Criticism of Mother Teresa

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The work of Catholic nun and missionary Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, commonly known as Mother Teresa and from 2016 as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, received mixed reactions from prominent people, governments and organisations. Her practices, and those of the Missionaries of Charity, the order which she founded, were subject to numerous controversies. These include objections to the quality of medical care which they provided, suggestions that some deathbed baptisms constituted forced conversion, and alleged links to colonialism and racism and to relations to questionable public figures. The controversy extends to include the large sums of money donated to her as well as the Vatican for ignoring the criticisms raised.

Media criticisms[edit]

Indian author and physician Aroup Chatterjee, who briefly worked in one of Mother Teresa's homes, investigated the financial practices and other practices of Teresa's order. In 1994, two British journalists, Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali, produced a critical British Channel 4 documentary, Hell's Angel, based on Chatterjee's work. The next year, Hitchens published The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, a book that repeated many of the accusations in the documentary. Chatterjee published The Final Verdict in 2003, a less polemical work than those of Hitchens and Ali, but equally critical of Teresa's operations.[1] In 2003, after Teresa was beatified by John Paul II, Hitchens continued his criticism, calling her "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud." He further criticised the Catholic Church for attributing the recovery of a patient to a miracle, and for ignoring the testimony of the patient's doctor, who attributed the recovery of his patient to modern medicine.[2] Chatterjee and Hitchens were called by the Vatican to present evidence against Teresa during her canonisation process.[3]

Quality of medical care[edit]

In 1994, Robin Fox, then editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, visited the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and described the medical care the patients received as "haphazard".[4] He observed that sisters and volunteers, some of whom had no medical knowledge, frequently made decisions about patient care because of the lack of doctors in the hospice: "There are doctors that call in from time to time," Fox wrote, "but usually the sisters and volunteers (some of whom have medical knowledge) make decisions as best they can."[5] Fox witnessed one patient with high fever being treated with paracetamol and tetracycline, an antibiotic, only to be later diagnosed with malaria by a visiting doctor, who prescribed chloroquine. Fox specifically held Teresa responsible for these conditions in the Home, writing, Mother Teresa "prefers providence to planning".[5] Fox also observed that staff either declined[citation needed] to use or lacked access to blood films or "simple algorithms that might help the sisters distinguish" between curable and incurable patients: "Investigations, I was told, are seldom permissible".[5]

Fox conceded that the regimen he observed included "cleanliness, the tending of wounds and sores, and loving kindness", but critiqued the sisters' "spiritual approach" to managing pain: "I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics. Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Theresa's approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer."[5]

Mary Loudon, who volunteered at the same facility, observed "syringes run under cold water and reused, aspirin given to those with terminal cancer, and cold baths given to everyone"[6] as well as overcrowding. There have been a series of other reports documenting inattention to medical care in the order's facilities.[citation needed] Similar points of view have also been expressed by some former volunteers who worked for Teresa's order. Mother Teresa herself referred to the facilities as "Houses of the Dying".[7]

In 2013, in a comprehensive review[8] covering 96% of the literature on Mother Teresa, a group of Université de Montréal academics reinforced the foregoing criticism, detailing, among other issues, the missionary's practice of "caring for the sick by glorifying their suffering instead of relieving it, ... her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception, and divorce". Questioning the Vatican's motivations for ignoring the mass of criticism, the study concluded that Mother Teresa's "hallowed image – which does not stand up to analysis of the facts – was constructed, and that her beatification was orchestrated by an effective media relations campaign" engineered by the Catholic convert and anti-abortion BBC journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.[9]

Baptisms of the dying[edit]

According to Christopher Hitchens, Mother Teresa encouraged members of her order to secretly baptise dying patients, without regard to the individual's religion. Susan Shields, a former member of the Missionaries of Charity, writes that "Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a 'ticket to heaven'. An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend that she was just cooling the patient's head with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptising him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa's sisters were baptising Hindus and Muslims."[10]

