The myth of Mother Theresa

Christopher Hitchens angered a lot of people with his expose of Mother Theresa in his 1995 book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, and he was dismissed by her fans as an angry atheist who wanted to tear down anyone who was held up as exemplifying what was good about religion.

Now along comes a study (by Serge Larivée and Genevieve Chenard of University of Montreal’s Department of Psychoeducation and Carole Sénéchal of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education to be published in the March issue of the journal Studies in Religion/Sciences) that says that he was pretty much right in his basic criticism.

[T]he researchers conclude 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 relations campaign.

The study also support Hitchens’s charge that she had this weird idea that there was something virtuous and noble about the suffering of the poor and as a result she did not use the huge amounts of money she raised to alleviate suffering as much as she might have. The suffering of others is always easier to be philosophical about than our own.

The problem is not a lack of money—the Foundation created by Mother Teresa has raised hundreds of millions of dollars—but rather a particular conception of suffering and death: “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,” was her reply to criticism, cites the journalist Christopher Hitchens. Nevertheless, when Mother Teresa required palliative care, she received it in a modern American hospital.

Mother Teresa was generous with her prayers but rather miserly with her foundation’s millions when it came to humanity’s suffering. During numerous floods in India or following the explosion of a pesticide plant in Bhopal, she offered numerous prayers and medallions of the Virgin Mary but no direct or monetary aid.

The authors say that her legacy was not entirely bad, though, since even false and self-serving myths can generate some positive results. “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. It is likely that she has inspired many humanitarian workers whose actions have truly relieved the suffering of the destitute and addressed the causes of poverty and isolation without being extolled by the media.”


  1. trucreep says

    When asked about the title of his book, he said something along the lines of choosing between that or ‘Sacred Cow,’ but thought that to be in bad taste.

    Say what you will about him, but Christopher Hitchens’ was unparalleled in his wit!

  2. raven says

    There aren’t very many real heroes.

    Mother Theresa Hell’s angel

    Lance Armstrong Cancer survivor becomes world cycling champion until Oops

    Oscar Pistorius Double amputee goes to Olympics, shoots dead his girl friend

    I could name others. One of my childhood heroes became a bizarre religious fundie in later life.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Though I hate to concede anything at all to the Vatican’s favorite Angel of Death, I can’t help but point out that Agnes Bojaxhiu did not spell her churchly name with an “h”.

    trucreep @ # 1: Hitchens also made a documentary about Ma T, and called it Hell’s Angel.

  4. left0ver1under says

    I wouldn’t use the words myself, I prefer Penn Jillette’s term for her. He puts a particular word between “mother” and “teresa”.

    Hitchens’ books wasn’t the only one, his just got more attention. Aroup Chatterjee’s book “Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict” was equally fact-filled and equally scathing.

    She took money from thieves (e.g. Charles Keating) and left the poor to suffer in agony for her own personal gratification and cult of personality. Other than Joseph Stalin, there has never been a person more loathsome who received such undeserved adoration while alive, and such nostalgia after death.

    The BBC documentary “Hell’s Angel” (narrated by Hitchens, inspired by Chatterjee) can be seen on youtube:

  5. says

    I never liked “Mother Teresa” even when all I had read were adulatory media accounts. I found her obsession with pain as a good thing creepy, and her frequent comments equating terminating a pregnancy with murder left me cold.

  6. Leiningen's Ants says

    You could be a big fan of mother Teresa, until you actually read about her. I’m holding back all my denigrating words for female human beings, but believe me, I’d love to apply them to that … that… UGH, I can’t believe at one point in my life she was a role model. Makes me spitting mad.

  7. raven says

    There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,”

    This is some common and malevolent Catholic idea.

    God is in charge. Everything happens for a reason. Pain and suffering exist in the world because god wills it. God is good. Therefore pain and suffering serves god’s purpose and are good.

    It’s basically divine command theory. It makes no sense to anyone with a normal mind and personality.

