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Posted by on Mar 5, 2013 in In the news, Psychology, Religion | 9 comments

Mother Teresa not so saintly

This article in The Independent cites work published in  The Journal of Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses to raise public doubts about Mother Teresa, whose name has become almost synonymous in the public imagination with compassion and even saintliness.

I must say that I am not surprised at these allegations, since they have been well known (at least in general terms) for quite a long time (at least to people who’ve cared to dig just a bit deeper). Christopher Hitchens even wrote a book on the subject, and although it was presented in a journalistic, rather than overtly scholarly, format, no one, to the best of my knowledge has ever convincingly refuted it. Well, it now seems that Hitchens had it pretty much right.

It’s one thing to be motivated by compassion for others to do whatever is possible, with the resources available to you, to relieve their pain and attempt to treat its underlying causes. It another thing to fetishize pain, treating it as if it has some kind of value in itself, even some sort of spiritual “beauty” that the properly initiated can understand and appreciate. Unfortunately, it seems that Mother Teresa is revered for the former, while actually, as far as the facts seem to show, practising something more akin to the latter. This sort of valorisation of pain is creepy (not a word that I normally like to use, but it fits well here) and abhorrent, but it’s deeply ingrained in Catholic culture and tradition.

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  • Edward Gemmer

    I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the message here. Mother Teresa was compassionate, and she didn’t spend her life in the lap of luxury. She put the work in for what she believed, and while we may find that misguided, it doesn’t equate her to a bad person. She did a lot for people, and that’s a fact,.

  • RussellBlackford

    Saying, “and that’s a fact” is, alas, no substitute for evidence.

  • RussellBlackford

    That said, it would be pretty extraordinary if no one was better off than they would have been without her interventions, so I don’t doubt that she helped some people, possibly even a large number. The question, I think, is whether she helped them as much as she could have with the resources available to her, and how far she was really motivated by reducing suffering, rather than more sinister attitudes & values. FWIW, here’s another news story about the same journal article.

  • Edward Gemmer

    The criticism is fine, I suppose, but to be effective needs to be careful. Mother Teresa devoted her entire life to helping sick and dying poor people. It seems likely she wasn’t an effective CEO. But this is a person who won a Nobel Prize and refused the prize money. Trying to morally equate her to something sinister just seems goofy. For example, in the article, criticism is that her Homes of The Dying didn’t provide First World quality medical care. Well of course they didn’t. That seems to be hinted at in the name and purpose of the homes. Impoverished people dying alone in the streets was a problem the homes were designed to solve.

  • SandraKolb

    There are also claims that people could have died in less pain, or could have been treated with something as simple as antibiotics and lived. These are troubling.
    As well as issues of immense donations going to the Missionaries of Charity organisation rather than actual patient care.
    When Mother Teresa needed medical care, she didn’t go to one of the 500 convents she claimed to have opened…she went to California.

  • Edward, it’s pretty obvious that the article isn’t just accusing her of providing poor quality care, but for providing poor quality care despite receiving ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ of charitable donations that cannot be accounted for. The researchers, it would appear, are asking where all that money went. Furthermore, if the reason for her inability to provide decent care was a lack of funds, then her refusing the Novel Prize money suddenly assumes a rather different ethical complexion, wouldn’t you say?

    A more interesting question is whether someone who dedicates their life to what they personally believe is a good cause can ever be a bad person. I’m not sure I believe in good and bad people, per se, but I certainly believe that people can do very bad things in the service of what they believe are good causes.

  • Edward Gemmer

    But I don’t see any evidence she was trying to build hospitals. Her cause was really quite simple – to build homes for poor people who were dying. I agree, transparency for any charity is an important quality. However, Mother Teresa was a person, not a charity, and trying to turn attacks on the charity into personal attacks on her are bogus. One can certainly disagree with her politics and her religion, but it’s hard for me to fathom how someone thinks building homes for impoverished dying people is a horrible thing. She devoted her life to working with poor, dying people. That’s what she did every day for years and years and years. I guess I’m not a fan of trying to draw some moral equivalence between people who do nothing and people who work their asses off.

  • If her ‘saintly’ personna was used to attract donations – potentially diverting them from other causes – which were not in fact used to improve the lives of those she claimed to be helping, or not improve them as much as they might have, then that is a problem. Certainly, some of the allegations against her claim that sums donated ostensibly to alleviate suffering were in fact used to attempt to attract more RC converts. If that happened, that’s a problem.

    If her putative attitude to suffering meant that some of those she worked with were denied pain relief, then that too is a problem. Again, some of the allegations – if true – are pretty damning in this regard. It’s one thing to withhold pain relief because you don’t have the means to provide pain relief, it’s another to withhold it because you hold certain bizarre views about the sanctity of suffering.

  • Pingback: Hitchens correct: Mother Teresa not a saint? | Incongruent Elements()

  • Edward Gemmer

    Well, why is that a problem? I get that it is a problem for you and me, but I don’t think it was thought of as some sort of bait and switch. The Catholic church was, above all, a religious institution. “Saving souls” is a big part of the deal, so I don’t think anyone could think that if he or she gave money to a Catholic institution and be disappointed that it was used to promote Catholicism. I

    As far as suffering, that’s a big part of Christian mythos. Pain, suffering, sacrifice, guilt; they are big parts of the deal. Christians worship someone who was nailed to a cross, and Catholics celebrate the pain part more than others. Further, our advances in pain relief are relatively new. My uncle and mother talked about getting teeth pulled with no anesthesia forty years ago. While updating their practices is certainly a good idea, I don’t see how this would prove Mother Teresa is corrupt or a bad person. The biggest evidence of corruption that I’ve seen advanced was that she went to a hospital in the United States to treat her chronic heart problems and that she stayed in nice hotels when she met with foreign leaders. These are not convincing arguments.