Manchester’s Mother Teresa set for sainthood
Does religious faith give you special moral courage? Few argue with Elizabeth Prout’s incredible, selfless commitment. But some say that it would be impossible without a deep faith in God.
The philosopher Friedrich Engels described the slums of Manchester in the 1840s as hell on Earth. In “the most important factory town in the world”, thousands lived in squalid housing, drank disease-ridden water and breathed the polluted air from the city’s dark satanic mills. The average life expectancy was 26.
In 1849, the nun Elizabeth Prout came to these slums to teach, feed and nurse the poor. Without state support, many depended on this religious charity to survive. And now the pope has recognised her heroic virtues, an important step on the road to her canonisation.
The church will now consider miracles linked to prayers made to Mother Elizabeth. If two miracles are verified, she will become the first British female saint in modern times. The last three were martyred during the reign of Elizabeth I. And it has been almost 1,000 years since an English woman has been made a saint for how she lived her life and not the manner of her death.
Prout is known as the Mother Theresa of Manchester for her commitment to the poor. Her schools for impoverished children and women’s hostels were radical ideas for their time.
Witnessing the same deprivation, Fredrich Engels came to his own radical conclusions. With Karl Marx, he published the Communist Manifesto in 1848, calling for the workers of the world to unite against capitalism.
They did not see religion as a solution. To them, it was a just pain-relieving drug, “the heart of a heartless world”, which would be unnecessary in a new and better society.
That people could live a moral or virtuous life without religion was a dangerous idea in the 19th Century. But today atheism is mainstream and 53% of adults in the UK say they have no religion.
Some atheists, like the scientist Richard Dawkins, argue that it takes courage to abandon the comforting “delusion” of religion and pursue scientific truth. For critics of the Catholic Church, the veneration of saints is harmful because it encourages people to trust in miracles instead of medical science.
In contrast, many stress the value of saints as role models. In a society that celebrates fame and wealth, they argue, we need people who inspire us to live virtuously. As epidemics swept the industrial communities of Victorian England, Elizabeth Prout did not think about her own safety, but how she could help others.
Despite their very different perspectives, Prout and Engels were both witnesses to the child labour and extreme poverty of Victorian slums. And from the planet’s mega-slums to the 152 million children working worldwide, these issues have not disappeared.
Does religious faith give you special moral courage?
Stairway to heaven
Some say no, you don’t need religion. Non-religious people throughout history have shown extraordinary bravery and self-sacrifice, whilst people of faith have been guilty of greed and cowardice. A strong belief in a higher cause can make people do incredible things, but it can also lead to intolerance and fundamentalism.
Others say yes, religious faith gives people moral courage. Society is not perfect and it often encourages and rewards our greedy and selfish desires. Religious belief creates a system of justice that exists above society and a God that judges everything we do. In an unjust world, this helps us accept suffering to do the right thing.
- Do you believe in miracles?
- Who decides what is morally good?
- Choose someone alive today who you think should be made a saint. Write a letter to the pope explaining their virtues.
- Research the conditions of a modern mega-slum: its size, location and problems. Present your findings to an adult.
Some People Say...
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963), British writer
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that modern popes are canonising more saints than ever before. From the 12th Century, only the pope could recognise a saint and the process could take decades or even centuries. However, Pope John Paul II (1978 - 2005) broke tradition by making 482 saints, more than had been made in the previous 500 years. Pope Francis I has already beaten this record, canonising 898 people. 813 of these were the inhabitants of an Italian town that fell to Ottoman invaders in 1480.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around the idea of moral relativism. For centuries, the church was the absolute authority on right and wrong in Christian society. In the modern era, philosophers and social scientists have argued that moral beliefs change over time and cultures have different moralities. Despite these differences, some argue we can agree on universal human values. Others fear that without a moral religious authority, people will always do what they want, and not what is right.
- Friedrich Engels
- In 1842, his parents sent Engels to the family-owned mill in Manchester. They hoped he would abandon his radical politics. Instead, he wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, describing the poverty of northern towns.
- Extremely dirty and unpleasant, usually as a result of poverty or neglect.
- Dark satanic mills
- The phrase from William Blake’s poem “And did those feet in ancient time” is often used to describe the grim factories that powered the Industrial Revolution. Blake’s poem contrasts this image with an imaginary kingdom of heaven in England.
- Heroic virtues
- The seven virtues in the Catholic religion are faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance and courage. A saint displays these virtues to “a heroic degree”.
- According to Catholic beliefs, the pope does not create saints. Miracles are proof that a saint is in heaven and can receive prayers.
- Between 1535 and 1679, 40 Catholic martyrs were killed for their religion in England and Wales. In 1970, they were all canonised as saints by Pope Paul VI.
- Mother Theresa
- The Albanian-Indian nun famous for her charitable work. She won the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and was made a saint in 2016.
- Great respect or adoration of something.
- The United Nations reports that over 1 billion people live in slum settlements worldwide. The largest mega-slum is Khayelitsha in South Africa, home to 400,000 people.
- 152 million
- 2021 is the UN International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.
- A form of a religion that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of religious texts.