Murray Kempton has argued that patients were not provided sufficient information to make an informed decision about whether they wanted to be baptised and the theological significance of a Christian baptism.[11] Simon Leys, defending the practice in a letter to the New York Review of Books, argued that forced conversion is either benevolent or morally neutral.[12]

Relationships with controversial public figures[edit]

In Hell's Angel and The Missionary Position, Hitchens leveled criticism at what he perceived to be Mother Teresa's endorsement of Enver Hoxha, who in 1967, forcibly closed all religious facilities, including her own faith's Roman Catholic ones and also outlawed private worship. Hoxha also used entrapment at schools and workplaces during Lent and Ramadan by offering foods and non-water drinks that were forbidden during these observances' fasting hours (and offering pork to Muslims which is forbidden to them at all times under Islamic dietary laws) and had people who didn't accept these items when offered denounced as enemies of the state. This continued until Hoxha's death in 1985 while his successor, Ramiz Alia, was more tolerant of private religious observances. She visited Albania in August 1989, where she was received by Hoxha's widow, Nexhmije, Foreign Minister Reis Malile, Minister of Health Ahmet Kamberi, the Chairman of the People's Assembly Petro Dode, and other state and party officials, subsequently laying a bouquet on Hoxha's grave, and placed a wreath on the statue of Mother Albania.[13]

She accepted money from the British publisher Robert Maxwell,[14][15] who, as was later revealed, embezzled UK£450 million from his employees' pension funds. There is no suggestion that she was aware of any theft before accepting the donation in either case. Criticism does focus on Teresa's character statement produced in the Charles Keating case, where Keating was charged with fraud following high-profile business failures. Keating had donated millions of dollars to Mother Teresa and had lent her his private jet when she visited the United States.[16] Keating's convictions were thrown out on appeal, as was a summary judgement.[17][18][19] Keating later pled guilty to four counts of wire and bankruptcy fraud and was sentenced to time served.[20]

After Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's suspension of civil liberties in 1975 (The Emergency), Mother Teresa said: "People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes." These approving comments were seen as a result of the friendship between Teresa and the Congress Party. Mother Teresa's comments were criticised by some outside India within the Catholic media.[21]

She supported Licio Gelli's nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature.[22] Gelli was known for being the head of the Propaganda Due masonic lodge, which was implicated in various murders and high-profile corruption cases in Italy, as well as having close connections with the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement and the Military Junta who ruled during Argentina's last dictatorship (1976-1983).

In 2017, investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, in a book titled Original Sin, published accounting documents from the controversial Vatican Bank – officially known as the Institute for the Works of Religion – which revealed that the funds which were held in Mother Teresa's name on behalf of her charity had made her the Bank's biggest client, and they amounted to billions. Had she made substantial withdrawals, the Bank would have risked default.[23][24][25][26]

Motivation for charitable activities[edit]

Chatterjee stated that the public image of Mother Teresa as a "helper of the poor" was misleading, and that only a few hundred people are served by even the largest of the homes. In 1998, among the 200 charitable assistance organisations reported to operate in Calcutta, Missionaries of Charity was not ranked among the largest charity organisations – with the Assembly of God charity notably serving a greater number of the poor at 18,000 meals daily.[27]

Chatterjee stated that many operations of the order engage in no charitable activity at all but instead use their funds for missionary work. He stated, for example, that none of the eight facilities that the Missionaries of Charity run in Papua New Guinea have any residents in them, being purely for the purpose of converting local people to Catholicism.[citation needed]

She was sometimes accused by Hindus in her adopted country of trying to convert the poor to Christianity by "stealth".[28] Christopher Hitchens described Mother Teresa's organisation as a cult that promoted suffering and did not help those in need. He said that Mother Teresa's own words on poverty proved that her intention was not to help people, while he quoted her words at a 1981 press conference in which 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."[13]

Relationship to colonialism and racism[edit]

Australian feminist Germaine Greer called her a "religious imperialist" who preyed on the most vulnerable in the name of harvesting souls for Jesus.[29] In an essay in the collection White Women in Racialized Spaces, historian Vijay Prashad said of Mother Teresa:

Mother Teresa is the quintessential image of the white woman in the colonies, working to save the dark bodies from their own temptations and failures. [...] The Euro-American-dominated international media continue to harbor the colonial notion that white peoples are somehow especially endowed with the capacity to create social change. When nonwhite people labor in this direction, the media typically search for white benefactors or teachers, or else, for white people who stand in the wings to direct the nonwhite actors. Dark bodies cannot act of their own volition to stretch their own capacity, for they must wait, the media seem to imply, for some colonial administrator, some technocrat from IBM or the IMF to tell them how to do things. When it comes to saving the poor, the dark bodies are again invisible, for the media seem to celebrate only the worn out platitudes of such as Mother Teresa and ignore the struggles of those bodies for their own liberation. To open the life of someone like Mother Teresa to scrutiny, therefore, is always difficult. [...] Mother Teresa's work was part of a global enterprise for the alleviation of bourgeois guilt, rather than a genuine challenge to those forces that produce and maintain poverty.[30]

Posthumous criticisms[edit]

Mother Teresa died in 1997. Despite her request that all of her writings and correspondences be destroyed, a collection of them was posthumously released to the public in book form.[31][page needed] Her writings revealed that she struggled with feelings of disconnectedness,[32] that were in contrast to the strong feelings which she had experienced as a young novice.[33] In her letters Mother Teresa describes a decades-long sense of feeling disconnected from God[34] and lacking the earlier zeal that had characterised her efforts to start the Missionaries of Charity. As a result of this, she was judged by some to have "ceased to believe" and was posthumously criticised for hypocrisy.[35][36][failed verification] Thomas C. Reeves suggests that this criticism displays a basic unfamiliarity with the concept of the "dark night of the soul".[37]

"Holier than Thou", the May 23, 2005, episode of the Showtime programme Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, criticised Mother Teresa, as well as Mahatma Gandhi and the 14th Dalai Lama. Specifically, the episode pointed to Mother Teresa's relationships with Charles Keating and the Duvalier family, as well as the quality of medical care in her home for the dying. Christopher Hitchens appears in the episode, offering accounts based on his reporting on her life.[38] According to Navin B. Chawla, the Missionaries of Charity set up a small mission in Port-au-Prince. A day after Mother Teresa visited and left, Duvalier's daughter-in-law went to Mother Teresa's mission and donated 1,000 dollars, not one million as reported.[39]

In 2016, when she was canonised, Dan Savage drew attention to the conflicting evidence and accused NPR of describing alleged miracles in a way that favoured the church's interpretation.[40]

In 2021, Michelle Goldberg, an opinion columnist for The New York Times published a column suggesting that some of Mother Teresa's actions were those of a cult leader.[41] Nuns were made to self flagellate with a rope or chain.[42]

Responses to criticism[edit]

In 2012, William Doino Jr, wrote that "The remarkable thing about Hell’s Angel is that it purports to defend the poor against Mother Teresa’s supposed exploitation of them, while never actually interviewing any on screen. Not a single person cared for by the Missionaries speaks on camera. Was this because they had a far higher opinion of Blessed Teresa than Hitchens would permit in his film? Avoiding the people at the heart of Teresa’s ministry, Hitchens posed for the camera and let roll a series of ad hominem attacks and unsubstantiated accusations, as uninformed as they were cruel."[43]

Melanie McDonagh has noted that Mother Teresa is in large part "criticized for not being what she never set out to be, for not doing things which she never saw as her job. [...] What she wasn't was a head of government. She didn't address the fundamental causes of poverty because she was addressing the symptoms and she did that well," nor were her sisters social workers. McDonagh commented, "She wasn't trying to do anything except treat people at the margins of society as if they were Christ himself."[44]

Mari Marcel Thekaekara points out that after the Bangladesh War, a few million refugees poured into Calcutta from the former East Pakistan. "No one had ever before done anything remotely like Mother Teresa's order, namely picking up destitute and dying people off the pavements and giving them a clean place to die in dignity."[45]

