Mother Teresa Needs No Defending


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.

Christopher Hitchens

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.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara

• • •

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.

122 thoughts on “Mother Teresa Needs No Defending

  1. The Telegraph has a 2008 story on him
    a bit hagiographic

    Note quite a few articles compare him to Mother Theresa.

    Also search on Geeta who is a deaf-mute Indian woman who somehow got stranded alone in Pakistan as a young girl and eventually ended up with Edhi and his foundation who took care of her for over a decade. Her story became well known in India/Pakistan (and a bit of a political tussle) in recent years with attempts to find her original family. I find it notable that once Edhi and his wife realized she was Hindu that they enabled her to practice her religion.


  2. Also…Lots of strains of Protestantism are equally guilty re. being “the HQ of the Fun Police,” imo. It seems true of every religion, really – there are always people who believe that the more austerity and suffering they undergo in this life, thd closer the are to God/the gods. It’s one of those things about human nature that both frustrates and mystifies me.


  3. The other question is: does it actually work; is it good for mental and physical health?

    My take is that moderation is good, but total abstention gor the sake of abstaining? Not so much.


  4. Also, though i would welcome offlist discussion with you, Christiane, there are reasons as to why asceticism and other things i have mentioned would hit particular nerves for/in me.

    Let’s just say that when i was a young person, i heard “Offer it up” said far too often per physical, mental and emotional suffering (mine and others”), rather than, “Is there anything I can do to help?” and similar. It was a bad suggestion then, and now that I’m much older, i am even more irked by it. I think it was often said with the best of intenti8ns, but that doesn’t make it ok, for the people who said it or to those to whom it was said.


  5. beaker – *exactly.*

    Though what is better or higher about the person dying of cancer, and in tremendous pain, being told that they were being “kissed by Jesus,” I cannot begin to imagine. And she did say that, likely many times over, but in at least one instance, it is clearly documented.

    I do not see how physical and mental suffering can possibly have anything to do with participating in the sufferings of Christ, as she claimed. I mean, Really?! Would these women withhold pain relief from dying parents or siblings (their own), or allow family members with treatable conditions to remain untreated? I seriously doubt it.

    Unfortunately, M of C members are not permitted to make close friendships with snyone (other members of the order, lay volunteers, etc.) and are only allowed to visit parents/family once ever *10 years.* The degree of emotional detachment required of them (as well as repression of normal emotions) makes my stomach knot up. It all seems completely counter to the example of Jesus, and profoundly unhealthy in both the long and short term. These “austerities” seem soul-killing to me, for both the sisters and thd people they have charge of.


  6. Christiane, i think if you read my comments downthread, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

    One other thought (didn’t mention it below, but you’ll understand the nomenclature) is that if the M of C was a diocesan order, they would have *had* to adhere to ptoper sanitation and much, much more.

    Fwiw, i haven’t discussed my feelings about her political alignments, possible surreptitious baptisms (“tickets to heaven”) that some (including former M of C nuns) say is common practice, and more. The abuses are more than enough.

    I do not think MT was some sort of monster – but i do think she was poorly educated (not surprising, given when she was born and where she came from), also that she absorbed some pretty odd ideas about suffering and more early on. I think she was well-intentioned, but that her practices regarding the sick,mdying and orphans fly in the face of basic hygeine and… well, read downthread, ok? I don’t want to keep sounding like a broken record.


  7. Numo, you’ve probably read the preface to The Screwtape Letters. It’s exactly as you say about his book on the allegory of love:

    Sometimes [Screwtape] is bought for even more humiliat¬ing reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little probationer who filled her hot-water bot¬tle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also dis¬covered why.
    “You see,” said the girl, “we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your gen¬eral interests. The best thing is to say you’ve read something. So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them.”
    “And you chose Screwtape?”
    “‘Well, of course; it was the shortest”


  8. I suspect that they were the donated ones that no one else needed or wanted. 🙂
    I don’t think shoes were a priority with her, no.

    I raised a child with Down Syndrome. He is now in his forties. When he was young long ago, our family received a LOT of criticism and remarks from people who weren’t able to understand. So when I here the kinds of comments about Mother and her situation trying to care for so many, I am reminded of that time long ago when there was no defense against a certain kind of criticism so pitifully cruel that we wondered about the state of those few who expressed it.

    Whatever Mother did or didn’t do to incur the wrath of some, I suspect that most people can at least comprehend that it would be better to die in a bed inside of a shelter than in a gutter in India. So, if nothing more, for their sake, I am thankful for her life.


  9. No, I don’t think you are unkind. But I suspect Mother Teresa’s story has upset you far more than just on the surface of the thoughts you have presented here. I don’t mind you expressing your feelings if you don’t mind too terribly allowing me my own opinion about Mother. 🙂

    Fortunately for all of us here, Chaplain Mike allows us to express ourselves relatively freely, and I would like to see that continue as I think we are mature enough on this blog to appreciate the benefits of our diversity when opinions are shared among us.


  10. That goes for “Secular Saints” like JFK as well. (And JFK(TM) these days bears little or no resemblance to John Kennedy the man.)

    It’s a sub-type of Mythic Hero.

