. As of now, he has improved this to 477 saints plus 1,318 beatifications, 'more indeed than all previous Popes combined'! ('Pope turns Vatican into saint factory,' Indian Express/Reuters, October 14, 2003). An astonishing record!
Some of his most dubious choices: Friar Savanarola, who terrorized people during the Inquisition, and who was hanged to death 'on account of the enormous crimes of which [he] had been convicted'( http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13490a.htm ); and Josemaria de Balaguer, founder of the shadowy Opus Dei group that leads the Vatican's most reactionary culture war agendas, including opposing birth control, and which reports directly to the Pope.
This Pope is much more than the average godman, obviously, for he has also pulverized the opposition: he practically did a hostile takeover of his main competition, Marxism, or at the very least decimated it, some say partly by forming a tactical alliance with the CIA. Even Rupert Murdoch would be impressed.
Speaking of media barons, the Pope handles the mass media brilliantly. In India, many Catholic priests regularly join journalism school. Result? News hurtful to the Catholic image, for example the widespread sex and pedophilia scandals in the US or the indictment of Catholic nuns for crimes against humanity in Rwanda are hardly mentioned in the Indian media.
Terrific image management, really. Top ad agencies couldn't possibly do any better.
I have for years thought of religion as equivalent to the marketing of soap powder, but the Vatican is especially clever at it. I think it has something to do with the so-called Enlightenment in Europe. After the Vatican lost its brute-force hold on the people of Europe (and not coincidentally, they began thereafter to make intellectual progress), it was forced to market itself as a kinder and gentler version of what it was before.
But the Vatican now faces savvy American competition: charismatic evangelists like Mormons, Pentecostals and Baptists. They are making inroads into Catholic strongholds such as Latin America. In a statement pregnant with unintended irony, the Pope complained that they were 'preying upon his flock like wolves' (Houston Chronicle, October 13, 1992). This, when the godman himself traveled to India and declared boldly that all of Asia was going to be colonized by his sect in this millennium. Good for the goose, etc.?
The Vatican utilizes its vast infrastructure, money power, and network of propaganda contacts in such subtle ways that its victims almost never recognize they are being taken for a ride. Interestingly enough, it was through a damning Malayalam short story that I read years ago that I first understood the subtleties of the saint business.
That short story was Vazhthappetta Kochappi (The Beatified Kochappi), written, if I am not mistaken, by lapsed Catholic Ponkunnam Varki, who often got into trouble with the faithful for letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak. The 'beatified' refers to the state just before sainthood is conferred, the waiting period. It is the story of one Kochappi who, based on certain alleged miracles, is beatified and on the high road to sainthood.
Kochappi is one of those wild eyed religious madmen, who go around shouting, "Repent, ye sinners! For the end is nigh!", and "Ye children of serpents, ye shall fry in hell," or words to that effect, in this case in Malayalam. The locals tolerate this eccentric.
Then one day, Kochappi dies; and thereafter, miracles take place regularly at his grave. The blind begin to see; lepers are cured; the lame start to walk; infertile couples return bearing gurgling babies. The usual media limelight. Kochappi's case is referred to the Vatican, and he is, like M Teresa, fast tracked. He gets beatified.
The pilgrim traffic is tremendous; tens of thousands come every week; and hoteliers, restaurateurs and vendors of mementos in the vicinity enjoy their windfall. Apparently the way to get the great man's blessings is to consume daily a little soil from around his grave. There is great demand for the soil at Rs 100 per scoop, and every night many loads of earth are trucked in to replenish what is removed during the day by the pious. Local landowners make a nice living out of their value added soil. All's well with the world.
And then one night, horror of horrors, Kochappi reappears, with his trademark, "Ye children of serpents!" Apparently, he, the-about-to-be-sainted one, had not died, but just wandered off somewhere.
Now ask yourself, what's a businessman to do? Faced with the wholly unwelcome prospect of losing considerable revenue, not to mention prestige, the good folks there (including, if I remember right, the padres and other godmen) do what every self respecting capitalist would do: they beat Kochappi to death and bury him without further ado!
