Mother Teresa received 120 prestigious awards and honors during her lifetime, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work helping the poor in Calcutta (now Kolkata). She became known as “the saint of the gutters” as a result of her charity work, before being officially canonized by Pope Francis in September 2016.
Mother Teresa’s name became “synonymous with Christian charity” and she was loved and revered throughout the world. Yet despite the accolades and decades spent helping the poor, Mother Teresa still came in for some harsh criticism. Here are eight of the main accusations leveled against her by her critics.
8. She Had No Interest in Tackling the Causes of Poverty
Despite Mother Teresa’s devotion to charity work, she was criticized for her views towards poverty. One of Mother Teresa’s critics was author and journalist, Mihir Bose, who claimed that she had no interest in bringing about societal change to alleviate the suffering of the poor, rather that she had “accepted implicitly the idea that there is nothing much that you can do for the poor except to take them off the streets and look after them.” Bose says that Mother Teresa believed that it was not possible to change the attitudes of the poor or make them feel that they had an ability or even the means to improve and change their lives. Bose feels that Mother Teresa was not interested in tackling the real causes of poverty, but was only interested in “rescuing the souls” of the poor before they died. The late British author, Christopher Hitchens echoed those beliefs. Hitchens claimed that Mother Teresa was in theory and in practice, “an ally of the status quo” which differentiated her from others, including those of religious faith, who have “rejected the fatalistic and submissive conclusions about poverty that are promulgated by Catholic traditionalists.” Mother Teresa once said that “there was something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot.” She compared their suffering to “Christ’s Passion” and said that “the world gains much from their suffering.”
7. The Media Portrayed an Inaccurate Image of Mother Teresa
The most notable challengers to the prevailing depiction of Mother Teresa by the media were Christopher Hitchens, and physicist and author, Aroup Chatterjee. Hitchens wrote a very critical book about Mother Teresa, entitled the Missionary Position, and made a documentary about her in 1994 called Hell’s Angel. Hitchens claimed that Mother Teresa’s global fame began as a result of a 1969 BBC documentary, entitled Something Beautiful for God. Hitchens says that Malcolm Muggeridge’s claim of having captured the first “T.V. miracle” during the filming of his documentary led to the media hype which surrounded Mother Teresa. Ken McMillan, a cameraman for the documentary described how they had concerns that the House of the Dying facility that they were about to film may have been too dark to capture useful footage, and that they were using new film which had not been tested beforehand. Despite their concerns, the crew decided to begin filming the work carried out by the nuns and volunteers. A few weeks later when they sat down to have a look at the footage, McMillan was surprised to see the brightness and clarity of the images, which were so illuminated that every detail could be seen. Just before McMillan was about to praise Kodak for their new high-quality film, Muggeridge claimed that it was “divine light.” From there McMillan began receiving phone calls from London newspaper journalists, saying that “we hear that you have just come back from India with Malcolm Muggeridge and that you were the witness of a miracle.” Hitchens believes that this was the birth of the media hype surrounding Mother Teresa. Aroup Chatterjee, another critic of Mother Teresa, wrote a book criticizing Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict, which was published in 2002. It was later reissued in 2016 under a new title, Mother Teresa: The Untold Story. The book covers Mother Teresa’s rise to fame and the conditions of the House of the Dying facility in Calcutta, the non-consensual conversions of Hindus and Muslims on their deathbeds, financial and other controversies. Both Hitchens and Chatterjee acted as “Devil’s Advocates” during the beatification process of Mother Teresa in 2003.