    “When Reality and Legend conflict, Print the Legend!”
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

    “I figure everyone who had a statue made of him was some kind of SOB. Ain’t about you, Jayne, it’s about what they need.”
    — Captain Mal “Tightpants” Reynolds, Free Trader Serenity


  11. “Who cares if the body dies, as long as the spirit lives?”

    Now THAT is a Dangerous road to go down.

    “So what if I rack him ’til he die? For I shall have Saved His Soul.”
    — “The Inquisitor”, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court


  12. You sound like a Calvary Chapelite; a lot of their Mini-Pope Pastors(TM) couldn’t pass up an opportunity for “NO POPERY!”

    Catholicism duct-taped my head back together after Born-Again Bible-Believer Evangelical Fellowship(TM) ripped it apart.


  13. Because if so-and-so could be so damn special, what is wrong with you? Confess more, give up more, tithe more, abandon your “secular” vocation, etc etc etc. “What are YOU doing (for the Lord)?”. UGH.

    You don’t need Rosaries and Tridentine Mass for Christianese One-Upmanship.

    Calvary Chapels and Bible Fellowships(TM) do a better job of putdown and smackdown than anything I’ve experienced from Catholics.


  14. As long as it’s not seen as a better or higher form of faith, bringing one closer to God or making one more acceptable or valuable in God’s sight, I’m ok with it. One might compare being an ordinary citizen with someone in the military. One requires a much more regimented life, but it does not make that one any more of a citizen than the other.


  15. What do you think about her brand of asceticism Chaplain Mike? I ‘m trying to understand the point of asceticism in the christian life & there does seem to be a strand in many expressions of the faith that seem to love asceticism for its own sake really, & go to ridiculous lengths to deny themselves any good thing, or thing they like. SO much of it seems pointless to me – is God really a God who creates good things just so we can slavishly give them up for his glory? Bizarre. A lot of Catholicism just comes over as the HQ of the Fun Police.


  16. One might contrast the life of Abdul Sattar Edhi of Pakistan, a refugee from India after the partition, who also saw the ill and dying in the streets in the early 1950s and dealt with it by opening a medical dispensary (after begging for the money to do so) then buying a vehicle to use as an ambulance. When he died earlier this year his creation, the Edhi Foundation, was running a system of ambulances, hospitals, orphanages, across Pakistan. He was still living simply.


  17. Sorry, everyone else here is saying ‘well, she wasn’t actually trying to alleviate poverty or suffering.’ If not, then why is she supposedly better than me?


  18. The pure unadulterated selfishness of the spirit of the age, or of using other people’s suffering as one’s stepping stones to sanctity?


  19. HS, so… doing surgey without even local anethesia is alleviating suffering?

    I understand what you’re saying, though. And I do wish I could be one of the defenders on this, but…


  20. I wrote above about members of religious orders who genuinely *do* things to alleviate suffering. Though I’m Lutheran (born and raised), i lived in a small convent for a little over a year when i was in college, and I’m speaking of people i knew there.

    In general, very few who genuinely do good work get much recognition for it, though in this case it would seem that what Robert F rightly identifies as a pretty toxic strain of Catholic fundamentalism is getting all kinds of credit for something it isn’t invested in, which would be the actual care of the sick, suffering, etc.

    And while i admire and respect many things about Roman Catholic spirituality, for this I can’t say anything much that’s good. To reiterate what John said above, MT and her order *could* be doing a great deal of good. Doesn’t seem like that’s truly the case, though.


  21. I think the quote overstated the case in making the point that MT was more of an evangelist than a medical practitioner or social worker. However, I do think (given the nature of Catholic doctrine) that many quotes attributed to her would indeed come close to crossing a line that I would not want to cross when it comes to relating to others.

    On the other hand, as I’ve also said, people like her (pioneers/founders/leaders) tend to speak with an abundance of rhetoric to get their message across and to maintain the ethos of their movements. For example, MT constantly stressed that she was ministering not to the poor, but to Jesus himself in distressing disguise. Well, that bifurcation of terms is not and cannot be absolute in my opinion. It is religious rhetoric, designed to make a point and communicate certain values.


  22. You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, Heather. For me, this post touches on deeply personal wounds. I’ve experienced firsthand the toxic side of Catholic spirituality, the fundamentalism in it; most of you have no experience of that, and perhaps don’t believe it exists, but I know whereof I speak. Everything that is bad in evangelicalism and fundamentalism existed in some form in Catholicism first.


  23. Thanks, human. I’ve been upset all day after reading some of the real hatred on this board about a woman who did the best she knew how to do, and about 1,000 times better than most of us have ever even dreamed of doing.


  24. Poor old MT certainly doesn’t seem to be beyond reproach or criticism, judging from this board. (This isn’t aimed particularly at you, Robert; you know I like and admire many of your postings here.)


  25. Numo, thank you! This is what I’ve been trying to clarify for myself: that Mother Teresa and her Order weren’t about relieving the dying poor so much as glorifying their suffering. To me, it’s all very well to accept your own suffering and offering it to God, if that’s your belief; but you have no business imposing your ideas about what God wants on those who worship different gods, or worship God differently.. That strikes me as offering exploitation, not dignity. I don’t recall anywhere in the Bible where Jesus left the suffering to suffer, looking on and mouthing platitudes until they died. Maybe I missed something.


