Monday, June 30, 2008

The Controversial Legacy of Mother Teresa

‘Saints, should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent.’

-George Orwell.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, also known as Mother Teresa, captured the media attention of the world for her pious service of the poor and abandoned children of Calcutta.

Born in Skopje – now capital of Macedonia- on 26th of August, she was raised by her strict Albanian mother to be a staunch Roman Catholic .At the age of eighteen she joined the sisters of Loreto as a missionary and came to India in the year 1929.

In the year 1950 the Vatican gave permission to Mother Teresa to start the diocesan congregation that would become the Missionaries of Charity.

The mission of the charity was a noble one as it was to take care of the homeless, the destitute and the unwanted people.

The order, Missionaries of Charity, had thirteen members, which grew to more than four thousand nuns running orphanages, hospices for the care terminally ill and Aids patients. In 1952 Teresa converted an abandoned Hindu temple into the Kalighat home for the dying. The order opened the Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, the Children's Home of the Immaculate Heart, as a haven for orphans and homeless youth.

The charitable activities of the order established organisations in other parts of India and also worldwide, especially, in Venezuela, Asia, Africa, US and Europe.1

The Extraordinary career of Mother Teresa

The brief curriculum vitae of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu does not do adequate justice to the extraordinary career of Mother Teresa. In public and in the media, her wizened body and her wrinkled face radiated a quiet compassion, which could only be seen on saints' faces as they calmly served the wretched of the earth.

The media revelled in showing photographs of starving babies in Mother Teresa’s hands. Other photos revealed Mother Teresa in a saintly light as she hugged the dying who were vulnerable in their last moments of life. She became an icon of service to humanity and international recognition poured in first as trickle and then as flood. She won Padma Shri (India), Order of Merit, Golden Honour of the Nation (Albania), culminating in the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to her in 1979.

As an international celebrity, Teresa became a brand ambassador of the Vatican espousing the controversial policies of the Roman Catholic Church with regard to abortion, divorce and contraception.

When she died in 1997 the Holy See began a process of beatification towards declaring Mother Teresa as a saint. For canonizing Mother Teresa it was necessary to establish two miracles unless the Pope dispensed it.

The first miracle- the healing of a tumour in the abdomen of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, following the application of a locket containing Mother Teresa's picture- was mired in controversy as the medical doctors attending on her and her husband claimed that the tumour was cured by conventional medicine.

A devil’s advocate

Christopher Hitchens, an author and journalist, who declared Mother Teresa as a pious fraud, challenged the beatification and canonization of Mother Teresa. He said ‘her intention was not to help people’ but ‘she was working to expand the number of Catholics.’

His objections were overruled by the Roman Curia who saw no obstacle to the canonization of Mother Teresa. Hitchens alleged that there was no examination of the witnesses who claimed that Monica Besra was not cured by a miracle but by prescription medicine. It was also alleged that Monica Besra had tubercular cyst not malignant tumour as claimed by her order.

All these claims were perfunctorily examined without critical scrutiny raising doubts that the standards were deliberately lowered to put the canonization of Mother Teresa on a fast track.2

But the Vatican was in a quandary - if the scrutiny process was diluted and divine intervention in human affairs is too promiscuously recognized, the church exposes itself to skeptical questions that if one leper can be cured by divine help then why not other lepers?

Does the Lord show preference in not eradicating infant leukemia and mass poverty?

If so, is such a God biased in saving some souls but not the others?

Such questions relentlessly open the floodgates of critical challenge lowering the credibility of the Faith. This unease was reflected in some cardinals who objected to the fast track canonization of Mother Teresa.

However the beatification of Mother Teresa took place on 19th October 2003 and the title ‘Blessed’ was conferred on her.

This placed her firmly in the ante- room of sainthood.

A spanner in the hagiography

In a cynical age such as ours, where the highest form of human endeavour are self-seeking individuals working for the maximization of personal advantage, it is not surprising that tales of personal sacrifice bring tears to the eyes.

The reputation of Mother Teresa as a saviour of the poor received a turbo boost when Malcolm Muggeridge filmed Mother Teresa’s work in Calcutta titled Something Beautiful for God, which was shown on BBC.

He wrote a book with the same title, which sold more than 300,000 copies sold, reprinted 20 times and translated into 13 languages. There was no looking back for the obscure Albanian Nun who catapulted to world celebrity.

The hagiography industry churned out books with titles helper of the poor, protector of the sick, and friend of the friendless, which established the icon status of Mother Teresa as a living example of a saint.

It must be said to the credit of Hitchens that he initiated the critical process of challenging the status of Teresa and the hagiography industry devoted to the sanctimonious humbug of deifying Teresa.

In 1994 he produced a documentary film called Hell’s Angel, which was broadcast on Channel 4.

The film was vilified and the author was subjected to abuse. Undeterred, Hitchens meticulously researched the life of Mother Teresa and published a book called The Missionary Position.

