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The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Christopher Hitchens (1995)

Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour.

.... Thus we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.

— Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

 

Mother Teresa's views on peace, and on abortion

When Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, few people had the poor taste to ask what she had ever done, or even claimed to do, for the cause of peace. Her address to the ceremony of investiture did little to resolve any doubt on this score and much to increase it:

'We speak of peace ... I think that today peace is trheatened by abortion, too, which is a true war, the direct killing of a child by its own mother. In the Bible we read that God clearly said: 'Even though a mother did forget her infant, I will not forget him.' Today, abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace. We who are here today were wanted by our parents. We would not be here if our parents had not wanted us. We want children, and we love them. But what about the other millions? Many are concerned about the children, like those in Africa, who die in great numbers either from hunger or for other reasons. But millions of children die intentionally, by the will of their mothers. Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves, or one another? Nothing.'

... At a vast open-air mass in Knock, Ireland, in 1992, Mother Teresa made it plain yet again that there is no connection at all in her mind between the conditions of poverty and misery that she 'combats' and the inability of the very poor to reach the plateau on which limitation of family size becomes a rational choice. Addressing a crowd of the devout, she 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.'

In this instance, she fell into the last great fallacy and offence to which Church teaching on this subject is prone. Ireland is now, to a great extent, a secular society. It is also a society which has to seek an accommodation with its huge Protestant-majority province. The Church claims the right to make law, in states where it is strong enough, for believers and unbelievers alike. Mother Teresa's 'pacific' humanitarianism and charity therefore translate directly into an injunction to the faithful to breed without hindrance, an admonishment to the rest to live under laws not made by them, and an attack on the idea of a non-sectarian state. What this does for the cause of peace does not, in Ireland, take long to estimate.

... It is often said, inside the Church and out of it, that there is something grotesque about lectures on the sexual life when delivered by those who have shunned it. ... it might be added that the call to go forth and multiply, and to take no thought for the morrow, sounds grotesque when uttered by an elderly virgin whose chief claim to reverence is that she ministers to the inevitable losers in this very lottery.

(pp. 58-59)

 

Mother Teresa helped the poor as a campaign against abortion

The pleasant surprise that awaits the visitor to Calcutta is this: it is poor and crowded and dirty, in ways which are hard to exaggerate, but it is anything but abject. Its people are neither inert nor cringing. They work and they struggle, and as a general rule (especially as compared with ostensibly richer cities such as Bombay) they do not beg. This is the city of Tagore, of Ray and Bose and Mrinal Sen, and of a great flowering of culture and nationalism. There are films, theatres, university departments and magazines, all of a high quality. The photographs of Raghubir Singh are a testament to the vitality of the people, as well as to the beauty and variety of the architecture. Secular-leftist politics predominate, with a very strong internationalist temper: hardly unwelcome in a region so poisoned by brute religion.

When I paid my own visit to the city some years ago, I immediately felt rather cheated by the anti-Calcutta propaganda put out by the [Malcolm] Muggeridges of the world. And when I made my way to the offices of the Missionaries of Charity on Bose Road, I received something of a shock. First was the inscription over the door, which read 'He that loveth correction loveth knowledge'. I don't know the provenance of the quotation, but it had something of the ring of the workhouse about it. Mother Theresa herself gave me a guided tour. I did not particularly care for the way that she took kisses bestowed on her sandalled feet as no more than her due, but I decided to suspend judgment on this - perhaps it was a local custom that I understood imperfectly. The orphanage, anyway, was moving and affecting. Very small (no shame in that) and very clean, it had an encouraging air and seemed to be run by charming and devoted people. One tiny cot stood empty, its occupant not having survived the night, and there was earnest discussion about a vacancy to be filled. I had begun to fumble for a contribution when Mother Theresa turned to me and said, with a gesture that seemed to take in the whole scene,

'See, this is how we fight abortion and contraception.'

If not for this, it would have been trifling to point out the drop-in-a-bucket contribution that such a small establishment makes to such a gigantic problem. But it is difficult to spend any time at all in Calcutta and conclude that what it most needs is a campaign against population control. Nor, of course, does Mother Teresa make this judgment based on local conditions. She was opposed on principle to abortion and birth control long before she got there. For her, Calcutta is simply a front in a much larger war.