  26. I really don’t know enough about MT’s life and ministry to throw any substantial praise or criticism in her posthumous direction. But I can imagine that if I were a disenfranchised social outcast and sick near to death lying in filth in a gutter like some discarded piece of human garbage — in those circumstances I suspect that anyone not just walking on by or stepping over me or using my head as a urinal, but actually seeking me out, addressing me as a human being, and showing me real, tangible compassion — any such person would appear pretty “saintly” to me at that moment. And I seriously doubt I would be overly concerned about the purity of that person’s motives or the integrity of his or her theology or politics.


  27. She wanted only the “hopeless cases” because their suffering was the “lift” she required to make her spiritual ascent. Why would she want to alleviate their suffering, when their “poverty and sickness were gifts that provided opportunity” for her to develop her “connection with God”?

    The more I think about it, the sadder I feel. I need to stop.


  28. –> “It’s time someone put the brakes on that, for all kinds of reasons.”

    But why? Do you have any “skin in the game” here? Is this your denomination or affiliation doing this?

    And yes…I think it’s ridiculous, but it doesn’t affect me one bit. It’s like the Queen knighting actors and such. Why should I care? It’s a bit nutty, but let them do what they do!


  29. This has been on heck of a fascinating read today. Mother Teresa appears to be a fairly divisive personality, almost along the lines of a political figure. Some here have come here with torches and pitchforks, ready to grab the monster and burn her, but I don’t know…I’m with the supporters, I guess.

    Did she help more than she hurt? Probably. Did she begin her ministry expecting to be propped up for “sainthood”? I doubt it. Was she seriously flawed? No doubt. Did some people receive grace through her efforts? I imagine so. Would Jesus be pleased with her efforts? Some of it, yes, some of it, not so much.

    CM, I admire your willingness to share what you appreciated about Mother Teresa, especially knowing there would be some naysayers among your readers. Your points make a lot of sense to me, as do the points made by others who support her.


  30. I do think it’s entirely possible to be critical of her and of her order without being cruel or vitriolic, though.

    The thing is, it almost seems as if the sick and dying were/are being used as a means of sanctification rather than being cared for because MT and the nuns truly care about them. Which strikes me as entirely the wrong reason for establishing hospices, orphanages, etc. in the 1st place. Either one is truly in the business of medical missions (including hospice) or one isn’t.

    It does seem very closely related to the Missionaries of Charity’s requirement that all members of the order wear a cilice around their waists, 24/7.


  31. 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.

    This seems to be antithetical to one of the primary values of this blog, regarding how the Christian is to approach non-Christians: Not as means to a religious end, whether conversion or personal sanctification or anything else, but as people with intrinsic value, who are worth relating to without any ulterior motive.


  32. Good and balanced comment, Marcus. And as for MT’s “celebrity,” that’s what I think sticks in many of her critics’ craws. As I said in the post, it’s as much about our need for icons and idols as it is about her flaws.


  33. The point being made here is that both Mother Teresa and the NAACP made valiant efforts to do good on behalf of people who were voiceless and marginalized, and those efforts deserve no less criticism for their problematic areas than they do praise for the attention they drew. We can keep going down the NAACP-criticism rabbit hole, for example, and you’ll eventually (and, quite justifiably) make exactly the same arguments in support of the NAACP (e.g., “I’m sure that the community did the best that it could to help orphaned children…”) as the people in this comments section who support Mother Teresa.

    For what it’s worth, I appreciate her efforts, although I don’t understand her celebrity status. I would rather that she was just a nun who tried to do good works instead of the near deity whose words start every damn admission essay I have to read about how someone’s one-week mission trip to Haiti made them see that brown people have feelings, too. But I’m equally disturbed by the vitriol contained in people’s criticism of her. After a while, it seems like an explosion in a Michael Bay movie; the bigger it gets, the less realistic and/or believable it is.


  34. I wouldn’t count on me doing any better next time. I’m no Saint. From now on I’ll try to prevent myself from making rash promises, but I wouldn’t count on that either.


  35. P.S. – I learned more than i would have liked about Alain Locke’s outsize influence on both Howard U. and the Harlem Ren., back when I was in grad school. Partly because there was still a whole lot of bad feeling about him (and others) among older survivors of that era. It was very germane to what I was studying at the time.


  36. Also… interesting how when black gay men were part of the cultural elite, and/or among the most articulate social critics of their era, a lot of folks were willing to look the other way. (From Paul Laurence Dunbar to the Harlem Renaissance right up through James Baldwin’s career.)

    This has never, sadly, been true of women, nor of ordinary people who were/are LGBTQ.

    Which is all very much beside the points I’ve been trying to make re. CM’s post, and that CM is trying to make, so…


  37. You mentioned this sbove, and it got me thinking. I honestly think Parks was uncomfortable playing the role of PR figurehead, though perhaps she’d have been more willing if she had been asked about, say, her investigative work on behalf of black women who were raped by white men.

