Defending Mother Teresa

The Happy Heretic
Judith Hayes
MARCH 1998

They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. But when it comes to writing anything controversial, your success can probably be judged by the caliber of your critics. So I'm flattered.

On January 17, 1998, Clark Morphew, syndicated columnist for Knight-Ridder, took aim at the winter issue of Free Inquiry because of two articles it contained that were highly critical of the late Mother Teresa. One was written by Susan Shields, a former Missionaries of Charity sister who worked with Teresa. Shields revealed that part of her job was to help keep track of the millions of dollars donated to Teresa's "charity" work. Unfortunately, most of that money sat unused in various bank accounts while the sisters had to beg for food from local merchants. If the locals couldn't help out, the soup kitchens did without. This is "charity?"

The other article was written by me. I compared the late Carl Sagan's genuine, almost immeasurable contributions to humanity with Teresa's contributions. Hers consisted of little more than telling people that suffering was good for them, and prattling on inanely about how God will provide, as starving children dropped like flies all around her. I also pointed to the brazen hypocrisy of Teresa's denying her "patients" the most rudimentary care, including simple comforts and pain killers, while she herself checked into posh hospitals to have a pacemaker implanted and blood vessels cleared. Her own health and comfort were apparently quite important to her.

Morphew was obviously upset with the articles, but his defense of Teresa was surprisingly halfhearted and ambivalent. In his opening paragraph Morphew predicts that criticism of Teresa will continue until "some serious reform comes about." But if Teresa's generously financed clinics were running smoothly, honestly and compassionately, why would any reform be needed at all? Likewise, after describing Shields' knowledgeable charges about the idle millions of dollars that helped no one, Morphew suggested that since Sister Nirmala has taken the reigns, "grand changes could happen." Again, why should they, unless something was wrong to begin with?

Seeming to want it both ways, Morphew presents Teresa as "one of the most obvious candidates for sainthood," but then concedes that among Tersa's beliefs were the ideas that suffering is good and that despite staggering overpopulation, birth control is always wrong. He also noted that wiping out poverty and illiteracy was not Teresa's focus. If all of that is true, it places Teresa somewhere between sadistic and stupid. (Which, interestingly, is where "saint" appears in the dictionary.) I have never heard of a compassionate person who thought that human suffering was ever a good thing, and I think compassion would be the bare minimum to expect in anyone being considered for "sainthood."

Morphew also pointed out that Teresa "never pretended to be a doctor who could wipe out or even soften the pain of death." This I challenge fervently. So too would the Columbia University Press Encyclopedia (1995) in which they say about Teresa: "In 1948 she left the convent and founded the Missionaries of Charity, which now operates schools, hospitals, orphanages, and food centers in more than 25 countries." How would Morphew define "hospital?" There is no ambiguity whatsoever about the activities Teresa presented to the world as hers. The problem is that what she said she was doing was not what she was doing.

If Teresa was offering spiritual comfort only, and not trying to "soften the pain of death," (and why on earth not?!) there should have been no drugs dispensed and no drug paraphernalia of any kind on hand at her "clinics." But there were. Her employees and volunteers used and reused un-sterilized syringes to administer ineffective drugs and mild antibiotics to terminally ill people, who suffered the resulting agonies. This is called practicing medicine, and why such malpractice was allowed to go on so long, with no legal challenges, highlights the power, and abuse of power, that is vouchsafed to organized religions. Especially the big ones with a lot of money.

But if, as Morphew asserts, Mother Teresa never intended to offer medical care to the ill, feed the poor, or educate the illiterate, but rather planned only to offer spiritual solace to dying people, then at the very least she was a fraud. Those millions of dollars were donated by caring people to offer medical care to the ill, feed the poor, and educate the illiterate-not to sit in bank accounts earning interest for the Roman Catholic Church, which has been a multi-billion dollar enterprise for decades now. And there are laws about raising charitable contributions for one thing and then using the money for another-as Teresa did. Apparently her goal was to hoard the money, like Midas and his gold. To what end, though, is anybody's guess.

There is a disquieting possibility, however, that presents itself in hindsight. She collected her millions "in the name of God." (And then promptly hid them away like a squirrel readying for winter.) She also converted souls "in the name of God," many just before they expired. I wonder, did she keep a rough tally of those souls? What I'm getting at is I wonder if in her simplistic view of things, anything she did for God would earn her big-time Brownie Points in the afterlife. For her, perhaps, this world had no meaning whatsoever, and was just some sort of challenging religious maze, designed by God to determine who gets the best bits of Paradise. If so, it might explain, since nothing else can, how she could be so callous as to sit on her millions while children, in her own part of India, were dying of starvation. This defies rational explanation, and I challenge anyone, from Morphew to the Pope himself, to explain it.

I am also very surprised that no one came forward sooner to talk about Teresa's questionable practices-but then that's what everyone said about priests raping little boys, isn't it? The Roman Catholic Church's power is unbelievably intimidating.

Whatever the motives of the woman from Calcutta, I have seen enough human suffering in loved ones to recoil in horror at the thought of terminal, tormented people being told that their suffering is a good thing. Suffering is never a good thing-except to sadists. Especially today, when we have the capability to alleviate so much pain, the mental image of those unfortunates who ended up in a Teresa "clinic" makes me cringe with nausea.

I know I am whistling in the wind to ask this, but--- When, oh when, will we stop inflicting pain on each other in the name of some God?!

© 1998 Judith Hayes