“Blessed Teresa of Calcutta,” the “saint of the gutters,” was in fact only recently canonized by the Catholic Church, eliciting an almost unanimously positive response in the Christian community. Many people happily proclaimed their surprise that it hadn’t happened sooner. Others, like myself, were appalled by the decision for entirely different reasons.
Mother Teresa, to be clear, was no saint, at least not in the sense of the title’s usual rosy connotations. The international acclaim she received, including a Nobel Peace Prize, for her work as a missionary was the result of ignorance that, in today’s world of easily accessible information, is inexcusable. The announcement of her sainthood has revitalized her critics, but unfortunately they find themselves drowned out by her supposedly well-meaning proponents.
Many have written on Mother Teresa’s ethical failings, all emphasizing the same point. Mother Teresa seemed to adore poverty, not the poor who were afflicted by it. In their suffering she saw Christ-like sacrifice. In a 1981 press conference she made this opinion quite clear, saying, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”
The over 500 missions she opened in approximately 100 countries were of a quality bordering on negligence. Medical professionals who went either to serve or to inspect these facilities found them understaffed and under-equipped. Those too poor to afford proper care would occupy floor-spread cots, awaiting attention. One visiting nurse recounted the story of an adolescent boy dying of a common infected wound, while the former editor of the British Medical Journal The Lancet claims the personnel were too untrained to even properly clean the needles with which they administered treatment. These same personnel were beyond incapable of discerning between treatable and untreatable diseases.
Any one of these things might simply be the fault of Mother Teresa’s organization, Missionaries of Charity, for overextending its efforts, if not for the monumental donations it received during this time. The Missionaries of Charity to this day refuse to publish their financial records, even in India, where they face the legal obligation to do so. This, critics believe, is because the Missionaries of Charity donated their funds to the Vatican, not their own poor houses. To publicize that information would discredit the organization of its very namesake, and so they remain obsessively protective of these records.
If you want to learn a lot about someone, look no further than the company they keep. In the case of Mother Teresa this included, among others, rather controversial political entities. Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti awarded her the ‘Legion d’Honneur’ while she, in turn, praised his regime, which imprisoned and executed his political enemies, sold body-parts and drugs, and allowed him a lavish lifestyle while his citizens starved. She similarly endorsed the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania, and even went so far as to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature Licio Gelli, the leader of the Propaganda Due masonic lodge, infamous for cases of both murder and corruption in Italy. Whether out of total ignorance or fascist mentalities, she applauded Indian PM Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil liberties in the country, claiming that “People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes.”
Finally, there are the rather problematic strategies Mother Teresa applied to converting others. She was first and foremost a missionary, and she recognized wholly her obligation to spread Christianity around the world. Many of her missionaries provided no shelter or aid, and even in Calcutta her charities were outdone by other humanitarian efforts, according to several studies. Those who did face an early death in her houses were ‘stealthily’ baptized. Nuns were taught to ask a dying patient if they wished to earn a free “ticket to Heaven.” If the patient answered yes, the nun would put a cloth to their head and silently recite the required words, essentially ‘converting’ Hindus and Muslims at their vulnerable deaths.
Why, after all this, is Mother Teresa held in such high regard? How can so many people around the world celebrate her as a saint when she so clearly violated universally agreed-upon ethical codes? Her organization misled donors, conducted medical malpractice and exploited people’s vulnerabilities to convert them. Some people obviously see her as a point of inspiration. Admittedly these people bring me little irritation outside their choice of role model, as many have gone on to legitimately serve the poor and benefit communities in ways I cannot begin to challenge. It is another group of supporters, those who tauted Teresa up without a second thought or perhaps a moment of inspiration to follow in her supposed footsteps, that I find guilty of her fame. It often benefits us to see another doing the work we know should be done, and the truth of Mother Teresa’s activities, while readily available, might have disrupted the peace of mind of many privileged third parties around the world. Historian Vijay Prashad puts it best: “Mother Teresa’s work was part of a global enterprise for the alleviation of bourgeois guilt, rather than a genuine challenge to those forces that produce and maintain poverty.” The media has betrayed its obligation to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” by lauding praise upon a woman whose efforts accomplished the opposite.