    She was “canonized” for the wrong reasons. And I’m willing to bet she knew it, also that she got pestered into a whole lot of it by the NAACP and prominent people from the movement’s heyday and long after. I also got the impression that she was shy, or just naturally reticent. She seemed to hate the whole meet and greet thing, particularly the way in which some of the older women effusively thanked her for what she had done.


  38. Interesting that you brought up Rosa Parks. As I’m sure you know, Claudette Colvin was actually the first to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, but local civil rights leaders thought that she was too feisty and too black to be the face of the bus boycott. So Rosa Parks took her place. Granted, it was a well intentioned PR move, and pragmatically effective, but it remains a weak spot in the history of civil rights organizations.


  39. > “I have nothing more to say about it”

    I guessing by your succeeding downstream comments this was a little too difficult of a promise to keep.
    Oh well, maybe next time.


  40. Actually, there are plenty of legitimate historical narratives which discuss the blind spot of civil rights organizations like the NAACP when it comes to recognizing intersectionality and the complexity of blackness, especially for nonheterosexual and non-male persons. There are a lot of nonheterosexual persons and woman who have to occasionally check social justice advocates on their Hetero sexism and sexism, as well as on their tendency to affirm a very limited view of blackness. That is not a new tradition, and the people who complain are not the agents of secret conservative infiltrators.


  41. C.S. Lewis wasn’t the secular saint of evangelicalism at that time. That occurred years after his death. I suspect most people who did know of him at the time were people who had been required to readhis book on the allegory of love for either English lit or medieval studies courses.


  42. No, her death was *not* “blown out of the news cycle at all, not iirc. Her funeral Mass was even shown on US network TV. But she was an elderly woman by then, and nothing to a young woman whose life was cut short. At least, that was my impression at the time. I didn’t watch her funeral, but mainly because I felt burned out on death and coverage of funerals at the time.


  43. Interesting.

    I found this article about Mother Teresa and first lady Michele Duvalier. This is all new to me.

    I’m trying to tune out to most of this. At coffee time in church on Sunday there were a few bouts of Catholic-bashing on account of Mother Teresa (“They hold Mary on an equal level with Christ, you know…”) and criticism about Teresa for her doubts in the faith, her “dark night of the soul.” Well, three cheers at least for honesty. Sainthood, one visitor said, was all about M-O-N-E-Y and that’s why it was rushed through. Well, that too is quite possible, but sainthood isn’t her fault. She’s dead.

    One interesting thing about her death, by the way: Mother Teresa died the same time as Princess Diana, and Teresa’s death was blown out of the news cycle and ignored, much like C.S. Lewis’ death was eclipsed by John F. Kennedy’s.

    It’ll be interesting to see how history judges her. For now, though, I’m not watching much TV and that’s a very good thing.


  44. They didn’t care about healing, or even primarily about alleviating physical suffering; the hopeless cases were their path to sanctity, that’s why hopeless cases were chosen. They focused on “spiritual healing” in the most gnostic way; who cares if the body dies, as long as the spirit lives?


  45. Fwiw, when Rosa Parks’ portrait was enshrined in the National Portrait Gallery, she was still alive and attended the parties and all of that. My office was on a balcony overlooking the big reception. Before that started, she met with a small group of staff members. (Mostly older black women who worked in the cafetria and as cleaning ladies, but also any “professional” staff who wished to attend.

    My impression was that she was distinctly uncomfortable with all the adulation, and would rather have been able to relax in an easy chair with a cup of tea or coffee than have to go through yet another endless reception, standing the whole time. She was an extremely reluctant celebrity/figurehead, and no doubt she was only too aware of all those who didn’t get the credit.

    Just my impression, anyway. She was close to the end of her life, and i bet all the standing was very hard on her.


  46. Klasie, I may be wrong, and I hope Eeyore will correct me if I am, but I think he is saying that our age puts highest value on getting results, on practical success, including in the care of the sick, suffering and terminally ill; Teresa (or her image) was a challenge to the spirit of the age because she was not focused on “success” in treating the sufferer. That’s why she took only hopeless cases: she wasn’t invested in healing them, or even necessarily in easing their physical suffering, but primarily in being with them through the death ordeal. There’s nothing practical in it.

    Except that the hopeless cases were the stepping-stones that paved her path to sanctity, and that’s what some of us find distasteful in her “vocation”. She used the hopeless cases as her stairway to heaven, or so we suspect, and so some of the evidence indicates.


  47. I’ve never quite understood the way the mefia was and still is so in love with her. Though at the beginning, long before she became famous, i think she was trying to help people. But that she could have taken a lot of help on board to help her cause, i have no doubt.

    I’m not interested in canonization, though the process has been significantly sped up in recent decades. It’s time someone put the brakes on that, for all kinds of reasons.


  48. Or notoriety, come to that. Few people who do good work receive anything like the recognition they deserve, and most are more than content for it to be that way, so long as they can keep on doing what they do.


  49. Marcus, I’m sorry to say that I have to disappoint you, because not only was it an entirely different battle/war… the Civil Rights folks didn’t abandon their own. I’m sure that the community did the best it could to help orphaned children as well as those who were ill and possibly dying, in addition to everything else.

    I don’t care about canonization, either.


  50. Yes. I would bet that none of the people you knew would have allowed people to crawl through human wadte in order to get to pit toilets, or tied orphaned children to beds, or allowed unqualified people to do surgery without administering any kind of anesthesia… or received huge dollar amounts in donations and done nothing with them to help patients, not even so much as building small clinics and dispensaries and staffing them with properly trained personnel.

    CM, all of these things (and more) could have been done by both MT and subsequent leaders of her order over the past 25-30 years. That they have never bothered to do them reveals something that id, imo, very dark and ugly about their beliefs and their actiins.

    As i said above, I’ve known nuns who worked in hospitals, and nuns who were social workers whose charge was to help migrant farmworkers (who did then and still do live in pretty appaling conditions, right here in the US). They went into some very horrible places to help people, yet none of them has been canonized, nor are they known except to those whom they served. They got medical care for people, and they had the proper training to help, because all the good will in the world isn’t enough when it comes to helping the sick, the dying, and orphans. I don’t see any sanctity in deliberate ignorance – on the contrary, quite the opposite. And the M of C have continued to operated just like they did in the 1950s. To my minds, that’s both barbarous and abusive.


  51. Christiane, it doesn’t matter to me one way or another, nor do I think the state of her feet shows much of anything beside arthritis. It certainly isnt revelatory per character. I’m not meaning to be unkind, to her or to you.


  52. Yes, Klasie. The element of religious masochism, comparing oneself with an impossibly heroic mythological caricature of a human being, a Saint, is central to the way the whole dynamic works. Much suffering has been inflicted on the faithful down through history and up into the present on this basis. And, of course, any question about the accuracy of the Saint’s legend is the result of envy and spiritual underachievment on the part of the questioner; the Saint is beyond reproach or criticism.


  53. No doubt someone will excuse this on the basis that Jesus associated with really really bad men, so why shouldn’t his followers….


  54. There’s nothing rational about such fascination with Saints; once someone has been assumed into the mythological matrix surrounding the Saints, there is no getting back to normalcy. The person and the historical reality of their actions disappears, and is replaced by a sanctified caricature of the actual human being. Don’t look for it to make sense, and don’t try to find the real person: both have been made impossible.


  55. I’m dismissing the issue of canonization and sainthood; that’s outside of my particular faith tradition, so I cannot comment or critique on the definition or vetting process used to declare Mother Teresa a saint.

    However, I see in the criticisms of folks against Mother Teresa the same spirit that folks have used to rail against the NAACP. Like Mother Teresa to the cause of the poor and dying in India, their contribution to the civil rights movement was also very complicated. They were very deliberate in which cases they would pursue and what faces they would promote (e.g., Rosa Parks over Claudette Colvin), and often times marginalized, passed on, or ignored persons whose blackness was not considered mainstream quality (e.g., LGBT persons, victims of racial injustice who were guilty of some of the crimes for which they were accused). There were a lot of Black folks who received the death penalty or served life sentences, or whose death or abuse remained uninvestigated, because the NAACP didn’t have the resources or desire to support them.

    Problematic? Incredibly so. Could their engagement have been done better? Yes.

    But, as others have pointed out about Mother Teresa, they were a product of their times, so ripping on the NAACP in the 1950s and 1960s for not being as “woke” as the Black Lives Matter movement, other better resourced movements of the time, or other similar modern organizations in the 2010s, would commit the fallacy of false equivalency. We would be looking back in hindsight (which someone said is always 20/20), and talking about good or bad in absolute terms when nothing is that simple, especially the work of social justice or advocacy.

    If we went back over the history of Nobel Peace Prize winners, how many folks could we feel justified in digging up their remains and whacking them a couple of times with a shovel for not being “woke” enough? How about figureheads of spiritual movements? Mother Teresa intersects between both, so I’m sure we feel extra justified in digging up that corpse and whacking it a couple of times with a shovel. It’s a discussion, however, that veers off-course into berating the person as though they were a living and active agent, when their actions are now consigned to history books, rather than criticallly evaluating their actions to make sure that we evolve and improve on what they did, or attempted/intended to do.


  56. And the kid who skews the curve and makes everyone else look bad usually gets beaten up behind the backstop. Or threatened with rape in the gym showers. I know this because I was that kid in high school.


  57. 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.

    The “fundamentalist martyr-glorifying” that gave us the likes of St Rose of Lima. (To this day, I can’t tell if St Rose was holy in spite of her incredible self-destructive behavior or if her self-destructiveness was mistaken for Holiness, “Mortify the Flesh” sub-type.)

    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…

    So the Church did take the allegations into account in their canonization process.

    That said, it would be a wise move if the Order did try to improve its Hospice conditions and care as much as they are able. Like trying to match the “mission hospitals and care facilities” mentioned by John above, to the best of their resources.


  58. I have mixed feelings on this one, but that mix is trending toward unimpressed the more I read.

    I grew up as an MK on the Asian subcontinent, so I’m very aware of the conditions there. I admire many who had faith like MT and gave their lives for the poor. I think she was doing what she thought best to act on that faith.

    At the same time, none of the people I knew close up would I have considered for canonization. Not a single one. I think that whole process seeks to make of people something they never were.

