In 2003, Pope John Paul II approved the beatification of Mother Teresa. At the time, Christopher Hitchens called Mother Teresa “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud,” arguing that “even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed.” On Sept. 4, 2016, Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa. Hitchens’ original essay is republished below.
I think it was Macaulay who said that the Roman Catholic Church deserved great credit for, and owed its longevity to, its ability to handle and contain fanaticism. This rather oblique compliment belongs to a more serious age. What is so striking about the “beatification” of the woman who styled herself “Mother” Teresa is the abject surrender, on the part of the church, to the forces of showbiz, superstition, and populism.
It’s the sheer tawdriness that strikes the eye first of all. It used to be that a person could not even be nominated for “beatification,” the first step to “sainthood,” until five years after his or her death. This was to guard against local or popular enthusiasm in the promotion of dubious characters. The pope nominated MT a year after her death in 1997. It also used to be that an apparatus of inquiry was set in train, including the scrutiny of an advocatus diaboli or “devil’s advocate,” to test any extraordinary claims. The pope has abolished this office and has created more instant saints than all his predecessors combined as far back as the 16th century.
As for the “miracle” that had to be attested, what can one say? Surely any respectable Catholic cringes with shame at the obviousness of the fakery. A Bengali woman named Monica Besra claims that a beam of light emerged from a picture of MT, which she happened to have in her home, and relieved her of a cancerous tumor. Her physician, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, says that she didn’t have a cancerous tumor in the first place and that the tubercular cyst she did have was cured by a course of prescription medicine. Was he interviewed by the Vatican’s investigators? No. (As it happens, I myself was interviewed by them but only in the most perfunctory way. The procedure still does demand a show of consultation with doubters, and a show of consultation was what, in this case, it got.)
According to an uncontradicted report in the Italian paper L’Eco di Bergamo, the Vatican’s secretary of state sent a letter to senior cardinals in June, asking on behalf of the pope whether they favored making MT a saint right away. The pope’s clear intention has been to speed the process up in order to perform the ceremony in his own lifetime. The response was in the negative, according to Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian priest who has acted as postulator or advocate for the “canonization.” But the damage, to such integrity as the process possesses, has already been done.
During the deliberations over the Second Vatican Council, under the stewardship of Pope John XXIII, MT was to the fore in opposing all suggestions of reform. What was needed, she maintained, was more work and more faith, not doctrinal revision. Her position was ultra-reactionary and fundamentalist even in orthodox Catholic terms. Believers are indeed enjoined to abhor and eschew abortion, but they are not required to affirm that abortion is “the greatest destroyer of peace,” as MT fantastically asserted to a dumbfounded audience when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.* Believers are likewise enjoined to abhor and eschew divorce, but they are not required to insist that a ban on divorce and remarriage be a part of the state constitution, as MT demanded in a referendum in Ireland (which her side narrowly lost) in 1996. Later in that same year, she told Ladies Home Journal that she was pleased by the divorce of her friend Princess Diana, because the marriage had so obviously been an unhappy one …
This returns us to the medieval corruption of the church, which sold indulgences to the rich while preaching hellfire and continence to the poor. MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?
The rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for “the poorest of the poor.” People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions. Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the “Missionaries of Charity,” but they had no audience for their story. George Orwell’s admonition in his essay on Gandhi—that saints should always be presumed guilty until proved innocent—was drowned in a Niagara of soft-hearted, soft-headed, and uninquiring propaganda.
One of the curses of India, as of other poor countries, is the quack medicine man, who fleeces the sufferer by promises of miraculous healing. Sunday was a great day for these parasites, who saw their crummy methods endorsed by his holiness and given a more or less free ride in the international press. Forgotten were the elementary rules of logic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. More than that, we witnessed the elevation and consecration of extreme dogmatism, blinkered faith, and the cult of a mediocre human personality. Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions.
Correction, Oct. 21, 2003: This piece originally claimed that in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Mother Teresa called abortion and contraception the greatest threats to world peace. In that speech Mother Teresa did call abortion “the greatest destroyer of peace.” But she did not much discuss contraception, except to praise “natural” family planning.