This cutting story, in my opinion, exposes the humbug of the religion business better than anything else I have ever read. I have looked at saints with skepticism ever since.
That skepticism has been bolstered by the facts around three of the saints manufactured in India (for some reason, they are all white people, and not mere brown locals):
- St Thomas the Apostle
- St Francis Xavier of Goa
- St M Teresa (nee Agnes Bojaxhiou) of Calcutta
There is considerable mystery surrounding the Apostle St Thomas. The conventional story that the faithful believe is that he arrived in Kerala in 52 CE, converted seven Namboothiri Brahmins, and set up a number of churches. Then he went to Madras, where he is said to have been killed with a spear by Brahmins near St Thomas Mount. His skeleton was 'discovered' in 1523 CE in a tomb on the premises of the Kapaleeshwar temple, along with the spearhead that had allegedly killed him.
There are only a few things wrong this story:
- There is absolutely no evidence that St Thomas went to India, as in the Indian Union of today. The word 'India' in those days meant anything from Ethiopia to Persia, indeed anything east of Palestine
- Most scholars believe the Thomas fable is a later Portuguese/missionary fabrication, deliberately confusing the apostle with a relatively verifiable historical figure, one Thomas of Cana, a Syrian merchant who went to Kerala to escape religious persecution in 345 CE. For details, see The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple at hamsa.org
- There were no Namboothiri Brahmins in Kerala at the time, when it was entirely Buddhist and Jain. Namboothiris arrived in Kerala some 500 or 600 years later and this is on authority of E M S Namboothiripad, veteran Marxist leader, himself
- Certified by the Vatican itself, St Thomas' skeleton has been preserved at Ortona in Spain since 1258 CE; now it would be truly miraculous if Thomas possessed two skeletons
The plain truth appears to be that the St Thomas tale was concocted in order to give Christianity in India the impression of being very old and practically native. This would have been a tactic in conversion attempts, another tactic being the demolition of Hindu temples and the building of churches over them. The ancient Kapaleeshwar temple itself was demolished circa 1550 CE and converted to the San Thome Basilica (yes, dedicated to the same St Thomas) by the Portuguese.
Now, on to the good deeds of St Francis Xavier. Here is an extract from The Empire of the Soul by Paul William Roberts (Harper Collins, 1999):
'Xavier embodies and exemplifies the bewildering contradictions of [the Jesuits]. The Goans of the time saw the best side of Xavier in what little of him they saw. They knew nothing of the part he had played in Portugal's Inquisition, nor did they know he had pleaded with his monarch, Dom Joao, to 'order the establishment of the Inquisition in Goa.' Most of Xavier's mass conversions -- during which he Christianized entire villages in a stroke -- were performed in Kerala."
'Set up as a kind of tribunal, the Inquisition was headed up by a judge dispatched from Portugal… The palace in which these holy terrorists ensconced themselves was known locally as Vodlem Gor -- the Big House. It became a symbol of fear. Children were flogged and slowly dismembered in front of their parents, whose eyelids had been sliced off to make sure they missed nothing. Extremities were amputated carefully, so that a person could remain conscious even when all that remained was a torso and head. Male genitals were removed and burned in front of wives, breasts hacked off and vaginas penetrated by swords while husbands were forced to watch.'
'So notorious was the Inquisition in Portuguese India that word of its horrors even reached home. The archbishop of Evora, in Portugal, eventually wrote, "If everywhere the Inquisition was an infamous court, the infamy, however base, however vile, however corrupt and determined by worldly interests, it was never more so than in Goa." And it went on for two hundred years.'
In Xavier's 'defense', Roberts says, 'Xavier was undoubtedly not the only one to request the Inquisition -- and he didn't live long enough to help supervise the fun himself.' Small mercies, indeed.
And finally, to our heroine M Teresa. Now MT, it appears, was an ordinary, garden variety missionary godwoman prone to uttering pious homilies. The good citizens of Calcutta welcomed her when she showed up there and announced her intention to do 'good works,' whatever that meant.
