Expendable Dignity: The True Legacy of Mother Theresa

I’ve no doubt that my atheist readers are familiar with Christopher Hitchens and his writings, one of them being an expose of Mother Theresa entitled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. This is not a critique of the book (which I haven’t read yet, but plan to) or an analysis of MT as a person or a religious. It’s about the real (and ugly) throwaway attitudes we have towards those we are supposed to be serving.

The allegations made by Hitchens are old and, in some circles, well-known. I was first exposed to them as a 14-year-old and I was outraged. Of course Mother Teresa was a saint and this made was an out-of-touch, bitter anti-theist who hates goodness and joy. (Remember, I was an agnostic at the time). Now I fully believe that most, if not all, of the allegations are true. It’s hard to hear, but it needed to be said and I thank Hitchens for having the courage to write it.

For thousands of years, in order to be canonized a saint, you needed to have been dead for a long period of time and have a certain number of miracles attributed to you. Someone needed to independently verify that these were not hoaxes. In addition, your candidacy is debated before a council, and part of this process is hearing arguments from a devil’s advocate. The job of the devil’s advocate is, to put it bluntly, to put you in as horrible a light as possible based on the facts of your life, and if your character survives this flame test, you’re on your way. This allows the Church to have a clear perspective on the candidate’s life instead of giving in to fundamentalism and populist sentiment.

Some time during his papacy, John Paul II (or JPII) eliminated the devil’s advocate clause and the waiting period in the deliberation of sainthood. What this means is that someone can be canonized at any time for any reason without any real opportunity to reflect, debate, or even learn the facts. This has tremendous religious and political advantages for bigwig (or big mitre) politicians in the Church, as you can see with all the anti-abortion bumper stickers that bear Mother Teresa’s name.

You can tell a lot about how the Church feels about a candidate based on their track. People like Sister Mary MacKillop (recently canonized) and Dorothy Day were highly critical of the bishops of their day and were branded dangerous radicals. They were relegated to the slow track. Mother Teresa is on the fast track.

And there’s nothing I can do about it.

Among the many accusations made was the one in which Mother Teresa did not actually improve the lives of the poor. She just provided them a “loving, spiritual” place to die, and when they were at death’s door and too weak to object, she and her sisters baptized them against their will.

Mother Teresa is an icon of modern Catholicism. There is no escaping her, and forget about having the freedom to criticize her without suffering the consequences. All I hear about her is her service to the poor, not just materially, but spiritually. I want to believe that they don’t know how MT generated many of her ‘converts,’ but I’m not so sure that’s true.

I think they very well do know and they don’t care.

It reminds me of some websites I read about the ‘Jews for Jesus’ cult. Without going into detail about their theology and history, the founder had the explicit mission to convert Jews to Christianity by luring them in with Jew-flavored worship services that involve worshop of Christ as the Son of God. While many evangelicals approve of this, many others, including the Catholic Church, feel it is unethical.

It is one thing to have an intersecting Jewish and Christian identity. It is one thing to create a religion or personal belief system that blends Christianity and Judaism because it’s meaningful to you. It’s another thing to do what J4J is doing. In short, J4J is wrong. Yet these same Catholics that are scrupulous about Jewish sensibilities see no problem with what Mother Teresa did to patients in her clinics. She and the Sisters of Mercy would deny basic medical treatment and force the patients to endure torture, telling them they should ‘offer it up’ to Christ and His suffering. Then, when they were too weak to object, they were baptized against their will. If J4J is unethical, then the Sisters of Mercy were depraved.

When I started writing, I couldn’t wrap my head around the contradiction there. Then I realized that powerful Christians have a vested political and religious interest in the Jewish people. Major churches have a PR problem, and they thought that burying the hatchet with the Jews would convince the world that they have changed. There’s guilt about the Holocaust. There is the shared interest in the territory of Israel, which is primary Jewish. Jesus originally wanted to preach to the Jews, and Christians today still feel called to do that, but decided that tortue didn’t work that well. Certain factions of Christians and Jews, primarily in the Middle East, are allied against Muslims, whom they feel are seeking their destruction and a global Islamist Sharia state. Christians feel that without the Jews, there would not be Jesus (and they’re right about that). They feel indebted to them.

I’m glad that relations between Jews and Christians have improved and I want to see more. But there is no denying the vested interest that many Christians have in their public relations with Jews. If MT had been doing this to the Jewish people, there likely would have been a lot of attention paid t it and most Catholics would have been horrified.

On the other hand, the majority of MT’s victims were Hindus and Muslims. Christians owe nothing to Muslims religiously and view Muslims as their enemies. Hindus have nothing to do with Christianity. Christians have no vested interest in them or their dignity. Who cares about them?



  1. DeidreMiller · May 1, 2012

    As one of your atheist readers, I’ve got to say that I only have a passing acquaintance with Christopher Hitchens. I think I read a review of his book when it first came out. Although there do seem to be some atheists who are obsessed with debunking or devaluing religion, I suspect that most (like me) aren’t all that interested in religion and don’t read books about religious figures.

    Anyway, interesting article and interesting perspective on religious coercion. Could it be that the Catholic Church treats Hindus with less respect than people who are part of other simple, monotheistic religions? Maybe that’s part of the reason for the discrepancy.

  2. RachelB · May 2, 2012

    You can tell a lot about how the Church feels about a candidate based on their track. People like Sister Mary MacKillop (recently canonized) and Dorothy Day were highly critical of the bishops of their day and were branded dangerous radicals. They were relegated to the slow track. Mother Teresa is on the fast track.

    As a protestant, I found the above part especially interesting. Jeanne d’Arc was on the super-slow track, wasn’t she? I would not have guessed, reading saints’ lives at my best friend’s house as a kid, that she was not canonized until 1920. Saints always struck me as the sort of religious equivalents of superheroes, and what is more super-heroic than telling someone with much more power than you something they don’t want to hear?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s