Navin B. Chawla points out that Mother Teresa never intended to build hospitals, but to provide a place where those who had been refused admittance "could at least die being comforted and with some dignity." He also counters critics of Mother Teresa by stating that her periodic hospitalizations were instigated by staff members against her wishes and he disputes the claim that she conducted surreptitious baptisms. "Those who are quick to criticise Mother Teresa and her mission, are unable or unwilling to do anything to help with their own hands."[39]

According to Mark Woods, writing in Christian Today, "And perhaps just as significant, in terms of her public perception, is the sense among Christians that her critics don't really understand what she was doing. So to criticise her for opposing abortion and contraception, for instance, is to criticise her for not running a secular charity, which she never pretended to do."[46]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dutta, Krishna (16 May 2003). "Saint of the gutters with friends in high places". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 4 March 2011.
  2. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (2003-10-20). "Mommie Dearest". Slate. Retrieved 2018-03-23.
  3. ^ Crawley, William (26 Aug 2010). "Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict?". BBC. Retrieved 18 Dec 2015.
  4. ^ Fox, Robin (1994). "Mother Teresa's care for the dying". The Lancet. 344 (8925): 807–808. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(94)92353-1. PMID 7818649. S2CID 54305918.
  5. ^ a b c d Fox, Robin (September 17, 1994). "Calcutta Perspective: Mother Theresa's care for the dying". The Lancet. 344 (8925): 807–808. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(94)92353-1. PMID 7818649. S2CID 54305918 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  6. ^ Loudon, Mary (1996-01-06). "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice". British Medical Journal. 312 (7022): 64–66. doi:10.1136/bmj.312.7022.64a. S2CID 58762491.
  7. ^ Robin Fox (1994). "Mother Teresa's care for the dying". The Lancet. 344 (8925): 807–808. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(94)92353-1. PMID 7818649. S2CID 54305918.; cf. "Mother Teresa's care for the dying," letters from David Jeffrey, Joseph O'Neill and Gilly Burns, The Lancet 344 (8929): 1098
  8. ^ Larivée, Serge; Carole Sénéchal; Geneviève Chénard (2013). "Les côtés ténébreux de Mère Teresa". Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses. 42 (3): 319–345. doi:10.1177/0008429812469894. S2CID 144593256.
  9. ^ "Mother Teresa: Anything but a Saint..." U de M Nouvelles. 1 March 2013. Archived from the original on 2016-04-01.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  10. ^ Christopher Hitchens (24 April 2012). The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. McClelland & Stewart. pp. 51–. ISBN 978-0-7710-3919-5.
  11. ^ Kempton, Murray. "The Shadow Saint". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 18 December 2015.
  12. ^ Leys, Simon. "In Defense of Mother Teresa". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 18 December 2015. Cite magazine requires |magazine= (help)
  13. ^ a b Hitchens, Christopher (1995). The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. London: Verso. p. 82. ISBN 978-1-85984-054-2. Retrieved 22 August 2014.
  14. ^ Squires, Nick (4 September 2016). "Mother Teresa's legacy under cloud as sainthood nears". The Telegraph. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
  15. ^ Woods, Mark. "Mother Teresa and her critics: Should she really be made a saint?". Christian Today. Christian Media Corporation. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
  16. ^ "Charles Keating – obituary". The Telegraph. 2 April 2014.
  17. ^ "U.S. Judge Overturns State Conviction of Keating". The New York Times. Associated Press. 1996-04-04.
  18. ^ Sterngold, James (1996-12-03). "Judge Throws Out Keating's Verdict". The New York Times.
