Returning to India, Post 4: Questioning Mother Teresa
Posted on May 6, 2013
There are few people who are as widely adored as Mother Teresa, but love for her is far from universal.
Mother Teresa and her order, the Missionaries of Charity, have come under some serious criticism for some of their practices, especially in India. The biggest critic of Mother Teresa was the late Christopher Hitchens, who wrote an entire book detailing his concerns about what she believed and how she behaved in Kolkata. Full disclosure: I have not read the book. What I understand is that he bases most of his criticism on some of her statements like: “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” Because she believed this, Hitchens argues, she wasn’t working to alleviate the suffering of the poor in Kolkata, but rather she promoted that suffering.
Many critique the logical outcome of that kind of belief, suggesting that Mother Teresa refused to give pain medication, took money from criminals, didn’t provide appropriate levels of care to her impoverished charges, and sought to convert her patients in their dying days.
I will admit to having some trouble viewing Hitchens as a credible source on Mother Teresa, mostly because I don’t care for the way he spoke about women in general. I value what I’ve read of his work about atheism, but I dislike the idea of giving a man who seemed to dislike and distrust women the power to silence a woman who worked with what very little power she was given as a woman in a notoriously anti-feminist place like the Catholic Church and rose to such impressive places. I can’t imagine that a woman born in Albania in 1910 who felt burdened by the plight of the poor would have felt like she had many options to help, but Mother Teresa did something about her convictions.
The question is: what if her convictions were wrong?
Doctrinally, I see some major differences between myself and Mother Teresa. That makes sense, of course. I am not Catholic; she is one of the most famous Catholics in the world. I disagree with Mother Teresa’s stances on birth control, on abortion, on the best steps to alleviate poverty, on AIDS, on transubstantiation, on the sinlessness of Mary, on the intercession of the saints, on all kinds of things. When I read this 1989 interview with Mother Teresa, I find myself agreeing with some points and disagreeing with others.
I think there can be a lot of good criticism in the cult of Mother Teresa–the idea that she was perfect or that everything she did was perfect. She was surely a flawed person whose ministry benefited immensely from the way she was “sold” to the public as a modern saint. I find myself wondering what happens to the money that is donated to her cause–huge amounts of money, from what has been reported, that doesn’t seem to make its way to the poor of Kolkata.
Perhaps I am more comfortable with doctrinal differences than Hitchens. It doesn’t bother me to be in the company of people whom I strongly disagree with, and so it might be easy for me to look at her and say, “Yes, these beliefs of hers were bad, but these actions of hers were good.”
I am inclined to see her actions in Kolkata as good, even as I see corruption in the way the Catholic Church on the whole promoted her, used her, and benefited from her.
I’ve worked in the homes there before. When you’re in Kolkata, you are surrounded by such intense poverty and injustice that walking into her homes feels like a reprieve. I always sensed kindness there from the workers, volunteers, and sisters, although I’ll admit that my experience is limited to a few homes for a few days at a time.
Contrary to what I’ve heard critics say about Mother Teresa trying to convert the people in her care, the sisters gave all volunteers strict instructions that evangelizing is not permitted within the homes. If a volunteer is caught evangelizing, he or she is asked not to return.
The idea of dying in a room full of other dying people, on a cot with just ceiling fans circulating overhead, eating bland food, being bathed by strangers with no real training or qualifications, without anyone conducting diagnostic tests, without access to standard medical equipment —this idea is pretty depressing. But when you’re in Kolkata and you see the alternatives—lying on concrete under the sun or in some tiny bit of shade, without water or food—you begin to think that Mother Teresa’s homes aren’t all that bad. The homes feel like a respite because they are so much better than the other options.
But then I ask: is the care what it should be? Should we be settling for “better than dying on concrete”? At the home for children with disabilities, are they cared for appropriately? How much money comes in to the church because of the Missionaries of Charity, and where does it go? Are the caregivers kind? Is the system of volunteerism causing more problems in Kolkata than good? If Mother Teresa did believe really problematic things that harm the poor, what should be done now?
I’m interested to see what happens when I go there this month as an adult instead of a teenager. I was just learning to be critical when I was last in India, and now I’m critical of everything. (To the point that it is a fault in my personality, not something to be celebrated.) I plan on reading the work of some of Mother Teresa’s critics.
I am open to becoming a critic of Mother Teresa’s policies, not just her doctrine. I suppose all I can say for sure is that I’ll know more about how I feel in a month, when the trip is over.