(pp. 23-24)

 

Malcolm Muggeridge: 'So you wouldn't agree with people who say there are too many children in India?'

Mother Teresa: 'I do not agree because God always provides. He provides for the flowers and the birds, for everything in the world that he has created. And those little children are his life. There can never be enough.'

... if it were true that God 'always provides', then, obviously, there would be no need for the Missionaries of Charity in the first place.

(p.30)

 

 

Mother Teresa thought suffering was beautiful; she helped sufferers to continue suffering

Journalist: 'Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?'

Mother Teresa: '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.'

(p. 11)

Those prepared to listen to criticism of Mother Teresa's questionable motives and patently confused sociological policy are still inclined to believe that her work is essentially humane. Surely, they reason, there is something morally impressive in a life consecrated to charity. If it were not for the testimony of those who have seen the shortcomings and contradictions of her work firsthand, it might be a sufficient argument, on the grounds that Mother Teresa must have done some genuine good for the world's suffering people.

However, even here the record is somewhat murky and uneven, and it is qualified by the same limitations as apply to the rest of Mother Teresa's work: that such work is undertaken not for its own sake but to propagandise one highly subjective view of human nature and need, so that she may one day be counted as the beatific founder of a new order and discipline within the Church itself. Even in the quotidian details of ostensibly 'charitable' labour, this unresolved contradiction repeatedly discloses itself.

 

A selection of testimonies follow:

[Dr Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, perhaps the world's leading medical journal, visited and reported on Mother Teresa's Calcutta work in 17 September 1994:]

'There are doctors who call in from time to time but usually the sisters and volunteers (some of whom have medical knowledge) make decisions as best they can. I saw a young man who had been admitted in poor shape with high fever, and the drugs prescribed had been tetracycline and paracetamol. Later a visiting doctor diagnosed probable malaria and substituted chloroquine. Could not someone have looked at a blood film? Investigations, I was told, are seldom permissible. How about simple algorithms that might help the sisters and volunteers distinguish the curable from the incurable? Again no. Such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home. Mother Teresa prefers providence to planning; her rules are designed to prevent any drift towards materialism: the sisters must remain on equal terms with the poor. ... Finally, how competent are the sisters at managing pain? On a short visit, I could not judge the power of the spiritual approach, but I was disturbed to learn the formulary includes no strong analgesics. Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Teresa's approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer.'

It should be underlined that the state of affairs described by Dr Fox was not that obtaining in some amateur, impoverished clinic in a disaster zone. Mother Teresa has been working in Calcutta for four and a half decades, and for nearly three of them she has been favoured with immense quantities of money and material. Her 'Home for the Dying', which was the part of her dominion visited by Dr Fox, is in no straitened condition. It is as he described it because that is how Mother Teresa wishes it to be. The neglect of what is commonly understood as proper medicine or care is not a superficial contradiction. It is the essence of the endeavour, the same essence that is evident in a cheerful sign which has been filmed on the wall of Mother Teresa's morgue. It reads,

'I am going to heaven today.'

(pp. 37-39)

 

Mary Loudon, a volunteer in Calcutta who has since written extensively about the lives of nuns and religious women, has this testimony to offer about the Home for the Dying:

'My initial impression was of all the photographs and footage I've ever seen of Belsen and places like that, because all the patients had shaved heads. No chairs anywhere, there were just these stretcher beds. They're like First World War stretcher beds. There's no garden, no yard even. No nothing. And I thought what is this? This is two rooms with fifty to sixty men in one, fifty to sixty women in another. They're dying. They're not being given a great deal of medical care. They're not being given painkillers really beyond aspirin and maybe if you're lucky some Brufen or something, for the sort of pain that goes with terminal cancer and the things they were dying of ...

'They didn't have enough drips. The needles they used and re-used over and over and over and you would see some of the nuns rinsing needles under the cold water tap. And I asked one of the why she was doing it and she said: 'Well to clean it.' And I said, 'Yes, but why are you not sterilising it; why are you not boiling water and sterilising your needles?' She said: 'There's no point. There's no time.'

