Essayist Christopher Hitchens was intensely critical of Mother Teresa. At first glance, this seems like an absurd notion. How could anyone be critical of someone who seemed to spread hope and faith among the disadvantaged peoples of the world? She was an iconic image of service and piety that few others could ever hope to match, a woman of singular compassion and devotion to her people.
But was she really?
It’s hard to be critical of someone like this but Hitchens, as always, makes intriguing arguments. For one, Mother Teresa built hospitals in many poor areas of the world, but chose the most advanced (and expensive) clinics for her own care when she became sick. Is that justified? She took advantage of access to first world clinics while letting her flock wallow in the medical care of unqualified doctors and second-rate, donated medical supplies. Of course, this medical care was better than nothing at all but by Mother Teresa’s actions she shows that it wasn’t good enough for her to trust her own life with it. What kind of message does this send to the poor people she was “helping?” It says that privileged westerners believe they deserve better treatment than the poor, downtrodden masses they are so vocal about assisting in their poverty. Third world hospitals are good enough for third world people, but not for anyone with money and access to better care. Of course, everyone wants to have the best care possible when they get sick, but it seems like a kind of hypocrisy to build hospitals for people that you are unwilling to trust with your own care.
Mother Teresa also believed that suffering brought people closer to God. This is reflected, supposedly, by building hospitals and founding convents but otherwise not helping third world people rise out of poverty to become a middle class with rights and democratic powers in their homelands. She gave them better health and access to church, but not employment or freedom from the fear imposed by their governments or warlords. It’s good to give an impoverished nation medical supplies, but that is only one of the many problems facing impoverished peoples. Problems that, in most cases, Mother Teresa was in a position to help solve.
From a purely philosophical perspective, Mother Teresa’s hospital-building and convent-founding actions went against her own convictions. Doesn’t adequate medical care alleviate the suffering of people, thereby furthering their distance to God? For that matter, wouldn’t it be more effective for Mother Teresa to wage open war against poor people, worsening their suffering for the purpose of bringing theme even closer to God? It’s horrible to say things like this, and I don’t agree with or suggest them at all, it just seems that Mother Teresa’s actions did not follow her stated beliefs. The logical conclusion of her philosophy is far more oppressive to people in poverty than whatever their situation was before she came.
On the surface, Mother Teresa’s actions have in fact had a very positive impact on the world. The people she has helped are in better health and their suffering has been exposed to other charitable organizations who may help them even more than Mother Teresa did. If nothing else, she deserves credit for that. Her life’s work may inspire others to bring equality to the impoverished and oppressed peoples around the globe.
However, her piety and religious message shouldn’t be completely ignored because it hindered her ability to help those in need. She was blinded by a selfish need to have first world medical care and a backward philosophy on human suffering.
I’m not saying anything Christopher Hitchens hasn’t said. Upon first reading that he was critical of Mother Teresa, I too was skeptical of his motivations and theories. I thought that his article would be sensational for the sake of getting attention, logically absurd and shockingly offensive to many people around the world. However, I have come to believe that those who are offended by this argument against Mother Teresa are those who have not or refuse to consider these arguments against her perceived status as some kind of saint. She was a good woman with good intentions who did not reach her full potential because of bizarre religious justifications. I think that I tend to give her more credit that Hitchens did, but that isn’t to say that his arguments don’t hold water. They do, and they must be considered when remembering Mother Teresa’s legacy. She was a good woman but, like all of us, she was imperfect.