C: John Matthew Smith https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mother_Teresa_1995.jpg / CC 2.0

Critics of Mother Teresa don’t have a clue about poverty

Attacking the reputation of a Catholic saint, no longer alive to defend herself (although it’s unlikely she would bother in any case), is a popular sport. Christopher Hitchens set the tone in 1995 with his book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, and since then it has been open house on one of the Catholic Church’s (pardon the pun) sacred cows.

The latest effort comes in the form of a three-part documentary Mother Teresa: For the Love of God? on Sky Documentaries. Just like Hitchens’ book, the title is chosen to provoke and indicates that the documentary is planned to stir things up as well.

A review of the ‘feature’ by the Guardian newspaper unsurprisingly is less a look at the documentary and its qualities than another ‘assessment’ of the life and work of Mother Teresa. No doubt it is aligned with the editorial perspective of the Guardian which is no friend of the Catholic Church and traditionalists, conservatives or any other label that might easily be applied to someone like Mother Teresa. No doubt it is unfriendly.

So unfriendly that the reviewer at the end considers that Mother Teresa’s support of the pro-life/anti-abortion position is “hatred” that is “afoot again in the US” (obviously upset with the leaked Supreme Court thoughts on Roe v Wade). No surprises there. And nothing new either in the documentary or the review to be honest. This is raking over old coals.

It is a populist rehashing of the assertions of Hitchens who, upon Mother Teresa’s beatification in 2003, called her “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”. He accuses her of being a friend of poverty, rather than a friend of the poor. The documentary re-affirms this accusation through a couple of anecdotes supposedly representative of her life’s work. Masquerading as a balanced portrayal, clearly it goes to great length to find unsubstantiated and unfalsifiable assertions.

Aside from Hitchens’ sweeping assertions, there are a few points that are constantly repeated when revisioning the work of Mother Teresa, and religious caregivers more generally.

First, that the care provided by the Missionaries of Charity was sub-standard and damaging; second, that Mother Teresa had no interest in alleviating suffering but rather reinforced it with the belief that suffering brings us closer to God; and lastly, that by alleviating suffering people like Mother Teresa were (un)willing tools of global injustice and inequality.

Addressing the second accusation first: who knows? Who knows really what is in someone’s heart. Maybe she spent her life giving to others, implementing the works of mercy (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead, shelter the traveller, comfort the sick, and (less clear if she did this..) ransom the captive) in order to make them suffer more? Non-sensical no doubt. Substantiating this is nothing more than a quote from an apparently friendly biographer, who has her as reportedly saying:

“Our calling is not necessarily to cure. It is to pass on the love of God to every human being in whom we see the suffering Christ … suffering shared with Christ’s passion is a wonderful thing.”

Read into that what you will. Assume it says what the reviewers claim. But anyone with a sense of fairness – and an understanding of the religious as well as the calling to be a carer – knows that she is not saying what they say she is. It is easy to take a few words and twist them, to pretend they are saying something that is not there, to take them out of context. It is a well-worn path and a little slippery dishonesty is not unusual anymore in these days of the culture wars. On the contrary, it is almost expected.

We see it here in Ireland in the discussions around the National Maternity Hospital in the disingenuity that is displayed in relation to the Sisters of Charity (rather than the Missionaries). It is popular and easy to throw out anti-nun rhetoric; to pretend there are evil nuns hiding in the long grass, waiting to whisk away children to adoptive parents instead of letting them be aborted.

And as with Mother Teresa, all the good that the nuns have done in Ireland – and abroad – is forgotten, ignored and discredited, mainly by armchair critics who have never cleaned a stranger, bathed a wound, let alone offered some sort of psychological or spiritual comfort to a person in need.

These are social justice warriors whose raison d’etre is to harp on about some conceptual transformation of society that will magic everyone into happiness and equality and will end all suffering (and thus the need for the Mother Teresas or Florence Nightingales of this world).

This brings us to the other accusations – the poor quality of care and medical treatment provided by the Missionaries of Charity; and that people like Mother Teresa are “a key component of unjust societies, dabbing balm on the consciences of those who send ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the vulnerable while ensuring they remain so”.