    The world gains much from their (the poor) suffering,” I don’t see how. It’s rather the opposite which is why most people most of the time attempt to reduce the poor and their suffering. We in the USA have welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, and job/education programs.

    If you asked anyone to explain how poor and suffering is good, all you would get is gibberish. Poor people frequently become angry desperate people and pick up weapons to attempt to improve their lot. And who would blame them?

  8. raven says

    Raven – Kirk Cameron was your childhood hero?

    LOL. No, I’m older than that.

    I’d rather not say. It was and is still a big disapointment.

  9. Pteryxx says

    That last quote about false myths doing good is gnawing on my mind. My reaction (after ‘fuck that’) was ‘that excuse wouldn’t fly for Sandusky’s charities’. But a lot of supporters did actually say Sandusky’s victims should’ve shut up for the sake of the good his charities did.

    I’m thinking, if the happy inspiring myth is false, fine; if it’s self-serving, I can probably deal with that too – but if the myth depends on creating more victims and more suffering to keep it going, then the hell with it. She could’ve been inspiring just fine without making anyone’s suffering worse.

  10. stonyground says

    I recall that after her death, some letters written by MT came to light that revealed that, toward the end of her life, she ceased to believe in God. Had she actually been a worthy person, rather than a vile sadist and fraud, it is possible that some atheists would have tried to claim her as one of ours. As it is, even though she changed sides, she never embraced Humanism, and her total lack of empathy can easily be attributed to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

  11. Pteryxx says

    And both those book titles are in bad taste, regardless of the accuracy of Hitchens’s actual criticism of a woman.

  12. Mano Singham says

    You make a good point. But I think the myth of MT that survives is that of helping the poor and destitute. Her weird ideas of the virtues of suffering are not widely known. I only hope the charities she started have also forgotten them.

  13. MNb says

    MT got thoroughly debunked in The Netherlands a couple of years ago, including her religious doubts. Her faith was not strong at all, which she experienced as an agony. That’s why she hadn’t any moral problem continuing the suffering of her patients.
    Of course she still will become a saint. Cyrillus of Alexandria murdering Hypatia wasn’t a problem either.

  14. raven says

    Cyrillus of Alexandria murdering Hypatia wasn’t a problem either.

    Being a murderer or serial killer is no problem for Catholic sainthood

    1. Saint Cardinal Bellarmino torched Bruno and almost torched Galileo. There is a college in Kentucky named after him. I assume the students are very obedient.

    2. Saint Thomas More was a serial killer who burnt 6 Protestants at the stake. Well Protestants, they deserved it anyway. Payback was quick though, he eventually would up on the wrong side and was killed as well.

  15. says

    Suffering is a big deal, something to be honored as eschewing the easy way out of death. Either it is supposed to make one mindful of Jesus’ sacrifice (phht, a day and a half at most,) or to enhance the dignity of human life, whatever that means. The reason that the Catholics are so keen on preventing abortions or allowing euthanasia is that it robs us of our opportunity to prove to the Big Man (not referring to the late Clarence Clemons here) that we are finally worthy to be in His Presence after we die.

  16. Dwight says

    I was dating a woman in the 1980s who was given the opportunity to spend a week with Mother Theresa. She was so disillusioned that it made her sick. She told me that while M.T. worked very hard at applying band-aids; feeding and medicating those in need, she did nothing to help them rise above the poverty. Her philosophy seemed to be give a man a fish and you feed him for a day as well as providing great publicity for your charities, but teach a man to fish and you no longer have any power over him because he can feed himself and no longer needs you. This looked great for fundraising but did almost nothing to alleviate the tremendous suffering that she was in a perfect position to address. All show with little or no actual good accomplished. Small wonder that she became a religious icon.

  17. smrnda says

    A problem with all religious charities is that fixing problems are only a secondary concern – their real purpose is PR or recruitment, and so in any sort of conflict of interest between those goals and fixing the problems they’re supposed to address, the PR recruitment side wins out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *