Mommie Dearest
The pope beatifies Mother Teresa, a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, October 20, 2003, at 1:04 PM PT

Mother Teresa: No saint

I think it was Macaulay who said that the Roman Catholic Church deserved great credit for, and owed its longevity to, its ability to handle and contain fanaticism. This rather oblique compliment belongs to a more serious age. What is so striking about the "beatification" of the woman who styled herself "Mother" Teresa is the abject surrender, on the part of the church, to the forces of showbiz, superstition, and populism.

It's the sheer tawdriness that strikes the eye first of all. It used to be that a person could not even be nominated for "beatification," the first step to "sainthood," until five years after his or her death. This was to guard against local or popular enthusiasm in the promotion of dubious characters. The pope nominated MT a year after her death in 1997. It also used to be that an apparatus of inquiry was set in train, including the scrutiny of an advocatus diaboli or "devil's advocate," to test any extraordinary claims. The pope has abolished this office and has created more instant saints than all his predecessors combined as far back as the 16th century.

As for the "miracle" that had to be attested, what can one say? Surely any respectable Catholic cringes with shame at the obviousness of the fakery. A Bengali woman named Monica Besra claims that a beam of light emerged from a picture of MT, which she happened to have in her home, and relieved her of a cancerous tumor. Her physician, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, says that she didn't have a cancerous tumor in the first place and that the tubercular cyst she did have was cured by a course of prescription medicine. Was he interviewed by the Vatican's investigators? No. (As it happens, I myself was interviewed by them but only in the most perfunctory way. The procedure still does demand a show of consultation with doubters, and a show of consultation was what, in this case, it got.)

According to an uncontradicted report in the Italian paper L'Eco di Bergamo, the Vatican's secretary of state sent a letter to senior cardinals in June, asking on behalf of the pope whether they favored making MT a saint right away. The pope's clear intention has been to speed the process up in order to perform the ceremony in his own lifetime. The response was in the negative, according to Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian priest who has acted as postulator or advocate for the "canonization." But the damage, to such integrity as the process possesses, has already been done.

During the deliberations over the Second Vatican Council, under the stewardship of Pope John XXIII, MT was to the fore in opposing all suggestions of reform. What was needed, she maintained, was more work and more faith, not doctrinal revision. Her position was ultra-reactionary and fundamentalist even in orthodox Catholic terms. Believers are indeed enjoined to abhor and eschew abortion, but they are not required to affirm that abortion is "the greatest destroyer of peace," as MT fantastically asserted to a dumbfounded audience when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize*. Believers are likewise enjoined to abhor and eschew divorce, but they are not required to insist that a ban on divorce and remarriage be a part of the state constitution, as MT demanded in a referendum in Ireland (which her side narrowly lost) in 1996. Later in that same year, she told Ladies Home Journal that she was pleased by the divorce of her friend Princess Diana, because the marriage had so obviously been an unhappy one …

This returns us to the medieval corruption of the church, which sold indulgences to the rich while preaching hellfire and continence to the poor. MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?

The rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for "the poorest of the poor." People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions. Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the "Missionaries of Charity," but they had no audience for their story. George Orwell's admonition in his essay on Gandhi—that saints should always be presumed guilty until proved innocent—was drowned in a Niagara of soft-hearted, soft-headed, and uninquiring propaganda.

One of the curses of India, as of other poor countries, is the quack medicine man, who fleeces the sufferer by promises of miraculous healing. Sunday was a great day for these parasites, who saw their crummy methods endorsed by his holiness and given a more or less free ride in the international press. Forgotten were the elementary rules of logic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. More than that, we witnessed the elevation and consecration of extreme dogmatism, blinkered faith, and the cult of a mediocre human personality. Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions.

Correction, Oct. 21, 2003: This piece originally claimed that in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Mother Teresa called abortion and contraception the greatest threats to world peace. In that speech Mother Teresa did call abortion "the greatest destroyer of peace." But she did not much discuss contraception, except to praise "natural" family planning.(Return to corrected sentence.)

Saint to the rich

There was less -- and more -- to Mother Teresa than met the eye.

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"SAINTS," George Orwell wrote in 1949, "should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent." For an illustration of the exact reverse of this admonition, consider the career of "Mother Teresa" of Calcutta, who died Friday at the age of 87.

Most public figures have their reputations judged in the light of their actions. But uniquely, all of Mother Teresa's actions were judged by her reputation -- as a holy, selfless person, completely dedicated to the service of the poor and the wretched.

Let me offer examples of two small but related "actions." Two years ago, the population of the Republic of Ireland went to the polls in a referendum. The single issue was the removal of the constitutional ban on divorce. Ireland is the only country in Europe with such a prohibition, and it is also engaged in serious talks with the Protestant minority who fear clerical control of their lives in a future "power-sharing" agreement. For this reason, most Irish political parties called for a "yes" vote. In the concluding stages of the campaign, which was very closely fought, Mother Teresa intervened to urge that the faithful vote "no."