MT toiled in well-deserved obscurity for years until she got a huge lucky break. Malcolm Muggeridge, a British newspaperman who got religion in his old age, stumbled upon her and induced the BBC to do a feature on her. The rest, as they say, is history. Christopher Hitchens recounts her rise and rise in his savagely witty The Ghoul of Calcutta (http://are.berkeley.edu/~atanu/Teresa/hitchens_nov1992.html ), quoting Dante, that 'The Pope is still fornicating with the Emperor,' that is, ostentatious religiosity flirting with secular power.
There's a lot of fascinating stuff out there that is ignored amidst the unrelenting hagiography. For instance, an interview with Hitchens after MT's death (http://are.berkeley.edu/~atanu/Teresa/hitchens_interview.html ), and a review of Hitchens' The Missionary Position (http://www.ffrf.org/fttoday/august96/hakeem.html ). Hitchens summarizes the real MT as 'a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly secular powers.' By the miracle of propaganda, this scheming godwoman has now been elevated to the rarefied realms of sainthood.
Lest you think Hitchens is on a monomaniacal trip to besmirch a poor old woman, here is an article by Sunanda K Datta Ray (http://are.berkeley.edu/~atanu/Teresa/sunanda_dattaray.html ) and finally, a review of Aroup Chatterjee's 'Mother Teresa: the Final Verdict,' a rather comprehensive report (http://are.berkeley.edu/~atanu/Jarts/teresa.html ).
The picture that emerges is a little less than flattering. MT makes great copy, though, for the Vatican's brand-building. Indian taxpayers paid for a grand state funeral for her, unaware that she single-handedly set back India's own brand image by ten years by projecting a picture of a prone, impoverished and criminally negligent country that needed a white missionary to help its destitute. Since both the Marxists of Calcutta and MT needed to perpetuate poverty for their own agendas, was there a little tactical alliance between the Vatican and the Marxists on this front?
There is also the question of the large amounts of money -- untold millions of dollars -- that were donated by the credulous, and which disappeared into the coffers of MT's organization, never to reappear. Or perhaps, to reappear discreetly as part of the Vatican's conversion efforts?
And then there is the small matter of the unseemly hurry to fast-track the godwoman to sainthood. It appears that the Vatican broke all its guidelines about 'miracle' verification and waiting periods in its haste to get the deed done. It took Joan of Arc 500 years to be sainted, but MT made it in six. Clearly, we are living in 'Internet time.'
Apparently the guidelines call for two genuine 'miracles.' In MT's case, here are the 'miracles:'
- A woman named Monica Besra (a non Catholic at that!) who had a tumor in her stomach, prayed to MT. Lo and behold, the cancer disappeared. Only one slight problem: Monica's husband, and the doctors who attended to her, say the tumor was treated. Said the doctor: 'It is not a miracle when there is definitive clinical evidence of her taking tubercular drugs for nine months and the tumor disappearing.' But who cares about these minor technical details?
- A film cameraman shot footage of MT, and lo! she was well lit, obviously with her divine light, even though there was little ambient light. Only one slight problem: the cameraman acknowledged that he was using unfamiliar film for the first time, and he probably overexposed it.
So if these are the Vatican's 'saints,' we must really hope we are spared the Vatican's 'sinners.' And now we understand the reason for the unseemly haste: they had better get the deed done, sealed and delivered, before further questions crop up about the 'miracles.'
After all, the Vatican is very unhappy that the Pope did not get the Nobel Prize this year. They made their complaint public, much the same way a businessman took out full page ads in American newspapers complaining that his role in the invention of the MRI had been overlooked. This must be another marketing tactic, intended to make the Nobel Committee think twice next year about awarding the prize to the Pope, thus adding a final marketing triumph to his resume before he goes on to the Great White Cathedral in the Sky.
The saint business is absolutely brilliant, whoever invented it was a marketing genius: you get enormous publicity, the gullible pay gigantic amounts of money, and you can attribute it all to selfless service. The Beatified Kochappi's friends would approve.