6. The Missionaries of Charity Baptized People on their Death Beds
In February 2015, Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Hindu Nationalist group in India, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, claimed that Mother Teresa’s primary reason for helping the destitute was to convert them to Christianity, not to alleviate their suffering. Speaking of Mother Teresa’s legacy, Bhagwat said, “It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa’s work had an ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity.” It is claimed that Mother Teresa instructed the nuns in charge of the care of the dying to secretly baptize them on their death bed. A former member of the Missionaries of Charity wrote that Mother Teresa told nuns to ask each dying patient, regardless of their religious faith, “if they would like to go to the God who sent the Sisters to him?” If the dying person said yes, this was taken as consent to being baptized, without this fully being explained to the patient. A nun would then pretend to cool a patient’s forehead with a damp cloth but was, in fact, baptizing them. They would quietly say the necessary prayer, while the patient remained oblivious to what was actually occurring. Murray Kempton, a critic of Mother Teresa has argued that Muslim and Hindu patients were not provided with the necessary information to make an informed decision about whether or not they wanted to convert to Christianity. Fr. Leo Maasburg, who was a close companion of Mother Teresa, wrote in his book, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait, that Mother Teresa had said to him that “a dying person does not have to know the entire teaching of the Catholic Church in order for us to be able to baptize him. At the moment of death, it is enough for the dying person to grasp the core of the Church’s teaching, namely, the love of God.” Mother Teresa wrote in her book, Life in the Spirit: Reflections, Meditations and Prayers: “Our purpose is to take God and his love to the poorest of the poor, irrespective of their ethnic origin or the faith they profess. We never try to convert those whom we receive to Christianity but in our work, we bear witness to the love of God’s presence and if Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists or agnostics become for this better men – simply better – we will be satisfied.” On another occasion Mother Teresa was asked by a Catholic priest whether or not she attempted to convert people of other faiths, she replied, “Yes, I convert, I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.”
In 1980, Mother Teresa accepted the Haitian Legion of Honour Award from the leader of Haiti, “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Human Rights Watch claimed that under Duvalier’s presidency, thousands were killed or tortured, and hundreds of thousands fled into exile. He was also accused of corruption, stealing money from the Haitian economy to give to his family and to finance his extravagant lifestyle. In his documentary about Mother Teresa, Hell’s Angel, Christopher Hitchens says that Mother Teresa painted a very different picture of Duvalier during her visit. Hitchens says that Mother Teresa told “astonished” journalists, that she had “never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with the Duvalier’s.” Hitchens further criticized Mother Teresa for accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 20, 1985, from President Regan, whom he claimed, had “armed and paid the death squads of Central America.” Hitchens also claimed that “Regan’s proxies murdered four American nuns and the Catholic archbishop of San Salvador at the very moment he was celebrating mass.” Hitchens added that “after touring the killing fields of Guatemala” that Mother Teresa said that “everything was peaceful in the parts of the country we visited” and that she did not “get involved in that sort of politics.” Mother Teresa was also criticized for her friendship with Charles Keating, who was one of the key figures involved in the 1980s savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, which cost the American taxpayer $124 billion. Keating donated millions of dollars to Mother Teresa’s charities and even granted her use of his private jet while she was in America. Her association with Keating had a negative impact on her reputation and she was further criticized for the character statement she provided during his case, as well as her plea for leniency on his behalf.
4. Mother Teresa Used her Status to Promote Hardline Catholic dogma
Mother Teresa was a strong anti-abortion advocate and opposed the use of contraception. Christopher Hitchens accused Mother Teresa of “operating as a roving ambassador” of the “highly-politicized papacy” of John Paul II. Hitchens claims that when Mother Teresa visited London in 1988 she tried to influence the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher to introduce a bill to limit abortion in Britain. During her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa referred to “abortion” as the “greatest destroyer of peace today.” She added, “Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today.” Mother Teresa was revered in Catholic countries around the world, particularly in Ireland. A statement made by a Catholic bishop made during Mother Teresa’s visit to Knock in 1993, gives an idea of the level of adulation felt for her. Addressing the crowd which had come out to see Mother Teresa, the Irish bishop said that “no woman has made such an impact here since âOur Lady’ herself appeared in 1879,” – a reference to a supposed apparition of Mary appearing at Knock Shrine in the late 19th century. Later, Mother Teresa said to the adoring crowd, “let us promise Our Lady, who loves Ireland so much, that we will never allow in this country a single abortion,” before quickly adding, “and no contraceptives.”
