By Laura Hysert
Virgin Mary lawn ornaments around the world must be weeping. There’s a man in New York who thinks Mother Teresa should be suffering in hell.
“I’m sort of sad that there isn’t divine punishment. Because right now, she’d be undergoing it,” says journalist, documentary filmmaker and author Christopher Hitchens. In 1994 he hosted Hell’s Angel, a controversial BBC documentary slamming Mother Teresa. T he following year he published the book The Missionary Position, attacking her again.
Three years later, taking a break from his Thanksgiving holiday last Thursday he’s eager to talk about why criticizing the world’s most famous nun is so important. “She became a synonym [for saint]. It was as if she’d already died and there was nothing more to be said,” he says of the last years of Mother Teresa’s life.
No one questioned Mother Teresa’s motives or actions. She was above reproach. But it’s dangerous to put people on a pedestal, Hitchens says, “because it’s a surrender of reason, if you’re a rationalist like me. And if you’re of faith it’s blasphemy because you’re not giving what is due to God.”
Mother Teresa’s canonization began in 1969, when the BBC documentary Something Beautiful for God aired. The filmmaker Malcolm Muggeridge became a staunch supporter of Mother Teresa. He eve attributed a miracle to her: A holy light bathed the dark interior of Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta. Muggeridge’s cameraman later explained it was the new Kodak film he was using, not Teresa’s incandescence, that illuminated the hospice.
It was too late for the mere earthly to discredit the divine: a star was born. And so was the myth of Mother Teresa as a champion of the poor, a compassionate, self-sacrificing living saint whose holy touch blessed the destitute and diseased.
Hitchens first saw behind the myth in 1980, when he visited Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta. The nun gave him a tour. At one point she waved her arm at rows of orphaned children and said, “See, this is how we combat abortion and contraception in Calcutta.”
Hitchens began to question whether or not Teresa was really a tireless servant of the poor or just an ardent crusader for Vatican politics. After looking into Mother Teresa’s history, he decided she was really “a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly, secular powers.” Oddly, Hitchens says, she never pretended to be anything but.
Mother Teresa used her fame as a champion of the poor to spread fundamentalist Catholic beliefs such as the sin of abortion. She supported clerical forces in post-Franco Spain, joined right-wingers in opposing legislation allowing divorce, abortion and birth control. This, from a woman who the adoring world claims to be above politics
And when she accepted the Nobel Peace prize in 1979, Mother Teresa didn’t say poverty was the greatest threat to world peace — abortion held that dubious distinction.
“She was a deadly enemy of the only way we know of eliminating poverty, filth, disease, and degradation,” Hitchens says. That is, giving women access to birth control.
It doesn’t make sense that someone who eases the suffering of the poor would want to increase that suffering by encouraging the procreation of more mouths to feed. But Mother Teresa never wanted to end poverty or suffering. She felt these were a divine blessing.
“That’s a disgusting thing to say,” Hitchens says. “What gives her the right to tell people that poverty and suffering are gifts from God?”
Mother Teresa never tried to eliminate poverty through loud social crusades or critiques of the unbalanced capitalist system. The poor will always be with us, she reasoned. Why not use them to do “something beautiful for God?”
In other words, Hitchens says, the poor were useful to her, especially in her mission to spread Catholic fundamentalism. Many who worked with Mother Teresa were horrified at how far she took her religious zeal.
Susan Shields was a nun with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. She recalls being instructed how to “secretly baptize” the dying. The nun would ask a patient whether he or she wanted a “ticket to heaven.” If the person agreed, the nun would wipe the forehead with a cloth, as if to cool the person off. The water of the cloth became the holy water of baptism, and the nun would whisper the necessary words. In this way, Mother Teresa’s nuns baptized Hindus and Muslims without their consent.
Add to this Mother Teresa’s dalliances with dictators and fraudulent businessmen, and the image of the unassuming Albanian saint cracks further. In January, 1981 she bestowed a visit on Michèle Duvalier, the wife of the Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier who oppressed the poor of his country. Teresa praised the Duvaliers for being so familiar with the poor.
Then there’s the $1.4 million she received from US financier Charles Keating. In return, she gave Keating some great PR, a crucifix, and a plea for clemency when his involvement in the US Savings and Loan scandal brought him to trial for fraud in 1992. One of the prosecutors of the case wrote Mother Teresa and politely informed her of the fraudulent source of the money Mr. Keating gave her, thinking that perhaps she was just too innocent to know. He asked her to return the money to Keating’s victims. To the prosecutor’s surprise, he never received a reply — or any money — from the elderly nun.
It’s incidents like these that make Hitchens reject Teresa supporters’ defence that she was just a victim ill-used by the power hungry sinners. She was shrewd and media-savvy, Hitchens argues. He notes that she would “drop everything” to fly Air India — first class — and hobnob with the elite.
And despite her claim that she and the Missionaries of Charity would never work for the rich or accept money for their service, Mother Teresa’s order received large amounts of cash from corporations, governments, foundations, and wealthy private citizens. Hitchens says he doesn’t think she kept the money — she was too anti materialist to do that. No one actually knows where the money went, but Hitchens believes it financed new convents, refurbished altars, and helped spread her fundamentalist beliefs.
The money certainly didn’t go to the poor, or very little of it, anyways. Her Calcutta clinic had the same meager equipment and facilities when she died as it did 30 years before.
Dr. Robin Fox, editor of the respected medical journal The Lancet, was astounded at the poor medical care given to patients in the clinic when eh visited in 1994. Cancer patients and other s who were terminally ill received only aspirin for their pain. Nuns rinsed needles in cold water before reusing them. Teresa’s view on the benefits of the suffering no doubt contributed to the horrific conditions of her medical facilities.
Yet no one in the West knew about this. The money kept rolling in, donors falsely believing that their gifts would help the poor when in fact it was building new convents or idling in bank accounts.
As long as people believed someone somewhere was doing the charity work they felt guilty for ignoring, their consciences were appeased. We wanted to be lied to, Hitchens argues. It’s easier for us to believe a superhero social worker is saving the world, rather than trying to do it ourselves.
So Mother Teresa isn’t the mastermind in this unholy hoax, Hitchens contends. We are, because we fool ourselves with our own idolatrous gods. And Hitchens’ “fat target” isn’t really a now-dead nun, but the people who made her a saint despite all her attempts to prove herself otherwise.
“Your paper’s special shouldn’t be called ‘ We were lied to,’ but “We allowed ourselves to be lied to,’” he says.
And we’ll continue to lie to ourselves until all the sacred cows go to their heavenly home.