Mother Theresa’s mixed legacy

Mother Theresa’s legacy was not an unmixed one. On the one hand, she did important work that others were not doing, and took in the sick and dying from the streets of Calcutta and provided them with beds to spend their last days with at least some minimal care and cleanliness. On the other, she exhibited a serious tone-deafness when it came to hobnobbing with rich and powerful people, who, by giving her cause money, tried to immunize themselves from criticisms for their own barbaric cruelty to the people of their country.

Michael Hand in his review of Christopher Hitchens’ book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso, 1995) gives some examples.

[Mother Theresa] said of Michele Duvalier, wife of Haiti’s despised and ruthless dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, that she is “someone who feels, who knows, who wishes to demonstrate her love not only with words but also with concrete and tangible actions.” At the time, Haiti had the lowest per capita annual income in the western hemisphere. (I think this remains the case.) Living conditions for most Haitians were intolerable. Stories abounded that US cosmetics companies purchased blood from poor Haitians to make shampoo with “human protein” ingredients. Eventually the Duvaliers were forced out of Haiti — they absconded with large amounts of government money, to settle on the French Riviera. Still, Mother Teresa said of Michele that she had “never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with her. It was a beautiful lesson to me.”

During the trial of Charles Keating, eventually resulting in a ten-year sentence for fraud in the S&L debacle, Mother Teresa wrote to the trial judge. She appealed for leniency in Keating’s case, for he had donated a large sum to her projects. That the money was not his to donate didn’t occur to her, and she has not responded to a request that she return the illegitimate gift.

She quickly made the scene at the famous Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal. Even before the cause was known — it turned out to be corporate negligence, unsurprisingly — Mother Teresa was advising all victims to “Forgive. Forgive.” This advice presupposes that poverty and misery are the destiny of the poor and miserable, so that their response should be an act of mercy toward the murderers of their families and friends. This conception of the poor is Mother Teresa’s stock-in-trade: “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot…I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people [italics added].”

The last point highlights another disturbing feature of Mother Theresa’s ministry, her strange belief that suffering was in itself a good and ennobling thing. It was almost a cult of suffering, the belief that suffering brought you closer to god. As someone once said of her, she was not a friend of the poor so much as a friend of poverty. There were, however, two issues over which she showed no ambiguity whatsoever: her opposition to abortions and the use of contraceptive aids. In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize speech she even made the extraordinary statement that “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.”

The magicians Penn and Teller have produced a blistering expose of what they say is the dark side of the Mother Theresa legend.

Part 1:

Part 2:

The judgments of Penn and Teller and Hitchens seem a little harsh to me. The sight of Mother Theresa hobnobbing like a politician with the wealthy and providing them with political cover in return for getting big contributions to expand her religious activities makes her a tempting target to label as a hypocrite. But there is little evidence that her concern for the poor and the destitute her mission took in was anything but genuine. The more likely reason for her tarnishing her legacy by cavorting with disreputable but wealthy people is that she fell prey to the all-too-easy trap of rationalization that the ends justifies the means, convincing herself that the work she was doing with the poor was truly worthwhile and the money she got from the Duvaliers, Keatings, and the like was at least being used for a good cause that compensated for their tainted origins.

Her official public image clearly has great propaganda value for Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, which has put her on the fast track to sainthood. Despite her recently revealed explicit doubts about the existence of god, my guess is that they will canonize her anyway. The Mother Theresa brand name is too valuable to let slide.

POST SCRIPT: Religious hi-jinks

Samantha Bee on This Week in God.


  1. says

    Don’t we all experience doubts whatever we believe in? I am sure Buddhists sometimes have doubts about Buddha. I wouldn’t take away from all the good humanitarian work she did, just because as any good human being she had doubts.

  2. says

    It is really interesting about questioning if Buddhists have doubts. I believe we all have doubts no matter the religion. If we never had doubts we would never question anything and then there would never be change.

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