This year on Sunday, September 4, Mother Teresa, praised by many as the “saint of the gutters”, was officially canonized by the Catholic Church. In her stead, she has left a network of charities, with work spanning more than half a century and 130 countries, united in opposing disease and suffering in the world’s most poverty-stricken areas. Her name and her life story are often understood to represent a narrative of altruism.
However, upon critically examining her life’s work from a different perspective, this common impression can in fact, be contested. Examining the dualities between Mother Teresa’s life and her public image can reveal her to be a figure who was just as much a friend of poverty as she was believed to be a friend of the poor.
Born in 1910 as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, Mother Teresa spent her first eighteen years in the city of Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia – then part of the Kosovo Vilayet, an administrative division controlled by the Ottoman Empire. At eighteen she left for Ireland to train with missionary nuns, after which she arrived in India and began teaching at the St. Teresa School in Kolkata. By 1931, Anjezë had taken her first vows as a nun.
One fateful day in September 1946, a train ride to the Loreto Convent from Kolkata would prompt the charity work that she would continue to do in the next half-century. In what she would later describe as a “call within a call,” Mother Teresa decided to leave the convent to help and live with those inhabiting the poorest parts of Kolkata. This charity work would subsequently garner her the praise of members of the Indian government, and, in 1950, the permission of the Vatican to solidify the Catholic Church’s influence in the country by establishing a diocesan congregation that would later be known as the Missionaries of Charity.
Despite its name, it was through this congregation that Mother Teresa would become an agent for the poverty that she claimed to be against. While most people would see a charitable woman on a mission, one could alternatively see a person who received her funding from politically immoral and dubious sources, perpetuated the suffering she was believed to have addressed, and frequently did more harm than good.
In 1981, Mother Teresa flew to Haiti to receive the Legion d’Honneur, the highest French order for military and civil merits, from Jean-Claude Duvalier, the country’s dictator. It would have otherwise been a one-off encounter – only it wasn’t just the honour she intended to receive. Also included, courtesy of the Duvalier family, was money in the hundreds of thousands of dollars that they had wrung from the Haitian poor and from the country’s illicit drug trade. And all this, according to Christopher Hitchens’ book The Missionary Position, was in exchange for an endorsement from the late mother to further the facade of good relations between the family and the impoverished population, which was gladly given.
Mother Teresa would also have a similar exchange with Charles Keating, who was convicted in the United States in the early 1990s on multiples account of fraud and racketeering, and who was personally responsible for – among other things – the loss of more than 21,000 elderly Americans of their life savings. During his trial, Mother Teresa described Keating as having “always been kind and generous to God’s poor” in a letter she wrote to the judge on his behalf. In exchange for her kind words, Keating gave more than $1 million to her charity. When called upon by Californian courts to return Keating’s donation, she refused.
Unfortunately, the danger of giving off a charitable impression is that it appeals to credulity. It instills an almost automatic mechanism for justifying even the most suspicious acts. Supporters of Mother Teresa may defend her against this charge by arguing that taking money from bad people, to use for good, is an honourable thing. After all, who better to take it from? However, if one were to follow these funds, one would immediately discern that it was not spent on the poor, nor the building of shelters or hospices, but on nunneries and brothers’ homes. Surely, it was not to that end that people, even criminals, were making their donations.
Moreover, Mother Teresa’s actions came under criticism for their inefficacy as well. Her shelters and hospices in Kolkata were not purely havens for the poor, as they were often touted, but were instead aptly named “dying shelters” where suffering was venerated as a kind of blessing. Speaking on the suffering in Kolkata, Mother Teresa once said, “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.” There have also been several claims that in the dying shelters, Mother Teresa and her fellow nuns would baptise non-Catholics on their deathbeds, without their knowledge or consent.
In 1991, Robin Fox, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, visited Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes (the name has since changed to the friendlier “Home of the Pure Heart”). His investigation condemned the home’s lack of medical expertise and the blatant disregard for pain by the attending sisters. There have been multiple reports of negligent medical care, including the reuse of unsterilized needles, administration of expired medicine, and confinement of ill people to small spaces where the risk of cross-contamination increases. In 2013, a similar investigation by faculty members of the University of Montreal concluded that Mother Teresa’s institutions “[cared] for the sick by glorifying their suffering instead of relieving it.”
The greatest detriment to Kolkata, where Mother Teresa spent most of her “charitable” time, was perhaps that she spent her entire career campaigning against family planning and birth control under the notion that AIDS may be bad – but not as bad as condoms. Moreover, she also advocated relentlessly against abortion rights, stating when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 that, “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.” This was during the height of the Cold War, yet it seems that abortion posed more of a threat to peace than nuclear warfare. Throughout her lifetime, she stood in staunch opposition to reproductive rights for women, thereby denying them the means by which they could assert bodily autonomy. The right to family planning, along with access to education, is a fundamental necessity for generations of women to move forward from the patriarchal conditions of the past – to deny women this is to perpetuate one of the causal factors of millennial poverty around the world.
We judge people by the fruits of their labor, as we ought to, and Mother Teresa should be no exception. An important question is why it is so difficult to open Mother Teresa’s life to criticism. The answer is two-fold. The first reason is because Mother Teresa provides, as author Vijay Prashad puts it, “the quintessential image of a white woman in the colonies, working to save the dark bodies from their own temptations and failures.” It is this white saviour complex that titillates media coverage – all the while ignoring the often more important work done by an ex-colony’s own people – and cushions the blow of any criticism levelled against the white saviours themselves.
The second reason is because one’s instinct is often to trust figures who, even if they may be acting out of their own personal agendas, are able to do so under the guise of altruism and charity. Mother Teresa’s presence in the colonies occurred at a time when many struggled with disease, poverty, and oppression in the aftermath of colonial settlement – she was, for many, a reinstatement of the ideals of faith and kindness. We tend not to scrutinize those who thus capture our imaginations, but nonetheless it is crucial that we hold them accountable for their actions, whether it be for the sake of reminding them of their moral duties, or for the good of the people they are to serve. This can be said not only of religious figures, but of all who fall under the public eye: politicians, celebrities, creators, and the like.
Preconceptions are a dangerous business. Words like ‘charity’ and ‘faith’ appeal to softer sides and elicit praise, but it is necessary for us not to let the goodwill associated with these words impair our ability to think critically about those who we hold up as pillars of our communities. For better or worse, they should still be held accountable and judged by the fruits they bear.
The life of Mother Teresa is a controversial one, and her canonization begs a re-evaluation of our perceptions of charity. The question arises of whether we shall exercise our skepticism, as we should, or allow the notion of ‘charity’ to fray unnoticed, as it will, until it is too late.