Someone referred to me the other day as Mother Teresa. Now, you know, I am good. Unfortunately, this supposed compliment actually left me MORTALLY OFFENDED. And then I remembered: not everyone's aware of MT's horrendous-ness!
In all the universe of religious experience, few figures are so beloved as the Catholic nun known to the world as Mother Teresa. The official biography holds that she selflessly devoted her life to ministering to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, suffering through poverty and deprivation nearly as great as that of her patients without complaint, and asking no reward except the knowledge of doing God’s will. She was a beloved figure to millions and a trusted counselor to powerful leaders and celebrities worldwide; was showered with rewards and honours during her life, and attracted huge crowds as she lay in state after her death.
As I said, that is the official story. But atheists and freethinkers, more than any other group, should recognise how manipulative words can be. Teresa’s story is perhaps the supreme example of this. In this post, I intend to look at evidence that suggests MT wasn't all she's cracked up to be. Starting with a study, conducted by Canadian researchers, which has dubbed Mother Teresa "anything but a saint"...
The study showed how Mother Teresa was actually just a creation of an orchestrated and effective media campaign. Sure, she was generous with her prayers; but ridiculously miserly with her foundation's millions when it came to humanity's suffering.
The controversial study, published in the journal of studies in religion/sciences called 'Religieuses' (great read - look it up), says that Teresa — known across the world as the apostle of the dying and the downtrodden — actually felt it was beautiful to see the poor suffer.
According to the study, the Vatican overlooked the crucial human side of Teresa — her dubious way of caring for the sick by glorifying their suffering instead of relieving it.
Instead, the Vatican went ahead with her beatification followed by canonisation "to revitalise the Church and inspire the faithful especially at a time when churches are empty and the Roman authority is in decline".
Researchers Serge Larivee and Genevieve Chenard from the University of Montreal's department of psychoeducation, and Carole Senechal of the University of Ottawa's faculty of education, analysed published writings about Mother Teresa and concluded that her hallowed image, "which does not stand up to analysis of the facts" was constructed, and that her beatification was "orchestrated by an effective media campaign".
According to Larivee, facts debunk Teresa's myth. He says that the Vatican, before deciding on Teresa's beatification, did not take into account "her rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding ... abortion, contraception, and divorce."
At the time of her death, Teresa had 517 missions or "homes for the dying" as described by doctors visiting several of these establishments in Kolkata. They welcomed the poor and sick in more than 100 countries.
According to the study, the doctors observed a significant lack of hygiene, even unfit conditions and a shortage of actual care, food and painkillers. Down to lack of funding? I think not. The Order of he Missionaries of Charity successfully raised HUNDREDS of MILLIONS of dollars!
Volunteers such as Loudon, and Western doctors such as Robin Fox of the Lancet, wrote with shock of what they found in MT’s clinics. No tests were performed to determine the patients’ ailments. No modern medical equipment was available. Even people dying of cancer, suffering terrible agony, were given no painkillers other than aspirin. Needles were rinsed and reused, without proper sterilisation. No one was ever sent to the hospital; even people in clear need of emergency surgery or other treatment.
Again, it is important to note that these conditions were not the unavoidable result of triage. MT’s organisation routinely received multimillion-dollar donations which were squirreled away in bank accounts, while volunteers were told to beg donors for more money and plead extreme poverty and desperate need. The money she received could easily have built half a dozen fully-equipped modern hospitals and clinics, but was never used for that purpose. No, this negligent and rudimentary care was deliberate. However, despite her praise for poverty, MT hypocritically sought out the most advanced care possible in the Western world when she herself was in need of it. When it came to her own treatment, MT " received it in a modern American hospital"... Of course she did.
The three researchers from the study also dug into records of her meeting in London in 1968 with the BBC's Malcom Muggeridge who had strong views against abortion and shared Mother Teresa's right-wing Catholic values.
The researchers say Muggeridge had decided to promote MT. In 1969, he made a eulogistic film on the missionary, promoting her by attributing to her the "first photographic miracle", when it should have been attributed to the new film stock being marketed by Kodak.
Following her death, the Vatican decided to waive the usual five-year waiting period to open the beatification process. According to the researchers, one of the miracles attributed to Mother Theresa is the healing of Monica Besra, who suffered from intense abdominal pain, after a medallion blessed by her was placed on Besra's abdomen.
Larivee said, "Her doctors thought otherwise: the ovarian cyst and the tuberculosis from which she suffered were healed by the drugs they had given her. The Vatican, nevertheless, concluded that it was a miracle. Mother Teresa's popularity was such that she had become untouchable for the population, which had already declared her a saint."
