Saint to the Rich

Christopher Hitchens

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

“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


2 Responses to “Hitchens on Mother Teresa”

  1. sunny Says:

    good article

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