'... [a boy of fifteen who was dying] had a really relatively simple kidney complaint that had simply got worse and worse and worse because he hadn't had antibiotics. And he actually needed an operation. ... [The American doctor looking after him said...] 'they won't take him to hospital.' And I said: 'Why? All you have to do is get a cab. Take him to the nearest hospital, demand that he has treatment. Get him an operation.' She said: 'They don't do it. They won't do it. If they do it for one, they do it for everybody.' And I thought - but this kid is fifteen.'

(pp. 40-41)

 

The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection. Mother Teresa (who herself, it should be noted, has checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age) once gave this game away in a filmed interview. She described a person who was in the last agonies of cancer and suffering unbearable pain. With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told this terminal patient:

'You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.'

Unconscious of the account to which this irony might be charged, she then told of the sufferer's reply:

'Then please tell him to stop kissing me.'

(p. 41)

 

[From Susan Shields' unpublished manuscript, In Mother's House:]

'For Mother, it was the spiritual well-being of the poor that mattered most. Material aid was a means of reaching their souls, of showing the poor that God loved them. In the homes for the dying, Mother taught the sisters how to secretly baptise those who were dying. Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a 'ticket to heaven'. An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend she was just cooling the person's forehead with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptising him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa's sisters were baptising Hindus and Moslems.'

(p. 48)

 

'Is it going too far to liken Mother Teresa to some of our infamous televangelists, turning their audiences on to what is in God's heart and mind while encouraging and accepting all donations?'

— Emily Lewis, nurse, who attended Mother Teresa's honouring by the International Health Organisation in Washington, D.C. in 1989.

(p. 49)

 

 

People commonly believe Mother Teresa is a saint, but she performed one miracle, which turned out to be ...

Mother Teresa is already worshipped as something more than human, but she has not transcended our common lot to the extent of being cited as a wonder-worker [i.e. canonised or beatified] by Mother Church.

[Malcolm Muggeridge writes, in his 1971 book, Something Beautiful for God, about the 'miracle' of Mother Teresa, the evidence for which was a documentary of the same name, screened in 1969:]

'This is precisely what miracles are for - to reveal the inner reality of God's outward creation. I am personally persuaded that Ken [Macmillan, the cameraman] recorded the first authentic photographic miracle.

'... This Home for the Dying is dimly lit by small windows high up in the walls, and Ken was adamant that filming was quite impossible there. .... It was decided that, nonetheless, Ken should have a go, but by way of insurance he took, as well, some film in an outside courtyard where some of the inmates were sitting in the sun. In the processed film, the part taken inside was bathed in a particularly beautiful soft light, whereas the part taken outside was rather dim and confused. ... I myself am absolutely convinced that the technically unaccountable light is, in fact, the Kindly Light [Cardinal] Newman refers to in his well-known exquisite hymn.

'... I find it not at all surprising that the luminosity [of the love shown by workers in the home] should register on a photographic film. The supernatural is only an infinite projection of the natural, as the furthest horizon is an image of eternity. Jesus put mud on a blind man's eyes and made him see.'

[Ken Macmillan's direct testimony of the 'miracle' is as follows:]

'During Something Beautiful for God, there was an episode where we were taken to a building that Mother Teresa called the House of the Dying. Peter Chafer, the director, said, 'Ah well, it's very dark in here. Do you think we can get something?' And we had just taken delivery at the BBC of some new film made by Kodak, which we hadn't had time to test before we left, so I said to Peter, "Well, we may as well have a go.' So we shot it. And when we got back several weeks later, a month or two later, we are sitting in the rushes theatre at Ealing Studios and eventually up came the shots of the House of the Dying. And it was surprising. You could see every detail. And I said, 'That's amazing. That's extraordinary.' And I was going to go on to say, you know, three cheers for Kodak. I didn't get a chance to say that though, because Malcolm, sitting in the front row, spun round and said: 'It's divine light! It's Mother Teresa. You'll find that it's divine light, old boy.' And three or four days later I found I was being phoned by journalists from London newspapers who were saying things like: 'We hear you've just come back from India with Malcolm Muggeridge and you were the witness of a miracle.'

(pp. 25-27)

 


 

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