    Also, I don’t think simply giving people a little more comfort or care than they had on the street is enough. The mission hospitals and care facilities I experienced growing up were run by professionals, many of whom sought their training because they wanted to work in those places. Those facilities, including a leprosy hospital, were clean, efficient, well run, and infused with the care and love of Christ for all to experience. No one made excuses by saying that one could not expect the same level of care as in the West. The people I saw fought for every resource to improve care. For me, and for many of those I grew up with and admired, faith did not and does not absolve one from doing the absolute best one can for those who need it most; just the opposite.

    I think MT was well intentioned but ultimately a product of her time and particular faith formation. Understandable, but unfortunately the evidence seems to indicate that was not always a good thing.

    This is something the hierarchy should have seen and corrected for.


  59. Indefensible, then. Mother Teresa flew to Haiti to accept the Legion d’ Honneur and funding from Jean Claude Duvalier in 1981.


  60. There is something like worthy examples, for sure. But the attitude of near-worship (not just with religious figures – witness the status of say Reagan in certain political circles, or Tesla in tech-geek circles) serves a two-fold purposes:

    1. It devalues work and vocation of anyone else.
    2. It keeps the miserable sinner, lowly bastard, stupid idiot thing going, so that sacred cows can’t be tipped, the status quo preserved, and the poor sinners manipulated. Quite ironical. None shall question..Theresa, Ronnie, Nikola, Aristotle…. Pioneers (no, I don’t think she was one, but never mind) gets turned into new chains for the future. As I said, the irony is tremendous.

    Speaking more directly to religious saints – be they Theresa or Spurgeon or Luther or Jerome or whoever – these serve a tremendous purpose. They mentally and psychologically subject the believer, humiliate them and keeps them near hopeless – because that is the sate where they obey, and give, and don’t question too much. Because if so-and-so could be so damn special, what is wrong with you? Confess more, give up more, tithe more, abandon your “secular” vocation, etc etc etc. “What are YOU doing (for the Lord)?”. UGH.

    Yes, I am slightly bitter. I carry to many scars originating from this nonsense… (doesn’t have to be Catholic scars, btw).


  61. Klasie, do you mean Jean-Luc (rather, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc”) Duvalier—or Jean-Bertrand Aristide? Praising Baby Doc would be indefensible, but Aristide in his early days as a priest was a hero to many. Later, as president of Haiti, he went from good to bad to worse. If Mother T praised him in his early days she’d have been in good company and may have died before news of his excesses reached her.


  62. > But I heartily dislike the saviour’s complex and saint-worshipping to the detriment
    > of ordinary people improving the world by vocation

    Much of our disagreement many actually be around this axis. I don’t see “saviour’s complex and saint-worshipping” in my day to day life [except perhaps from a few people who love Reagan that much].

    Angst over “saint-worshipping” is something I have never understood. If that happens it is rare; at least in my corner of the world.

    The Saint inspires and challenges; which is the civic role of the Hero. MT certainly does that, IMNSHO.


  63. > I find that I have problems with almost everyone who is a pioneer, founder, and leader of institutions.


    > Such people tend to be quirky, controlling, stubbornly on message, blunt, secretive, and quick to
    > compromise in many areas where I would consider compromise unthinkable

    Can someone get to “pioneer, founder, and leader” without most of these qualities? I doubt it. Sometimes you need a Pillow – – – and sometimes you need a Hammer. Complications ensue.


  64. Hi OSCAR,
    I love your quote, this: There is a saying: “The Perfect” is the enemy of the “Good”.

    I once had a friend of my son’s come back to our home, all grown up, and say ‘Mrs. Smith, I want to thank you for how you made all of us feel welcome when we were kids” . . . . knowing his mother, who was known for her perfectly immaculate home, I realized that the truth was that my own idea of housekeeping when my son lived at home with his friends over, must have looked like something out of ‘Hoarders’, with pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling and empty three-liter bottles of soda on the counters.
    The kids WERE welcomed. And fed. The mess was eventually cleared away, but never ‘perfectly’ so.
    My house is clean now, but it’s too quiet and not as charming as it was in the days of the children, no. 🙂

    “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life ….”
    (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird)


  65. Spirit of this age? Past ages were even worse at caring for the sick and dying. Much, much worse, if you study your history.

    Today we have the UNHCR, MCF, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and many, many others taking care of the refugees, the sick, the elderly, and others in need – millions of them. Literally millions. The outrage over suffering today is much stronger than before – to the point where countries try to affect their cultures in order to teach people to care (see China for instance).

    The difference today is that we are so much more aware of suffering, because of media (those nasty journalists), because of rock stars (Bono), and others.


  66. Hitchens’ original 1994 documentary contains more primary sources:

    Around the 7 minute mark you will hear evidence of people who were left dying in spite of the fact that they could have been healed. A 14 year old boy in this case…..


  67. The key to understanding the situation in Quebec is to look at what is called the Quiet Revolution. I think this report has to be viewed in this light.


  68. I went to the link of the three Canadian academics.
    Their ‘research’ was a survey of published documents-does not sound like any of them put a foot on the ground in India.

    I would say from what I see I would not be surprised if they were what a court would call ‘hostile witnesses’.

