Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The (Not So) Thin Line Between Sinner and Saint

I've just finished Christopher Hitchens's little polemic against Mother Theresa, The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice, and let's just say that the old bird doesn't come out too well. Hitchens's main charges against her can be grouped into three broad categories:
  • Despite being ostensibly apolitical, Mother Theresa consistently associated herself with right wing causes and despotic leaders throughout the world. She stumped against abortion at every opportunity, calling it a "threat to peace." She supported the Duvaliers in Haiti, she backed the right wing contras in Nicaragua. She associated with Reagan and Thatcher.
  • She accepted large sums of money as donations from corrupt businessmen. For instance, she accepted over a million dollars from Charles Keating, who was a prominent (and convicted) player in the Savings and Loan scandals in the 1980s. Then, when he was brought up on charges, she didn't give back the money so that it could be returned to the people Keating had swindled; instead she wrote a letter on his behalf to the judge presiding over the case.
  • Her real mission was never to help the poor and sick improve their lot; instead her true goal was the furtherance of her own preferred version of austere Catholicism, in which suffering was viewed as something that has intrinsic value instead of something that should be avoided or mitigated as far as possible. To aid in this point, Hitchens marshals testimony from medical professionals who had visited the Missionaries of Charity home for the dying in India, who nearly unanimously decried the unacceptable conditions under which people were receiving treatment.
The charges grouped in the first category are of varying degrees of severity and relevance, and one gets the sense that Hitchens's personal political views have colored the analysis significantly. While she certainly held some political proclivities that I wouldn't agree with, I'm not sure how valid it is to criticize Theresa for photo ops with Reagan and Thatcher. Her cozy relationship with third world dictators is certainly more problematic, but the whole approach smells too much like arguing guilt by association for my taste. Fortunately, it's not his whole argument.

The second group of objections definitely has more validity. If it's true that she accepted money that had been obtained illegally (which appears to be the case), found out how it was obtained (which has to be the case), and didn't give the money back (which is the case) then she has to be considered to have committed a pretty mortal sin. It's hard to see how someone who professes to work for the poor would keep money that was basically stolen from ordinary people.

Unless by her utilitarian calculus the greater good is served by the money, of course. Which brings us to Hitchens's most damaging claims against Theresa--the greater good for which she strove was not the reduction of suffering in this world, but rather preparing souls for the next one. The millions and millions of dollars she received in donations weren't spent on giving the dying of Calcutta top flight medical care. The Missionary Position has a number of testimonials about the dirty conditions, re-use of unsterilized needles, lack of appropriate pain medication, and refusal to send people with treatable conditions to the hospital. This doesn't really appear to be something disputed by Theresa's defenders (see here and here).

But could Theresa not have tended both the bodies and souls of the dying? Here is the crux of the issue, and the point on which Hitchens's expose is the most insightful: Theresa had no interest in alleviating suffering because she believed suffering is good. In her own words:
  • "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."
  • "Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus - a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you."

So there it is. Suffering is good for the world because suffering is getting a big wet sloppy kiss from Jesus. And with beliefs like this lunacy, it isn't hard to see why she spent those millions in donations supporting convents all over the world instead of on pain killers for terminal cancer patients. Suffering isn't something to be avoided. It's good for your soul.

To make matters worse, as Hitchens points out, she was more or less upfront with these contemptible beliefs from the beginning; but for some reason the media has refused to look at her in any sort of critical way. People from all over the world have donated to the Missionaries of Charity because they think they're helping the poor, sick people from India, when in reality they're funding Theresa's world wide network of convents and death houses whose sole purpose is proselytizing. Every media outlet that uncritically reported on her "good works" has been complicit in propagating her cult of suffering.

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