Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions.
I was brought up to work for change, for social justice. But I cannot in conscience criticise a woman who picked people off filthy pavements to allow them to die in dignity. To my knowledge, there’s still no one else doing that.
• • •
Mother Teresa is a hero of mine. I make no bones about that.
I’m not Roman Catholic. I do not come from a tradition that venerates “saints,” so I can’t say her canonization on Sunday was particularly meaningful to me in any religious sense. I do not think that people who feel called to serve in monastic orders have a “higher” or more nobler calling than anyone else, only a different one. From what I have heard of her and the way she related to others, I doubt that I would have liked her personally.
Some of the things she is reported to have said make me cringe. For example, her vintage line “There’s something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion,” reflects an older, fundamentalist martyr-glorifying Catholicism with edges much too hard for my liking. And her audacious words to a suffering soul: “You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you,” feel like a cruel slap in the face to me.
As a health-care professional, I struggle with “care” that is not up to best practice standards. However, I have also visited and ministered in a number of hospitals and clinics in India and understand the limits even those who are professional doctors and caregivers must deal with in that overwhelming, exasperating land. And, as George Gillett points out, she never set out to be a champion of medicine or a humanitarian.
For Mother Teresa, poverty and sickness were gifts that provided the opportunity to develop one’s connection with God. Her mission was not so much to alleviate suffering but to ensure it happened within a framework of religious belief. Indeed, by her own admission she was motivated by a desire to fulfill her own religious convictions rather than altruistic concern for the world’s poor. “There is always the danger that we may become only social workers … our works are only an expression of our love for Christ,” she told a BBC journalist in 1969. This attitude is manifestly disparate from the utilitarian principles by which humanitarian efforts are ordinarily judged.
It is my opinion that many of the criticisms of Mother Teresa are, in reality, criticisms of the West’s own tendency to idolize people without understanding. We love the idea of someone living self-sacrificially to serve the poor, even if we have absolutely no clue why anyone would do that or what’s involved. And so she became an icon of our idea of sacrifice, rather than a flawed but faithful human being whose mission was, in reality, foreign to our way of thinking.
Other criticisms amount to blaming Mother Teresa for being Catholic (some would say a medieval Catholic) — for her vocal opposition to abortion and contraception as well as her doctrine which seems to glorify suffering. A number of people doubt the veracity of the miracles attributed to her and find many aspects of her life and work profoundly unscientific and incompatible with trying to make the world a better place in times like these. Three Canadian academics—Serge Larivee, Genevieve Chenard, and Carole Senechal—released a report on Mother Teresa, called “Mother Teresa: Anything but a Saint.” In it, they speak of 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, in particular, abortion, contraception and divorce.”
Responding to this report, William Doino, Jr., in his article “Mother Teresa and Her Critics” at First Things, notes:
Fr. Peter Gumpel, an official at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, told me that far from overlooking criticism of Mother Teresa, the allegations were taken quite seriously, and answered:
There are mistakes made in even the most modern medical facilities, but whenever a correction was needed, Mother and the Missionaries showed themselves alert and open to constructive change and improvement. What many do not understand is the desperate conditions Mother Teresa constantly faced, and that her special charism was not to found or run hospitals—the Church has many who do that—but to rescue those who were given no chance of surviving, and otherwise would have died on the street.
This is the sentence that puts in succinct terms why Mother Teresa has been and remains for me a hero of faith working through love. She had a “special charism” to touch the dying in Jesus’ name. In a city of millions, where untold numbers of poor live desperate lives only to die alone, she created Kolkata’s first hospice. For them, the most hopeless. In Jesus’ name.
The “family” she founded carries on this work. Not as social workers. Not as medical professionals. Not as humanitarians. Not as those seeking structural change through politics or social action. As simple, prayerful people of compassion who see Jesus in the face of the poor.
In my humble opinion, that needs no defending.
Perhaps Susan Conroy, quoted in William Doino, Jr.’s article, says it best:
They were considered “untouchables” of society, and yet there we were touching and caring for them as if they were royalty. We truly felt honored to serve them as best we could. Mother Teresa had taught us to care for each one with all the humility, respect, tenderness and love with which we would touch and serve Jesus Christ Himself—reminding us that “whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers,” we do unto Him.