    CM you want to keep in mind that Quebec has gone from being the most Catholic region in North America to the most secular in the past 65 years. There has been a huge backlash against Catholicism. The Catholic Church used to dominate Quebec and the local priests held huge sway. In the 1960’s that began to change.

    Their phrase “and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception and divorce.” strike at something. French Canadian society has by both American and Anglo-Canadian standards very liberal views on those issues.

    I am not saying that this alone discredits their work, but context is very important. There is no ‘neutral’ viewpoint


  69. Sounds like progressive revelation.

    We can’t fathom the move from (apparently) sanctioned OT violence to NT peace as found in Jesus. We live now by the revelation of Christ… but it took centuries. “At the right time” is a scriptural phrase worth pondering.

    Change happens in degrees. I can buy it.


  70. I know that. But there is also enough evidence that some of tjoae deaths could have been prevented. There is evidence from former volunteers that medical care was denied because of money (for a taxi for instance!). Some of this is in Hitchens’ TV documentary…

    But that aside, I was more reacting to Oscar’s allegations against those who criticize ‘saints’. With some exceptions, improved quality of life generally brings down the cases of destitution. It doesn’t eliminate it of course. But I heartily dislike the saviour’s complex and saint-worshipping to the detriment of ordinary people improving the world by vocation. Which is quite topical, given the fact that yesterday was Labour Day.


  71. –> “…but to share poverty with those who suffer it. Well, what good is that? you may say.”

    Great point. It’s sitting in a hospice room, not speaking, just being there in presence. It’s better than not being there at all (points finger at self).


  72. I’ve got no criticism of MT. She did some good things, she did some bad things. She’s human. Only a saint like the rest of us.


  73. Speak for yourself, Oscar.

    You know what improves lives (not talking spiritually here) more than all the charity in the world, especially in the developing world?

    Jobs. Trade. Empowering women. All those are proven. Today you have political movements that want to take all or most of that away, in favour of jingoism and xenophobia masquerading as conservatism.

    I am writing this from a hotel restaurant in Lima. Tomorrow I will pay a site visit to a potential mining project. If it can go ahead, 100’s, even 1000’s of people will find jobs and income. And the mining companies incolved are largely Peruvian. So the money is likely to continue doing good here.


  74. Klasie, I have given what I think is a reasonable, and limited rationale for considering her a personal hero.

    Now, I’m going to make a broad statement here, but one which I think generally bears out. On a personal level, I find that I have problems with almost everyone who is a pioneer, founder, and leader of institutions. Such people tend to be quirky, controlling, stubbornly on message, blunt, secretive, and quick to compromise in many areas where I would consider compromise unthinkable. I have no doubt that Mother Teresa fit this stereotype in many ways. And religiously, she represents a severe form of Roman Catholicism that I have no problem criticizing — though I must grudgingly admit she remained faithful to that form of faith.

    However, I cannot deny that she entered an arena of caring for the poor that few have broached, especially with such devotion and organizational skill. The legions of supporters who personally worked with the Sisters of Charity or who benefited from their ministry speak louder to me that her critics — who tend to cast stones from a long distance and who, in many cases, cannot fathom her kind of faith in the modern world. If her approach and methods fall short, then where are those who would improve upon them and take their place in the arena?


  75. People, in general, do not want saints because saints accentuate the ordinariness of the critics’ lives.

    Everybody hates the kid who skews the grading curve…


  76. There is a saying: “The Perfect” is the enemy of the “Good”.

    This categorizes all of the criticizing that I have read about MT.

    To the critics, one would have to ask “What have YOU done?” Sit in affluent, western comfort while sniping at someone who lived in conditions that made the western poor look affluent?

    People, in general, do not want saints because saints accentuate the ordinariness of the critics’ lives. They want justification for doing less than MT!


  77. Here’s the rub though: Of course medical conditions in many areas of India can be difficult. I have been “hospitalized” in a place like Guonea which is far more poor than India. But I also sae what western donor dollars did. How medicine was available. How the local doctors were keen to use fresh needless. Even though there was only a mattress on the bed it was clean.

    Now Theresa got masses of millions. And that went mostly into convents, not primary care. I have to add “as far as we know” because there are no finacial records available.

    Furthermore we are talking about a person who kept her highest praise for one of the worst dictators in the western hemisphere – Jean-Luc Duvalier.

    Nope. I differ very, very strongly from you on this, Chaplain Mike.


  78. We will disagree on this, numo. I have been to India and seen these very conditions, in institutions as varied as doctors’ offices, neighborhood clinics, rural clinics, orphanages, and state hospitals. It is very difficult for people in the sanitized West to comprehend the conditions people work in throughout the vast poor areas of India. It was also apparent to me, in almost every case, that those who were serving Christ by providing care did a far better job of improving those conditions, even though they may not have come close to our standards.


  79. I have trouble enough taking care of my ailing eighteen year old cat who is probably on his thirteenth life by now and seems determined to not only outlive me, but to have every whim catered to at my irrelevant expense of peace and sanity. I am doing my best to remember this is an opportunity to learn more about love, but the proverbial straw could break the camel’s back at any time. I can’t imagine doing this with a building full of people.