For Mother Teresa to become a saint, a lengthy process of beatification and canonization needed to first take place. Usually, the process of beatification cannot begin until at least five years after a person’s death. However, Pope John Paul II waived three years of the five-year waiting period in Mother Teresa’s case. To be eligible for beatification a person must have a verified miracle attributed to them by the Catholic Church after their death. After beatification, a second verified miracle must be attributed to the person before the process of canonization can take place. The first miracle attributed to Mother Teresa was announced by the Catholic Church on December 1, 2002. The Church claimed that an Indian woman, Monica Bersa had been miraculously cured of an abdominal tumor which was so severe that doctors had given up hope on her ever being cured. In 1998, a year after Mother Teresa’s death, Bersa was helped into a prayer room by nuns of the Missionaries of Charity. It was claimed that while standing beside a photo of Mother Teresa, “a blinding light” emanated from the portrait and passed through her body. Later one of the nuns placed a Miraculous Medal onto Bersa’s abdomen and prayed over her. It was claimed that Bersa awoke around 1 am that night and that the tumor had miraculously disappeared. In his book, Mother Teresa: The Untold Story, Aroup Chatterjee contested these claims, disputing the idea that Bersa ever had a tumor, believing instead that she had a cyst caused by tuberculosis. Chatterjee attributed Bersa’s cure to the medical treatment she received from the Superintendent of the Balurghat Hospital. Chatterjee’s opinion was confirmed by Bersa’s doctor, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, who attributed the disappearance of the cyst to the nine months of medication and treatment Bersa received.
Possibly the most serious and justified criticisms of the charitable work carried out by Mother Teresa was the lack of basic hygiene in the Home for Dying Destitutes in Kolkata. Robin Fox, the editor of the journal of the British Medical Association, The Lancet, described the medical care he had witnessed there in 1994, as “haphazard.” Fox reported that doctors only occasionally visited the patients and that the level of pain relief provided was inadequate, which caused unnecessary suffering. Because of this lack of doctors, the nuns and volunteers, many of whom had no formal medical training, had to make decisions in relation to patient care. Fox also noted that the nuns and volunteers did not seem to make a distinction between patients with curable and incurable conditions, which led to patients with treatable conditions receiving inadequate care. Fox did, however, acknowledge the good work which the nuns and volunteers carried out, such as tending to sores and wounds, and the kindness in the way they cared for the patients, but he felt that pain management at the facility was “disturbingly lacking.” He also remarked on the failure to segregate patients with tuberculosis from non-infected patients. A former volunteer at the Home of the Dying Destitutes claimed that needles were inadequately sterilized, that they were rinsed in cold water before being reused, and similarly, soiled and infected clothing was washed by hand before being reused. Another former volunteer claimed that patients were also given expired medication. In the Hell’s Angel documentary, Mary Loudon, a former volunteer at Nirmal Hriday, tells of the inadequate pain relief that terminally ill patients with cancer received, saying that aspirin and occasionally brufen was used. Loudon also recalls a conversation she had with an American doctor in relation to a fifteen-year-old boy with a minor kidney problem, whose condition had deteriorated because he had not received any antibiotics and who needed emergency surgery. The doctor told Loudon that the nuns would not bring him to a hospital to have an operation, because “if they did it for him, then they would have to do it for everyone.” Hitchens believed that had the Home of the Dying Destitutes been operated by any branch of the medical profession it would have been subject to “protest and litigation” and described Mother Teresa’s order as a “cult of death and suffering.”
Mother Teresa was accused of hypocrisy following the discovery of her private writings after her death. Her writings were later compiled in a book entitled Mother Teresa: Come be my light, which was published in 2009. Even though Mother Teresa had wanted her letters to be destroyed to prevent them from ever becoming public, her wishes were overruled. Mother Teresa’s letters detailed an inner struggle with her faith which lasted for almost fifty years and which led her to doubt the existence of Heaven and even God. Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith began in 1948, only a couple of years after she believed she had received her “call within a call” to help the poorest people of Calcutta. She wrote of a strong feeling of God’s “absence” in her life. In a letter to Reverand Michael Van Der Peet in September 1979, Mother Teresa wrote, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me – the silence and the emptiness is so great – that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” In another letter, Mother Teresa describes the feeling of “emptiness” when “I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. I am told that God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” She describes the inner torture she is feeling as Hell on Earth. She writes of the pain being caused by her doubts, “Where is my faith, even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darknessâ¦I have no Faithâ¦I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart & make me suffer untold agony.” She also writes about the faÃ§ade of the public image she puts on and describes her smile as a “mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.” Mother Teresa herself acknowledged the hypocrisy of her public persona: “I spoke as though my heart was in love with God, tender, personal love, but if you were (there) you would have said, what hypocrisy!”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading