In all the universe of religious experience, few figures are so beloved as the Catholic nun known to the world as Mother Teresa. The official biography holds that she selflessly devoted her life to ministering to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, suffering through poverty and deprivation nearly as great as that of her patients without complaint, and asking no reward except the knowledge of doing God’s will. She was a beloved figure to millions and a trusted counselor to powerful leaders and celebrities worldwide, was showered with rewards and honors during her life, and attracted huge crowds as she lay in state after her death.
As I said, that is the official story. But atheists and freethinkers, more than any other group, should recognize how pious words are so often used to conceal ugly acts of inhumanity, and to gloss over the disreputable elements of stories presented as inspirational and noble. Teresa’s story is perhaps the supreme example of this. In this post, I intend to look past all the uncritical praise and point out some unsettling facts about her life and her mission that devotional biographies tend to avoid.
Teresa was a friend to vicious dictators, criminals and con men. As Christopher Hitchens documents in his book The Missionary Position, Teresa was acquainted with a startling number of unsavory characters. Two such were the Duvaliers, Jean-Claude and Michelle, who ruled Haiti as a police state from 1971 until they were overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986. (They looted the country of most of its national treasury when they fled.) Teresa visited them in person in 1981 and praised the Duvaliers and their regime as “friends” of the poor, and her testimony on their behalf was shown on state-owned television for weeks. Bizarrely, she also visited the grave of brutal Communist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1990, laying a wreath of flowers on the tomb of a man who had viciously suppressed religion in Teresa’s native Albania. The list also includes the Nicaraguan contras, a Catholic terrorist group who unleashed death squads on the civilian population in their bid to conquer the country.
Teresa was also a friend to Charles Keating, a conservative Catholic fundamentalist who served on an anti-pornography commission under President Nixon. Keating would later become infamous for his role in the Savings & Loan scandal, where he was convicted of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy for his involvement in a scam where customers were deceived into buying worthless junk bonds, resulting in many of them losing their life savings. Keating had donated $1.25 million to Mother Teresa in the 1980s, and as he was awaiting sentencing, she wrote a letter to the court on his behalf asking for clemency.
The prosecuting attorney, Paul Turley, wrote a reply to this letter. In his reply, he explained what Keating had been convicted of, and observed, “No church… should allow itself to be used as salve for the conscience of the criminal.” He also pointed out that the $1.25 million Keating had donated to her was stolen money, and suggested that the appropriate course of action would be for her to give it back: “You have been given money by Mr. Keating that he has been convicted of stealing by fraud. Do not permit him the ‘indulgence’ he desires. Do not keep the money. Return it to those who worked for it and earned it!”
Teresa never replied to this letter.
Teresa cloaked a reactionary right-wing political outlook in false protestations of innocence and naivete. Although she insisted on several occasions that her mission was resolutely apolitical, Teresa’s true interests were anything but. Like the right-wing conservative Catholic she was, she traveled the world to lobby against the legality of abortion, contraception, and even divorce.
When the International Health Organization honored Teresa in 1989, she spoke at length against abortion and contraception and called AIDS a “just retribution for improper sexual conduct”. Similarly, when Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she proclaimed in her acceptance speech that abortion was the greatest threat to peace in the world. (Hitchens cuttingly notes that when the award was announced, “few people had the poor taste to ask what she had ever done, or even claimed to do, for the cause of peace”). In 1992, she appeared at an open-air Mass in Ireland and said, “Let us promise Our Lady who loves Ireland so much that we will never allow in this country a single abortion. And no contraceptives.” She also campaigned in Ireland to oppose the successful 1995 referendum to legalize divorce in that predominantly Catholic country.
Teresa’s free clinics provided care that was at best rudimentary and haphazard and at worst unsanitary and dangerous, despite the enormous amounts of donations she received. Multiple volunteers at Teresa’s clinics, such as Mary Loudon and Susan Shields, have testified to the inadequate care provided to the dying. Despite routinely receiving millions of dollars in donations, Teresa deliberately kept her clinics barren and austere, lacking all but the most rudimentary and haphazard care.
Volunteers such as Loudon, and Western doctors such as Robin Fox of the Lancet, wrote with shock of what they found in Teresa’s clinics. No tests were performed to determine the patients’ ailments. No modern medical equipment was available. Even people dying of cancer, suffering terrible agony, were given no painkillers other than aspirin. Needles were rinsed and reused, without proper sterilization. No one was ever sent to the hospital, even people in clear need of emergency surgery or other treatment.
Again, it is important to note that these conditions were not the unavoidable result of triage. Teresa’s organization routinely received multimillion-dollar donations which were squirreled away in bank accounts, while volunteers were told to beg donors for more money and plead extreme poverty and desperate need. The money she received could easily have built half a dozen fully equipped modern hospitals and clinics, but was never used for that purpose. No, this negligent and rudimentary care was deliberate – about which, see the next point. However, despite her praise for poverty, Teresa hypocritically sought out the most advanced care possible in the Western world when she herself was in need of it.
Teresa considered converting the sick and the poor to be a higher priority than providing for their actual needs, and believed that human suffering was beneficial and even “beautiful”. The following quote from Teresa says it all:
“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.”
On another occasion, Teresa told a terminal cancer patient, who was dying in extreme pain, that he should consider himself fortunate: “You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.” (She freely related his reply, which she seemed not to realize was meant as a putdown: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”)
Despite the widespread perception that Teresa sought to relieve the suffering of the poor, the truth was anything but. As Hitchens documents, she actually considered suffering to be beneficial. This is why she kept her clinics so rudimentary – not so that sick people could be cured, but so they could get closer to God through their suffering. As critics like Michael Hakeem put it: “Mother Teresa is thoroughly saturated with a primitive fundamentalist religious worldview that sees pain, hardship, and suffering as ennobling experiences and a beautiful expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross.” To her mind, they were not evils to be relieved, but blessings to be glorified.
But, of course, suffering like Christ was of no benefit if the sufferer did not actually accept Christ. To this end, Teresa’s clinics were run as conversion factories. Ex-volunteers have testified that Teresa taught her followers to secretly baptize the dying – people who could not resist, or were not aware of what was happening to them – without their consent. As ex-volunteer Susan Shields wrote, “Material aid was a means of reaching their souls, of showing the poor that God loved them… Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptizing Hindus and Moslems”.
It seems that Teresa’s true ambition was to found a Catholic religious order on a par with the Franciscans and the Benedictines. (Her Nobel prize money was used to this end.) She may well get her wish; her Missionaries of Charity organization numbers as many as 4,000 nuns and 40,000 lay workers. If she wished to create a convent whose mission is to glorify human suffering, then it is for Catholics to decide whether they want to support that mission. Secularists and humanists, however, should rethink whether we want to support an effort that is so manifestly at odds with all that we stand for.