The first: possibly so. Certainly so from the vantage point of state-funded NHS-level services in one of the wealthiest countries in the world at the wealthiest time in history. Is it hard to understand that this was Calcutta in the 1950s? India in the 1950s, 60s and 70s? In India today, 70 years later, there are still many millions living in slums, in poverty, dying without any – let alone adequate – medical care and treatment. People die in the street, in sewers daily, 70 years on from when Mother Teresa, as a young woman, set out on her chosen path.

Yes, the care may have been inadequate in comparison to what a Guardian writer or a Sky documenter might be used to or expecting. It might hurt our modern sensibilities to hear that needles were re-used in a time where they are available cheap and disposable. There were not disposable needles readily available in the 1950s in England, never mind the slums of India. We live in a disposable, single use society where things like needles cost a fraction of what they used to. Today is no standard for measuring the past. These types of accusations are red-herrings, but such is the lack of understanding of the past, such is the religious and historical illiteracy of people today.

The Missionaries of Charity lived and worked in a context where demand for their services and their care far outstripped their available resources. India is not a small country yet for some reason the expectation is that these few Sisters should have been providing world class care in a time when no one else was doing much. Mother Teresa started her work in Calcutta in 1948 – the same year Aneurin Bevan established the NHS in the UK.

There were failings in the UK health system before the NHS was set up yet no one is trying dismantle the legacy of the UK government. The NHS has not been perfect at all times, in all places and has its flaws today. Why is the Guardian not doing a hatchet job on Aneurin Bevan? No doubt Mother Teresa and her Sisters could have done better. They could have been superhuman; perfect; omnipresent, omniscient. They could have chosen depth over breadth. Instead of trying to alleviate the sufferings of the many, they could have just selected a few and gave them wonderful care and left the others where they found them – in the gutter.

This seems to be what their critics think that they ought to have done in the absence of describing a credible alternative. Yet today, across the world, many millions remain without adequate care and access to medical facilities. Instead of grandstanding, pretending to shine a light on the past, why not step up to the present? Why not either step into the breach or call out those that are failing in the present as seemingly Mother Teresa and her fellow travellers with none of the resources available today did in the past?

Because it is easier not to. It is easier to take down a sacred cow than to do something yourself. It is easier to criticise those that try imperfectly than to risk doing it yourself. Why not go to India and examine the state health clinics and critique their care in the modern world? Because there is no ideological brownie-points to be gained from it.

I spent time in Ethiopia and some of it in a Missionaries of Charity orphanage in the south, rural part of the country where children with disabilities were looked after. It wasn’t perfect but three Indian Sisters with the help of some local women looked after over 100 children that were deaf, blind, physically and mentally disabled. People that I was there with criticised the conditions, but when asked what should be done – given the small money available to keep the place afloat and the ever-growing number of children that were being dropped at the gate – they had no answers.

Were they, like the writers, able to posit an alternative? No. The care was not perfect by 2022 standards (this was 2001-3) but the alternative for a child with a disability in rural Ethiopia was grim – just as it across Africa, in much of India and worse in some places where regimes claim disabilities do not exist. It was just the same for a grandmother who lived to old age. There are no nursing homes, or hospices, or home help. Poverty is harsh. Families had no social protection, no dole, no possibility to take time off going to the dry fields where they tried to grow the small amount of food possible to keep hunger at bay. The old grandmother or the disabled child had to – and in many places still has to – be locked indoors for want of an alternative.

The deluded portrayal in that Guardian article is not new. Of course, it is easier to criticise an imperfect care environment when you don’t actually do anything yourself. Maybe we should, as a society, let the weak, the poor and vulnerable die, to hold up a mirror to the failing governments in the vain hope they will fix themselves once the reality of their injustice is revealed to them and the scales are peeled back from their eyes.

It is not just Mother Teresa, in that case. Maybe we should dispense with the Red Cross. Maybe we should get rid of all the charities who by their malevolent presence save lives but keep an unjust world afloat. Maybe hammering away on a keyboard and ranting on Twitter is the right approach. Forget qualifying as a doctor. Forget volunteering for Doctors Without Borders. Find a career as an influencer and use Instagram to make people’s lives better.

Such nonsense is not a new narrative. We hear the same thing daily in Ireland from disingenuous and malicious commentators on the subject of nuns and religious doing good work.

Eaten bread is quickly forgotten.


Dualta Roughneen is an Irish writer and humanitarian aid worker. This article was first published here and is printed with permission

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