    I have no dog in this fight. Some observations: whatever else she was or wasn’t, Theresa seems to have been the world’s best known hospice chaplain, and perhaps that sums it up. I would not have wanted to be given the assignment she stayed faithful to unto death, and would most likely have done far worse with it if I had. In all the uproar of folks yelling and berating over her corpse, I detect the stench of sanctimonious and judgemental self-righteousness, which I’m sure I would have gladly taken on the odors of her dying wards to escape.

    The bottom line for me can’t be answered now by those that were under her care except from the other side, but perhaps by those now in that situation. I would go in with four strong people and a stretcher, go from bed to bed, and offer to take anyone anywhere out in the streets wherever they wanted and leave them there. As far as judging Theresa from this side of the divide, I have way more on my plate to straighten out as it is, and I think I will leave this one up to Jesus.


  80. Hi ROBERT F.
    I stand on my comment (pardon the pun). The visible post-mortem physical evidence speaks for her not against her, as someone whose life was neither selfish nor useless.


  81. ” far too often very little mercy seems afforded to the champions of mercy”

    so it was for Our Lord Himself, it will continue to be for His servants


  82. Thanks for this careful look, Mike. It does help to remember that her goal was not to bring the whole expensive, complicated system of modern health care to the poor in India (as has been pointed out, others are doing that, not least Indians) but to share poverty with those who suffer it. Well, what good is that? you may say. That doesn’t change the injustice or pain millions of people experience. I don’t know — but then, God omnipotent took on the flesh of a poor workman in a remote corner of the world, shared the suffering of the people he was among, and died a horrible death. It also didn’t do much “good” and was deemed a waste by many observers. Mother Teresa was certainly a flawed woman, but the pattern of her life was Christ-like.


  83. Broken, gnarled feet are not guarantees of a loving heart. My own messed up feet, and the gnarled, broken hands and feet of the numerous old Italians of peasant stock I knew as a child, have made that quite evident to me. Broken, gnarled feet always = suffering, but rarely love or sanctity.


  84. As far as the reported miracles are concerned, I have nothing to say one way or the other. As far as her character is concerned, I am convinced that she was just as human as the rest of us, and in all likelihood had mixed motives, just like the rest of us. As far as the pattern of her life is concerned, however, that I think is where most of the polarization comes from. Her work and motivations (whether actually true, or just portrayed) stands as a total rejection of the spirit and motivations of this age. Anybody who even briefly considers what she is said to have done, and doesn’t at least feel uncomfortable or judged as to their own behavior, just wasn’t paying attention.


  85. “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.”

    My role in society is clean and orderly one; I live with a lot of distance between myself and ‘The Bottom’. I know people who go down there regularly,. Even here with the vast resources of the modern west [which often feel so paltry – but I have also been to ‘real’ slums]. Those people who go down there often have views I just do not understand. I know they have to make inhumane choices I do not have to make because that is how it works down there – sometimes those choices seem arbitrary – when on the rare occasion they get noticed..

    And far too often very little mercy seems afforded to the champions of mercy.

    The criticisms I have heard and read – for me – they are missing the point.

    ” in reality, criticisms of the West’s own tendency to idolize people without understanding”


    “as George Gillett points out, she never set out to be a champion of medicine or a humanitarian”



  86. I’m also unconvinced, not only of her sanctity, but also that Teresa didn’t exploit the “hopeless cases” by using and exacerbating their suffering as a path to her own, and sometimes her church’s, unhealthy and even pathological idea of sanctity; as a result, I not only don’t consider her a Saint, but can’t consider her a hero, either. But the rush to canonize, the insistence of not only the officials but the especially the people on having their Saint, has effectively removed her from the normal realm of history, and from the tools of historiography. I have nothing more to say about it.


  87. I would ask Numo to take those sources and compare them to one witness that speaks louder and with more gravitas:

    the broken, gnarled feet of Mother Theresa, which were left exposed when she was covered by the flag of India on her catafalque . . . .

    we can go to the many ‘sources’ that praise her, and sources that condemn her,
    but in death, her broken feet speak to me of her life’s work, in fact I would say that the worn out and broken condition of Mother Theresa’s feet have the last Earthly word: a testimony that even the proclamation of ‘sainthood’ cannot trump


  88. Also here:

    This account of actual conditions at Kalighat echoes so many others I’ve read, and they were not written by people who had any desire to make unfounded accusations and slurs. Many are former volunteers (and are Catholic), some are former members of the Missionaries of Charity. The order definitely has the money to send members to med and nursing schools, and to start actual medical clinics and hospitals, as other religious orders have done for well over 100 years here in the US. I used to know nuns who worked in hospitals and I can’t even begin to imagine their feelings about so-called “hospices” where people have to crawl through human waste to reach the toilet, and where utterly unqualified nuns practice surgery without administering local anesthesia, and…

    Mike, i mean no disrespect, but i do not think MT’s understanding of “hospice” has much in common with yours. And those “slap in the face” statements are a pretty good tip-off to the many, many documented abuses. Why the RCC hasn’t investigated the M of C, especially its bases of operation in and around Calcutta, is beyond me.


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