In this book, Hitchens rakes up controversial issues about Teresa and calls into question the credulous nonsense written about the saviour of the poor.

In bad company

In a broadside delivered against the uncritical adulation of Mother Teresa, Hitchens asks inconvenient questions- what was Mother Teresa of Calcutta doing in the presence of the hated family of Baby Doc Duvalier who was the ruthless dictator of Haiti?

The event referred to by Hitchens was the visit of Mother Teresa to Haiti in 1981 to accept the Legion d'Honneur.

In a magazine called L’Assaut, a propaganda organ for the Duvalier family, there are photos of Mother Teresa holding the bangled hand of Michele Duvalier (wife of Baby Doc) and gazing at her with respect and reverence.

The magazine quotes Teresa as having said, ‘Madame President is someone who feels, who knows, who wishes to demonstrate her love not only with words but also with concrete and tangible actions.’

Whether the oppressed people of Haiti who were murdered, raped and pillaged by the Duvalier family for generations, echoed her sentiments is not known, as they were not quoted in the magazine.

Her pious endorsement of the Duvalier family was in line with the extreme Right wing and conservative faction of the Vatican hierarchy supporting the Duvalier oligarchy.3

While it would be tempting to view Mother Teresa’s Haiti visit as a social faux pas not worthy of criticism, there is overwhelming evidence that she supported repressive dictators and regimes in Central and South America.

She gave support to the Reagan administration by her participation in the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to her inside the White House in 1985, when right wing death squads embroiled the administration in a scandal relating to the murder of four American nuns and the Archbishop of San Salvador in Central America.

Her admonition of the Sandinista Revolutionary Party gave support to the contras, a vicious mercenary army actively funded by the Reagan government to bomb schools and hospitals in Nicaragua, raised serious doubts about her political neutrality.

During the suspension of civil liberties in India by Indira Gandhi in 1975, the Mother uttered no words of criticism. She purred beatifically-‘ People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes.’ Her friendly relationship with Mrs Gandhi and the Congress party played an important role in silencing the criticism. ‘Mother Teresa’ says Michael Parenti, ‘is a paramount example of the kind of acceptably conservative icon propagated by an elite-dominated culture, a saint who uttered not a critical word against social injustice, and maintained cosy relations with the rich, corrupt, and powerful.’4

Money has no smell

Other controversies dogged Mother Teresa. One of the most serious scandals to affect her reputation was her financial involvement with one of the biggest frauds known in American history - Charles Keating.

The savings and loan scam of Keating swindled $252 million, mainly from small and poor depositors. A staunch Catholic he gave Teresa $1,250,000 in cash and the use of a private jet.

In return Mother Teresa gave a glowing character certificate and pleaded for his clemency during the trial. The Deputy District Attorney for LA, Paul Turley in a tersely worded letter addressed to Teresa asked her to return the money stolen by Keating.

Mother Teresa did not return the money. No action was taken by the court for its recovery. It appears that saints are immune from coercive proceedings.5

The theology of suffering

At the heart of suffering lies a deception, which must be examined rationally to understand the theory and practice of Mother Teresa.

At a 1981 press conference she was asked: "Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?"

She replied: ‘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.’

Her reply made her critics accuse her of loving suffering more than the sufferers. The spectacle of suffering was beneficial for faith as only in pain one thought of the Lord. The alleviation of pain of dying patients was not an important objective.

There is a memorable anecdote about her attitude to suffering. A patient was approached by Mother Teresa who dished out theological platitudes instead of providing painkillers to the patient.

‘You are suffering like Christ on the cross,’ Mother Teresa allegedly told the patient. ‘So Jesus must be kissing you.’

The patient is said to have replied, ‘Then please tell him to stop kissing me.’

This bizarre attitude to suffering was reflected in her hospices and orphanages. ‘In 1991, Dr. Robin Fox, then editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, visited the Home for Dying Destitute in Calcutta and described the medical care the patients received as "haphazard".

He observed that sisters and volunteers, some of whom had no medical knowledge, had to make decisions about patient care, because of the lack of doctors in the hospice.

Dr. Fox specifically held Teresa responsible for conditions in this home, and observed that her order did not distinguish between curable and incurable patients, so that people who could otherwise survive would be at risk of dying from infections and lack of treatment.’8

Moreover, the formulary at the facility Fox visited lacked strong analgesics. Fox also wrote that needles were rinsed with warm water, which left them inadequately sterilised, and the facility did not isolate patients with infectious diseases.

There have been a series of other reports documenting inattention to medical care in the order's facilities. Some former volunteers who worked for Teresa’s order have also expressed similar points of view.

