Public Religion and Private Belief The Role of Catholic Church

THE “beatification” of Mother Teresa drew a worldwide audience with the media, both Indian and international figuring it prominently. Beatification is the first step in the complex process the church declaring anyone a saint. While the Catholic Church is well within its rights to honour any figure it wants, the problem starts when the process of conferring sainthood demands that it must be preceded by proven record of a miracle. For this purpose, Monica Besra’s tumour had to be certified by the Vatican to have been cured without any human intervention, her medical records not withstanding. The Vatican’s promotion of the irrational does not stop here. It has also been campaigning against the use of condoms arguing that it promotes AIDS. In Vatican’s view it encourages promiscuity and as the AIDS virus — based on Vatican’s internal scientific evidence – can pass through the condom, condom use helps propagation of AIDS. All attempts by others to examine this scientific evidence have been denied by the Vatican.


There has been criticism of the current pontiff that he has taken the Church back a number of decades. On issues such as celibacy and gay rights, even liberation theology, the Church can argue that this is an internal matter of the Church and does not belong to the public domain. The matter becomes altogether different when the Church propagates belief in miracles and miracle cures and when it involves itself in sabotaging attempts to allow people to practice contraception. This verges on the criminal if a deliberate scientific fraud is practiced on its followers in the world wide struggle against AIDS where safe sex using condoms has been shown to be effective. That the Church should oppose such measures in its bigoted belief against contraception is condemning millions to this dreaded disease.

The western media, which spares no attempts to show how other societies are irrational, falls curiously silent when it comes confronting irrationality in their own backyards. We have heard ad nauseam about the irrational Muslims committing suicide bombing in the belief that they will go to heaven directly as participants in “holy jihad.” The class of irrational east as against the rational west is a recurring theme, particularly in a uni-polar world where US and its president believes its “god given” right to bring civilisation to Iraq or “Eyrak” as he calls it. A US general has gone even further and in a well-publicised speech talked about Islam being the work of Satan. Individual beliefs such as these would only have been amusing oddities if they did not fuel the imperial ambitions of the US. That is why the silence of the western media on miracles being used to justify an action by the Church becomes an important omission.

Lest people feel that the denial of miraculous powers of Mother Teresa is an attempt to run down her work, let me state that all of us are deeply appreciative of her work amongst the poor in Kolakata. A number of us would differ sharply on her views on birth control, position of women, and various other social and political issues. That is our right just as it was hers to hold whatever views she did. Her views do not take away from her the quality of work she did. The issue of whether she should be conferred sainthood by the Catholic Church engages us only because instead of it being based on her work, it is based on the sudden suspension of the laws of nature. The Church is certifying that divine intervention occurred on Monica Besra praying to Mother Teresa to cure her.


The Monica Besra has been well documented. Briefly, the case as presented during Mother Teresa’s beatification was that Monica Besra’s pain and stomach tumour disappeared after she applied a locket with the image of Mother Teresa on the site of the pain. This miracle supposedly took place in September 1998, on the anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death. The problem with this position is that Monica Besra had undergone extensive medication in the state run Balurghat Hospital. Doctors who treated her confirm that she underwent treatment for more than 2 months and improved steadily during this period. Monica believes that though she indeed did take the medicines, but her cure is due to the locket. Her husband, Seiku Murmu, as also her doctors believe that the miracle is a hoax. The rationalists have challenged the Church to prove a miracle, the same way that they have challenged any Hindu “godmen” to prove theirs. As is usual with miracles, such challenges are quietly ignored. Miracles, we are told, can only occur with the faithful.

Why should we be concerned if the Church believes that the laws of nature occasionally stands still at the behest of god to establish sainthood for some? How would it matter if the Church still held that Galileo was indeed wrong and sun goes around the earth? The reason that such beliefs of the Church have implications, and serious implications for their following. And what affects them also affects all of us.


Let us take the current state of Mother Teresa’s sainthood. The Church, to confer sainthood, requires a second miracle. The impact on the believers is that a number of them will leave medical treatment now to pray to Mother Teresa. That it exposes the faithful to risks of curable disease is what considers us. Fight the battle of faith anyway you want, but for the sake of the people concerned do not preach against medicines and in favour of miraculous cures. This is true for all godmen, be of the Hindu, Muslim or Christian variety.

The case of AIDS and the role of Catholic Church is even worse. According to the Church, condoms have tiny holes in them through which HIV can pass and that is why the Church is arguing against the use of condoms, putting at risk millions of Catholics. A senior Vatican spokesman backs the claims about permeable condoms, despite assurances by the World Health Organisation that they are untrue. The WHO has condemned the Vatican’s views, saying: “These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million.”

The church’s claims are revealed in a BBC1 Panorama programme, Sex and the Holy City, to broadcast last Sunday. The president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, told the programme: “The Aids virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom.

“These margins of uncertainty… should represent an obligation on the part of the health ministries and all these campaigns to act in the same way as they do with regard to cigarettes, which they state to be a danger.”


The issue here is that in Philippines, in Kenya and various other places, the battle against AIDS is being lost because the Church has joined the battle against it. It is well established that condoms provide, not absolute safety but significant reduction of risks in transmission of AIDS. Of course condoms can break or tear and infection can still take place. But if we can reduce the risk of transmission, then we significantly reduce the spread of AIDS. However, across four continents, the Catholic Church, which regards birth control as anathema, is fighting against AIDS control using condoms. That they should oppose birth control itself is a sign of their obsolete thinking. That they should claim their own scientific studies to oppose the role of condoms in AIDS control exposes millions of their followers to unacceptable risks. Already doctors in various parts of the world have testified that they are facing hostile reaction from the Church in their attempts to educate the people in the use of condoms and safe sex.

Obviously, irrationality is not the province of any particular religion or community. Our own homegrown variety in busy dismissing all evidence about the past, which does not conform to theirs. The danger unfortunately is neither to this past nor even to the religious institutions. The danger lies in that it affects human lives, either through wrong practices and policies, or in extreme cases, through organised pogroms. It is this spilling over of religion to the public arena that must be condemned by all right thinking people.

2nd Nov 2003