Decrypting Mother Teresa
Today we're going to point our skeptical eye at Mother Teresa, one of the most controversial figures from the 20th century. Controversial in that everything you might have heard about her in recent years is likely to be quite negative, despite her winning a 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and being renowned throughout the world as an advocate for the sick and poor, and a tireless and selfless aid worker without a thought for her own plight in the most horrid conditions. But find any article about her online these days, and it's more than likely to be a harsh criticism of her practices — and of her personally — from virtually every angle. Was she all that bad, was she truly a saint, or might there be other nuances yet unspoken?
Mother Teresa was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in the Ottoman Empire, in what is today Macedonia. At 18, she moved to a Catholic abbey in Ireland to learn English and to become a missionary, and after just one year she was sent to India to begin that work. Soon she took her nun's vows and adopted the name Sister Teresa. After teaching at a convent school in Calcutta for some 20 years, she changed paths and founded a congregation for tending to the poor in 1950. This eventually became the Missionaries of Charity, for which she is best known. By the time of her death in 1997, Missionaries of Charity had 610 missions in over 100 countries. Some are hospice facilities, some are orphanages or homes for women and invalids, but most are purely for missionary work and do not perform any social work or have any residents.
Those of us outside Mother Teresa's sphere of influence might have never heard her name were it not for a 1969 book and BBC documentary Something Wonderful for God, which brought news of her doings to the world, and arguably planted the seed which grew into all of her life's accolades and recognitions including her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and probably also her 2003 beatification and 2016 canonization. But even as Something Wonderful for God was portraying her as uncommonly good and selfless and a boon to the poor, dissenting opinions had already begun to rumble.
The first thing to understand is that despite the well-known image, Mother Teresa's missions were never about relieving suffering. She believed strongly that suffering brought one closer to God. Consequently, Western volunteers who signed on at her missions, based on their conception of what it was, often came away reporting deplorable conditions. Trained medical professionals are nowhere to be found; medical supplies are expired, inadequate, or reused. Painkillers are frowned upon as Teresa believed pain was an integral part of the all-important suffering.
But all this seems unaccountable in light of the magnitude of donations Teresa brought in. At its peak, before her death, Missionaries of Charity raked in an estimated US$75 million per year in donations. That averages out to $125,000 per year per location — or it would, except for one little detail. Missionaries of Charity does not report any numbers, so the task of untangling its true financial picture has fallen to independent researchers. What's been uncovered has been startling. Only about 7% of Missionaries of Charity's budget has gone to its programs — or a little less than $9,000 per location. Her original missions in Calcutta are by far the largest and best known and probably receive the bulk of those funds, leaving a pittance to the others. Missionaries of Charity has been described as the wealthiest Catholic order in the world, so it seems inexcusable that their staff and facilities should be any fraction short of the world's finest, let alone so staggeringly far from it.
We might be inclined to guess that with such resources, Missionaries of Charity must be a major force in Calcutta. However, a 1998 investigative report from Germany found that Missionaries of Charity was not even among the 200 largest charitable service providers in Calcutta. She may have had this larger-than-life international image of a great healer, but within Calcutta, she was little more than a small-time missionary.
It becomes easier to understand when one studies Mother Teresa herself, what she believed, and what she wanted to accomplish. She came to Calcutta to minister to the sick and the poor, not to treat them, to heal them, or to find them better jobs and opportunities. To minister to them. She was a missionary, not a doctor, not an employer. She believed their poverty was a crucial component to their spirituality. If you sought aid at one of her missions you may have gotten a clean bed and possibly an aspirin, but you certainly got a Catholic baptism. The image of Mother Teresa as a healer was a Western fiction, promoted in Something Wonderful for God and many other similar works that followed it. It was never the reality of her missionary work.
This fact also makes it easier to understand why the Vatican so eagerly brushed aside its normal practices to fast-track her path to sainthood, to be completed in 2016. And this is the best segue to the man who must be included in any critical discussion of Mother Teresa: Christopher Hitchens, author of the 1995 long-form essay The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Unlike most writers, Hitchens interviewed her extensively and knew her well, and she'd made it clear to him in no uncertain terms that hers was a mission of conversion and baptism, and not of social work. Credit, then, to the Church for calling Hitchens as the "devil's advocate" witness at her 2003 beatification hearing, to testify against the Church's claim that she had miraculously healed a woman. Hitchens described it best himself:
Nevertheless the beatification carried unopposed, as will, no doubt, her 2016 canonization citing another similar "miracle".
In his essay, Hitchens also took her to task for siding with questionable politicians, such as praising Indira Gandhi for suspending civil liberties in 1975, and accepting the Legion of Honor from corrupt Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1981. She supported the oppressive Communist leader of Albania, and took money from any source, including more than one corrupt businessman.
One of Teresa's most notorious relationships was with Charles Keating, poster boy for the American savings & loan scandal from the 1980s and 1990s. Keating, a Catholic, had donated over a million dollars to Missionaries of Charity over the years, and gave her the use of his private jet and helicopter whenever she was stateside. She received these donations before the scandal happened and she had no reason to suspect it might have been dirty money. So when he was prosecuted, Mother Teresa wrote the judge a letter in support of Keating, saying "He has always been kind and generous to God's poor". (As a disclaimer, I should mention that during Charles Keating's prosecution, I worked at the law firm Alvarado, Rus & McClellan that represented the class of victims from his Lincoln Savings and Loan, mostly retired people who lost their life savings. Part of the Lincoln Savings training materials said "Remember the weak, meek and ignorant are always good targets." We were all pretty gobsmacked that Mother Teresa had stepped in on Keating's side. I guess her advocacy on behalf of the weak, meek, and ignorant was inversely proportional to the size of the donation.) Upon learning of her letter, the prosecutor wrote back:
She never wrote back.
I would not have expected her to. Mother Teresa was not sophisticated. She lived in Calcutta. She had no significant education. She probably didn't even know what a junk bond was. She was often criticized as a hypocrite for seeking treatment in advanced western hospitals when she got sick at the end of her own life, while patients withered and died in her missions, but I have trouble seeing it this way. Teresa never claimed to give medical care. She told Hitchens as much outright. She often shocked audiences with admissions that critics trumpeted, even saying during her Nobel Prize acceptance speech that abortion was "the greatest destroyer of peace". It wasn't a faux pas; it was what she believed, and she never said anything different.
She never claimed to be anyone different than what Hitchens and other critics charged her with. We did. Her Western admirers, in love with a fictional image, created the merciful nun who healed the sick and tended to the poor. We made the bogus documentaries and gave her undeserved awards and honorary degrees that had nothing to do with her real work. She never asked for any of them.
It can be argued that the criticism of Mother Teresa is a bit unfair, first because her shortcomings are only in comparison to a paragon who existed nowhere but in our own minds, and second because the real beneficiary of our gullibility was never her at all. Follow that other 93% of the $75 million per year, and you'll almost certainly find that it leads to the Vatican Bank. I say, give the old lady a break; and start demanding instead that when donors give millions of dollars to treat the sick and feed and clothe the poor, the Church should do exactly that, and nothing less.
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