Moving on to her personal life, it's common knowledge that MT was a friend to vicious dictators, criminals and con men. As Christopher Hitchens documents in his book The Missionary Position, MT was acquainted with a startling number of unsavory characters. Two such were the Duvaliers, Jean-Claude and Michelle, who you'll know off of ruling Haiti as a police state from 1971, until they were overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986. (They looted the country of most of its dollar when they fled.) MT visited them in person in 1981 and praised the Duvaliers and their regime as “friends” of the poor, and her testimony on their behalf was shown on state-owned television for weeks. Bizarrely, she also visited the grave of brutal Communist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1990, laying a wreath of flowers on the tomb of a man who had viciously suppressed religion in MT’s native Albania. The list also includes the Nicaraguan contras, a Catholic terrorist group who unleashed death squads on the civilian population in their bid to conquer the country.
MT was also a friend to Charles Keating, a conservative Catholic fundamentalist who served on an anti-pornography commission under President Nixon. Keating would later become infamous for his role in the Savings & Loan scandal, where he was convicted of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy for his involvement in a scam where customers were deceived into buying worthless junk bonds, resulting in many of them losing their life savings. Keating had donated $1.25 million to Mother Teresa in the 1980s, and as he was awaiting sentencing, she wrote a letter to the court on his behalf asking for clemency.
The prosecuting attorney, Paul Turley, wrote a reply to this letter. In his reply, he explained what Keating had been convicted of, and observed, “No church… should allow itself to be used as salve for the conscience of the criminal.” He also pointed out that the $1.25 million Keating had donated to her was stolen money, and suggested that the appropriate course of action would be for her to give it back: “You have been given money by Mr. Keating that he has been convicted of stealing by fraud. Do not permit him the ‘indulgence’ he desires. Do not keep the money. Return it to those who worked for it and earned it!”
MT never replied to this letter.
MT cloaked a reactionary right-wing political outlook in false protestations of innocence and naïveté. Although she insisted on several occasions that her mission was resolutely apolitical, MT’s true interests were anything but. Like the right-wing conservative Catholic she was, she traveled the world to lobby against the legality of abortion, contraception, and even divorce.
When the International Health Organsation honoured MT in 1989, she spoke at length against abortion and contraception and called AIDS a “just retribution for improper sexual conduct”. Similarly, when MT was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she proclaimed in her acceptance speech that abortion was the greatest threat to peace in the world. (Hitchens cuttingly notes that when the award was announced, “few people had the poor taste to ask what she had ever done, or even claimed to do, for the cause of peace”. Lolz.). In 1992, she appeared at an open-air Mass in Ireland and said, “Let us promise Our Lady who loves Ireland so much that we will never allow in this country a single abortion. And no contraceptives.” She also campaigned in Ireland to oppose the successful 1995 referendum to legalise divorce in that predominantly Catholic country.
The connection between overpopulation and poverty seemed never to occur to MT, who said on another occasion that she was not concerned about it because “God always provides”. (The very existence of her mission would seem to cast doubt on that.) In upholding the irrational dogmas of Catholicism, she failed to recognise – or perhaps chose to disregard – the obvious conclusion that inadequate access to family planning services was and is one of the greatest causes of human destitution.
Going back to her malpractice, MT considered converting the sick and the poor to be a higher priority than providing for their actual needs, and believed that human suffering was beneficial and even “beautiful”. The following quote from MT says it all:
“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.”
On another occasion, MT told a terminal cancer patient, who was dying in extreme pain, that he should consider himself fortunate: “You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.” (She freely related his reply, which she seemed not to realise was meant as a putdown: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”)
Despite the widespread perception that MT sought to relieve the suffering of the poor, the truth was anything but. As Hitchens documents, she actually considered suffering to be beneficial. This is why she kept her clinics so rudimentary – not so that sick people could be cured, but so they could get closer to God through their suffering. As critics like Michael Hakeem put it: “Mother Teresa is thoroughly saturated with a primitive fundamentalist religious worldview that sees pain, hardship, and suffering as ennobling experiences and a beautiful expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross.” To her mind, they were not evils to be relieved, but blessings to be glorified.
But, of course, suffering like Christ was of no benefit if the sufferer did not actually accept Christ. To this end, MT’s clinics were run as conversion factories. Ex-volunteers have testified that MT taught her followers to secretly baptise the dying – people who could not resist, or were not aware of what was happening to them – without their consent. As ex-volunteer Susan Shields wrote, “Material aid was a means of reaching their souls, of showing the poor that God loved them… Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptising Hindus and Muslims”.
It seems that MT’s true ambition was to found a Catholic religious order on a par with the Franciscans and the Benedictines. (Her Nobel prize money was used to this end.) She may well get her wish; her Missionaries of Charity organisation numbers as many as 44,000. If she wished to create a convent whose mission is to glorify human suffering, then it is for Catholics to decide whether they want to support that mission. Secularists and humanists, however, should have a little think about whether they wanna support an effort that is so manifestly at odds with what they stand for...
In fairness, I agree with how Larivee however signs off the study, although somewhat surprisingly positive: "If the extraordinary image of Mother Teresa conveyed in the collective imagination has encouraged humanitarian initiatives that are genuinely engaged with those crushed by poverty, we can only rejoice".
If this is news to you, just remember to be more selective as to who you refer to as Mother Teresa in the future.
It's good to be back.