A few months later, she gave an interview to the American magazine, Ladies Home Journal, which reached millions of housewives. She was asked about her friendship with Princess Diana, a friendship which has been evolving over the past several years, and also about Diana's then impending divorce. Of the divorce Mother Teresa said that "It is a good thing that it is over. Nobody was happy anyhow."

So, from Mother Teresa it was sermons for the poor about morality and obedience, but forgiveness and indulgence for princesses. Few commentators noted the contrast, because such facts did not "fit" the image that has become so necessary. But actually, this contrast is a far better guide to Mother Teresa's theory and practice than the received opinion about either.

While much was made of Mother Teresa's devotion to the poor and downtrodden, she was in fact a lifelong friend to the rich and powerful. Some examples:

In 1981 Mother Teresa journeyed to Haiti, to accept that nation's highest award, the Legion d'Honneur. She received it from the Duvalier family, and made a glowing speech in which she said that dictator "Baby Doc" and his wife Michele not only loved the poor, but were loved by the poor in return.

In 1990 she made a trip to Albania, then the most oppressive of the Balkan Stalinist states, and laid a wreath on the grave of the dictator Enver Hoxha as well as on the irredentist monument to "Mother Albania". She was herself of Albanian descent (born in Skopje, Macedonia), but many Albanians were shocked by her embrace of Hoxha's widow and her silence on human rights.

In 1992 she intervened with a court in Los Angeles, which was about to sentence Charles Keating, the biggest fraud and embezzler in American history. His S & L racket stole a total of $252 million, mainly from small and poor depositors. A strong Catholic and right-wing campaigner against pornography in his spare time, Keating gave Mother Teresa $1,250,000 in cash and the use of a private jet, in return for which she gave him many useful endorsements, including a character reference to the court. The court had asked Mother Teresa to return Keating's donations, which may well have been stolen, but she never replied to the request.
What about her celebrated concern for the poor and the weak? Here the record is much murkier than her saintly image would suggest. I have been shown testimony from leading American and British physicians, expressing their concern at the extremely low standard of medicine practiced in her small Calcutta clinics. No pain killers, syringes washed in cold water, a fatalistic attitude toward death and a strict regimen for the patients. No public accounts were made available by her "missionaries of Charity" but enormous sums are known to have been raised. The income from such awards as the Nobel Prize is alone enough to maintain a sizable operation. In one on-the-record interview, Mother Teresa spoke with pride of having opened more than 500 convents in 125 countries, "not counting India." It seemed more than probable that money donated by well-wishers for the relief of suffering was being employed for the purpose of religious proselytizing by the "missionary multinational."

What kind of theology was she promoting? Mother Teresa offers an intensely simple version of Christian Fundamentalism. She believed that we are all sinners conceived in iniquity. She frequently described the suffering of the poor as a gift from God, and took a highly traditional attitude of resignation and stoicism. She was extremely critical of political attempts to change injustice and equality, describing herself as "non-political" but also expressing sympathy for conservative Catholic forces in Latin America and Southern Europe. She was adamantly opposed to the use of contraception. She said that she would never permit a child to be adopted by any parent who had ever consented to an abortion. In her Nobel Prize speech, she described abortion as the single greatest threat to world peace. She was a staunch ally of the present Pope in his battle, within the church, against the "social gospel" and other liberal heresies.

It is paradoxical that a woman of almost medieval opinions should have been so revered by the world of secular modernism as well as by the community of the devout. Perhaps it's because that people in the West, afflicted by bad conscience about the misery of what we call the "Third World," are happy to delegate the task of relief to somebody else. And, having made this vicarious decision, they do not wish to inquire too closely into the actions and motives of the "somebody else" they have chosen. Thus Mother Teresa could say -- as she did more than once -- that there can no more be too many babies than there can be too many flowers or stars. Those who believe in the need for some sort of limitation on population must not have heard those words too well.

In September 1996, the U.S. Congress voted to make her an honorary American citizen, a distinction bestowed previously only on Winston Churchill, Raoul Wallenberg and Mr. and Mrs. William Penn, founders of the state of Pennsylvania. The United States may have a secular constitution, but with the abortion question and the (greatly overstated) power of the "Christian Coalition" being such political hot potatoes, the vote was unanimous.

In Calcutta once, Mother Teresa gave me a tour of a tiny orphanage she had opened. The scene was an affecting one, though it hardly made much difference to the immense problems of that city. As the tour was concluding she suddenly gestured with her arm and said, "You see? This is how we combat abortion and contraception in Bengal." This admission, that the purpose of her operation is propagandistic rather than strictly humanitarian, was an honest one. Mother Teresa, as far as I am aware, never made any attempt to conceal her extremely dogmatic and conservative agenda. Nor was she ever shy about her choice of rich, unscrupulous, authoritarian patrons. Some of her more awe-struck apologists argue that Jesus, too, was criticized for keeping bad company. Still, I do not recall him ever doing anything like kissing the feet of the Duvaliers.

In this sense, then, her hold on public opinion in a skeptical and materialist age was a small "miracle" all by itself.
Sept. 5, 1997