  19. ^ "Appeals Court Rules In Favor of Keating". The New York Times. 1999-08-07.
  20. ^ Mrozek, Thom (April 6, 1999). "Charles Keating pleads guilty to federal fraud charges; four criminal convictions resolve 10-year-old case" (Press release). United States Attorney for the Central District of California. Archived from the original on 1999-09-21.
  21. ^ Chatterjee, Aroup (2002). Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict. Meteor Books. p. 276. ISBN 9788188248001.
  22. ^ Fertilio, Dario (17 February 2006). ""Licio Gelli si merita la vittoria": parola di Madre Teresa e Mahfuz" (in Italian). Corriere della Sera.
  23. ^ Gianluigi Nuzzi "Peccato Originale" Chiarelettere, 2017
  24. ^ Nadeau, Barbie Latza "Mother Teresa's Secret Billions and a Vatican Seminary Rampant with Sex Abuse—a New Book Tells All", The Daily Beast, 11 November 2017 [1]
  25. ^ "l libro di Nuzzi: "Madre Teresa aveva un maxi-conto allo Ior", La Stampa, 9 November 2017, [2]
  26. ^ Curridori, Francesco "Madre Teresa aveva un maxi-conto allo Ior", il Giornale, 9 November 2017, [3]
  27. ^ Wüllenweber, Walter (10 September 1998). "Mutter Teresa – wo sind ihre Millionen?" [Mother Teresa – Where are her millions?] (PDF). Stern (in German). Gruner + Jahr. p. 214. Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 November 2004. Retrieved 15 September 2016. Das Essen bekommt Samity jedoch nicht vom Order der Mutter Teresa sondern von der "Assembly of God", einer amerikanischen Hilfsorganisation, die hier täglich 18 000 Mahlzeiten ausgibt. - translated source
  28. ^ "1997: Mother Teresa dies". 1997-09-05. Retrieved 2020-05-14.
  29. ^ "Catholic icon Teresa was both adored and attacked". Retrieved 2019-01-03.
  30. ^ Prashad, Vijay (2012). "Mother Teresa as the Mirror of Bourgeois Guilt". In Najmi, Samina; Srikanth, Rajini (eds.). White Women in Racialized Spaces: Imaginative Transformation and Ethical Action in Literature (illustrated ed.). State University of New York Press. pp. 67–68. ISBN 978-0-7914-8808-9. Retrieved 8 March 2015.
  31. ^ Kolodiejchuk, Brian, ed. (4 September 2007). Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. ISBN 978-0-307-58923-1.
  32. ^ Van Biema, David (23 August 2007). "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith". Time.
  33. ^ "New Book Reveals Mother Teresa's Struggle with Faith". Beliefnet.
  34. ^ Moore, Malcolm (24 August 2007). "Mother Teresa's 40 year faith crisis". Telegraph.
  35. ^ Mannion, Francis (18 September 2014). "Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Dark Night of the Soul". Catholic News Agency.
  36. ^ "CNN iReport: 'Crisis of Faith: Mother Teresa's letters'". CNN. 1 June 2009. Archived from the original on 22 December 2015. Retrieved 18 December 2015.
  37. ^ Bill. "MOTHER TERESA'S CRITICS UNDONE". Catholic League. Retrieved 2020-05-14.
  38. ^ "Holier Than Thou". Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. Season 3. Episode 5. 23 May 2005. Showtime.
  39. ^ a b Chawla, Navin B. (August 26, 2013). Chawla, Navin B., "The Mother Teresa her critics choose to ignore". The Hindu.
  40. ^ Savage, Dan (2016-08-31). "NPR Believes in Miracles". The Stranger. Retrieved 2018-03-23.
  41. ^ Goldberg, Michelle (2021-05-21). "Opinion | Was Mother Teresa a Cult Leader?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-05-21.
  42. ^ Dark times with nuns of Mother Teresa
  43. ^ "Mother Teresa and Her Critics | William Doino Jr". First Things. Retrieved 2021-09-09.
  44. ^ McDonagh, Melanie (2016-09-04). "Why is Mother Teresa criticised for not doing things that weren't her job?". Coffee House. Retrieved 2019-03-10.
  45. ^ Thekaekara, Mari Marcel (14 September 2016). Thekaekara, Mari Marcel. "Reflections on the harsh criticism of Mother Teresa". The New Internationalist.
  46. ^ BST, Mark Woods Wed 31 Aug 2016 14:40. "Mother Teresa and her critics: Should she really be made a saint?". Retrieved 2020-05-14.

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