Mother Teresa herself referred to the facilities as "Houses of the Dying”

The orphanages where abandoned children were housed showed shocking lapses of care so strongly advertised in the media all over the world. Donal MacIntyre - a reporter and documentary-maker for Channel 5 Television who worked undercover was astonished at what he saw-

‘ I saw children with their mouths gagged open to be given medicine, their hands flaying in distress, visible testimony to the pain they were in. Tiny babies were bound with cloths at feeding time. Rough hands wrenched heads into position for feeding. Some of the children retched and coughed as rushed staff crammed food into their mouths. Boys and girls were abandoned on open toilets for up to 20 minutes at a time. Slumped, untended, some dribbling, some sleeping, they were a pathetic sight. Their treatment was an affront to their dignity, and dangerously unhygienic.’9
The donations, which poured from all parts of the world, were not invested in buying drugs and medical equipment for the care of the sick and dying.

Instead, it was diverted to the Vatican Bank for general use.

But when it came to her own treatment ‘Teresa checked into some of the costliest hospitals and recovery care units in the world for state-of-the-art treatment.’10

Conservative agenda

The Vatican under Pope Paul II used the popularity of Mother Teresa to support controversial issues on abortion, divorce, and contraception.

The Roman church remained implacably hostile to abortion even if was necessary to save the life of the mother or in instances where women were raped and requested abortion.

Its views on divorce and contraception were steeped in medieval values. The dogma of the Roman Catholic Church with respect to contraception is well known and has invited protests from all over the world.

Mother Teresa lobbied hard on the referendum to lift the constitutional ban divorce in Ireland in 1995. Her position was that of a hardliner opposing the removal of the ban on divorce.

In her meeting with Margaret Thatcher in the year 1988 the main discussion centred on Abortion instead of the plight of the city’s homeless.

In Spain she lobbied hard on behalf the clerical forces to prevent legislation liberalising abortion, divorce and birth control.

At a open- air mass in Knock (Ireland) in 1992, she addressed the devout with the following words-‘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 her Nobel Peace Prize speech in 1979, Mother Teresa famously said -‘ 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.’12

Sums up Susan Jacoby,‘Teresa never showed any concern, in India or elsewhere, about the root causes of poverty — including lack of education, corrupt dictatorships, inequitable distribution of wealth, bigotry against social, ethnic, or religious under classes, and contempt for women.’13

Selecting Saints

Any Institution such as the Roman Catholic Church, which has a relationship of trust with its devotees, must maintain high standards of moral probity to retain the trust and confidence of its members. Such confidence should not be diluted in the name of political expediency.

In the past, the Church crushed dissent and heresy through the office of the Inquisition to retain power.

In modern times, such powers do not exist. Its legitimacy lies in moral persuasion, which is exercised through the proper selection of saints who epitomise all that is best and pure about the Church.

During the 26-year papacy of Paul II, the Pope had canonised 483 individuals to sainthood. Among the less savoury individuals selected for the honour of beatification was the reactionary Msgr. José María Escrivá de Balaguer, supporter of fascist regimes in Spain and elsewhere, and founder of Opus Dei, a powerful secretive ultra-conservative movement feared by many as a sinister sect within the Catholic Church.

Other selections for beatification, which raised eyebrows, were Pius IX, who reigned as pontiff from 1846 to 1878, and who referred to Jews as dogs and Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, the leading Croatian cleric who welcomed the Nazi and fascist Ustashi takeover of Croatia during World War II and openly supported the Croatian fascist regime that exterminated hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma. 14

Mother Teresa was a mild reactionary when compared to the egregious examples of Msgr. José María Escrivá de Balaguer, Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, and Pius IX but certainly not an inspiring example for the Church.

More worthy persons such as Archbishop Oscar Romero who spoke against Right wing death squads for oppressing the people of El Salvador received shabby treatment at the hands of Pope Paul II.

The death squad murdered the Archbishop for speaking out his mind against tyranny and oppression.

The people of El Salvador venerated him as a saint. But Pope Paul II used his authority to ban any discussion for his beatification for a period of 50 years. No protests were made by the Pope to condemn the murder.

The Pope merely murmured –‘Tragic’ when asked for his comments. The ground swell of support for the martyred priest made the Pope to relent: the ban was cut down to 25 years. The Archbishop was put on a slow boat to sainthood.

The Byzantine intrigue of the Vatican in selecting its saints would make a cynic say in mock wonder, ‘The ways of the Vatican are indeed mysterious.’

And that sense of mystery only deepens when one considers the extraordinary beatification of an Albanian nun called Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu.


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The placing of an article hereupon does not necessarily imply that I agree or accept the contents of the article as being necessarily factual in theology, dogma or otherwise.

Sotto Voce

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mother Teresa was not trying to "expand the number of Catholics" or "help people" she was loving Christ in each person. Something she admitted was easier to do in poor countries than in developed countries... because people in developed countries tend to view things through a very narrow worldly lense that diminishes all things to ugliness and baseness.
my dear Sotto Voce... remember... we must love Christ in all his many dwelling places... however much He has been layered over with what is ugly and base. We must try never to get discouraged.
My heart is still soaring! I prayed to share some of my joy with you... my dear Sotto Voce... open your heart and accept my gift.
God is Gracious