The Illusory Vs. The Real Mother Teresa
By Michael Hakeem, Ph.D.
Why should freethinkers read Hitchens' book? Surely Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity are not unique. The global map is studded with charitable missions, some of them, like Mother Teresa's, serving the most wretched on the the face of the earth. But no other head of one has been accorded such significance and become the object of such fabulous adoration as she has.
Hitchens writes: "Ever since Something Beautiful for God the critic of Mother Teresa in small things, as well as great ones, has had to operate against an enormous weight of received opinion, a weight made no easier to shift by the fact that it is made up quite literally of illusion." That is the nub of the issue. Freethinkers should be specialists in demolishing received opinion that has created reputations built on illusion and ignorance of the facts -- and not only that of Jesus. Hitchens, who has to be counted a freethinker, is such a specialist, and his book can serve as a model of how to go about the job of demolition. It is a powerfully written and tightly reasoned attack on the illusions that have made of Mother Teresa an impregnable icon.
The esteem with which Mother Teresa is held can hardly be exaggerated. She has been feted by numerous heads of state including Presidents Reagan and Clinton. She is reported to have received honorary degrees from universities. She was invited to address the United Nations, an occasion attended by an audience unprecedented in size. It has become de rigueur for celebrities who find themselves in that region to pay a visit to Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
She is often turned to for advice on the solution to poverty and other social problems. She has traveled round the earth many times and is everywhere received with great enthusiasm and reverence. She has received a very large number of prizes, awards, and honors, among them the Nobel Peace Prize. She is regarded as a towering presence and as a thinker of singular profundity. A large number of books have been published about her, all, before Hitchens', extremely laudatory. There are quite a number of books that collect Mother Teresa's utterances (she herself has written very little). These are presented as precious and inimitable gems of wisdom.
It takes a certain mentality to uncritically swallow wholly unexamined the image of Mother Teresa projected in the received opinion. That mentality is known to Hitchens and he refers to it a number of times:
Hitchens points out, "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." In fact, he could have pointed out that, to the extent that those scholars who claim that overpopulation is one of the factors that can lead to war are correct, her opposition to any effective limitation on the growth of population implicates her in war rather than peace. In her lengthy address at the Nobel ceremonies, which took on the cast of a religious sermon, about the only time she mentioned war and peace was in the following: "I think that today peace is threatened by abortion, too, which is a true war, a direct killing of a child by its own mother . . . . Today, abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace . . . . Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves, or one another? Nothing." Even after this, the Nobel Committee, apparently no more informed about the issue of war and peace than she, did not rescind her award.
Strewn throughout Hitchens' book are many examples of the worthlessness of her advice and deliberations on the issues of the day: AIDS is a just retribution for improper sexual misconduct. The problems facing Calcutta are due to the fact that it is too distant from Jesus. "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." After the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal exploded and toxic chemicals killed 2500 people and permanently impaired the health of many thousands, Mother Teresa went there post haste. Investigation later revealed a pattern of negligence by the corporation and showed that previous warnings about lack of safety at the plant had been ignored by it. Throngs of angry relatives of victims greeted her at the airport and asked her advice and counsel. She gave it. She intoned her usual homily for solving complex problems: "Forgive, forgive, forgive." A group of residents in one of the worst slums in the nation's capital confronted her on her visit there and told her that they needed housing, jobs, and services -- not charity. They asked her what she was going to do about it. She advised, "First we must learn to love one another."
Some will say it is churlish and petty to criticize Mother Teresa when she does such great and heroic medical and charitable work for the destitute and sick -- for the "poorest of the poor," as she puts it. But how much is known about what she is doing or whether she is doing good or harm, or more of one than the other? Where are the scientific researches done by outside, objective scholars to show whether her Missionaries of Charity does even what it could or should be doing given the great resources that pour into it. Who would dare even suggest an investigation and evaluation?
The little that is known about what goes on at the Missionaries of Charity is not encouraging. Hitchens dug up an article that appeared in the noted British medical journal, The Lancet (September, 1994). The article is by a physician who visited and inspected the Calcutta facility. He was quite disturbed by what he saw. He observed misdiagnoses and administration of inappropriate medications. He was particularly appalled that no strong analgesics were used to control intractable pain.
How bad things are in Mother Teresa's care of the sick, and how primitive her thinking is in other respects as well, can be seen in the observations Hitchens received from a host of former employees and volunteers in the Missionaries of Charity. After a critical film of his on the order was televised, he received communications from them. He used only those who were willing to have their names used and who answered certain inquiries that assured authenticity. The picture presented by this evidence reveals the sharp contrast between the received opinion about her work and the reality, and it relates some of the harm she does. It is not necessary to cite here all the reported negligence and malpractices, which range from repeatedly using the same injection needles without sterilizing them to a refusal to send to the hospital those in clear need of surgery.
Why does not Mother Teresa do better? She cannot because she is a passionately religious individual. The figure that dominates her thoughts and her talk is God. He is central to every breath she takes and every word that passes her lips. As was pointed out above, she repeatedly says that what she does is in the name of God. It is for God's sake that she helps the poor, sick, and dying. She claims that she never asks for donations. Money comes to her, she explains, through the providence of God. God sends money her way because she is doing what he wants her to do. If God did not want her to care for people, she says, he would not send the money. In short, contrary to the prevailing perception, she is not necessarily a warm and loving person motivated by an overwhelming compassion. She is just dutifully submitting to God's bidding. By her own admission, if he did not have money sent to her, she would do nothing to try to get donations so she could help. God would not want it, and she is bound by God's will.
The physician who wrote the critical article in The Lancet is an astute observer. After condemning the fact that there was no rational search for diagnosis and treatment in the Calcutta facility, he explains: "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 toward materialism." Hitchens expounds on the same theme: "The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection."
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. Hitchens reports that in a filmed interview Mother Teresa herself tells of a patient suffering unbearable pain from terminal cancer: "With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told the patient: 'You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.'" Apparently unaware that the response of the sufferer was a put-down, she freely related it: "Then please tell him to stop kissing me."
It should go without saying that a book review is always a mere skeleton, nothing more than a foretaste, of the book itself. There is much more in Hitchens' work, including some rather shocking details about her activities, not touched upon here. He shows her political wiliness, all but missed by her admirers who picture her as innocent of such matters; her stealthy baptism of dying nonChristians; her acceptance of money from unsavory characters and crooks; her activities as emissary of the pope; her partiality to -- or at least her lack of repulsion of -- dictators, even so horrible a character as Hoxha of Albania; her willingness to sacrifice the needs of the poor for the requirements of dogma; her enforcing of austerity in the midst of abundance; her dictatorial rule; her work being at bottom a fundamentalist religious campaign; and much more. And finally one can't resist mentioning her opposition to canning tomatoes for preserving for future use because there is absolutely no need to do so since God will provide.
Free thinkers owe Hitchens a debt of gratitude for providing a brilliant example of the repudiation of received opinion and its replacement with an exercise in critical inquiry that results in the smashing of illusion and unmasking its beneficiary, in this instance Mother Teresa, and exposing her to the piercing light of reality, especially when the beneficiary has been protected from exposure by ensconcement behind the massive stronghold of religion.
Just btw, I remember studying an English textbook at school that had a lengthy lesson on Teresa written by that lecherous "secularist" Kushwant Singh. Someone once said (I forgot who) that "despite his constant harping on sex, Kushwant Singh goes to bed with nothing more exciting than a hot-water bottle." Singh has some talent, spinning yarns about prostitutes and nuns alike!