The Humanist Challenge to the Sainthood of Mother Teresa

Photo by Manfredo Ferrari

Mother Teresa is now known worldwide as “St. Teresa of Calcutta” after being canonized by the Catholic Church on September 4 in Rome. Her life can be examined in a way that was not feasible with the so-called saints of the past, and yet she been generously granted the benefit of faith, rather than doubt, including the process of her sainthood.

Humanists don’t accept the supernatural claims of the Catholic Church, including the process of sainthood, which requires the recipient to have performed at least two miracles. Nevertheless, as Mother Teresa’s legacy has come under fire in recent years it’s worth examining the criticism of her real-world actions.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on August 26 (possibly 27), 1910, in Skopje, Macedonia. She was raised Catholic by her Albanian family. At age twelve she wanted to spread the word of God, leaving home at eighteen to join a community of nuns in Ireland, “the Sisters of Loreto,” which had missions located in India. In 1950 she received permission from the Holy See to start her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, whose goal was “to love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after.”

By 1965 Pope Paul VI decreed the order to be an International Religious Family. Four years later, Mother Teresa was thrust into the international spotlight after the 1969 premiere of the BBC documentary Something Beautiful for God, produced by Malcolm Muggeridge. For some, this documentary allowed outsiders to witness the bleak realm of poverty on the other side of the world. In the following years, hundreds of millions of dollars poured into Missionaries of Charity coffers.

Many people believed that the donations would provide healthier food, clean drinking water, and possibly medicine for those living in such miserable conditions in Calcutta and other places in India. However, over the years living conditions did not improve.

Medical professionals such as Dr. Robin Fox, former editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, reported on the “Home for Dying Destitutes” in Calcutta with a sense of distress: “I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics,” Fox wrote in 1994. “Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Theresa’s approach as clearly separate from the hospice.”

More observant members of the press, whose colleagues may have fallen under Mother Teresa’s spell of adulation, started probing into what they were being shown. Journalist Mary Loudon even used the term “First World War stretcher bed” to describe the sleeping arrangements depicted in the groundbreaking Christopher Hitchens documentary Hell’s Angel, which aired in the fall of 1994.

Irish journalist Donal MacIntyre described the “squalid truth” about one of the Missionaries of Charity homes in the New Statesman in 2005, paying particular attention to the treatment of the very young:

I saw children with their mouths gagged open to be given medicine, their hands flaying in distress….Tiny babies were bound with cloths at feeding time. Rough hands wrenched heads into position for feeding. Some of the children retched and coughed as rushed staff crammed food into their mouths. Boys and girls were abandoned on open toilets for up to twenty minutes at a time. Slumped, untended, some dribbling, some sleeping, they were a pathetic sight.

These wretched conditions weren’t due to a lack of funds. Rather, they were designed to encourage those inside to “drift away from materialism,” to quote Dr. Fox.

The worldwide accounts of the Missionaries of Charity have never been audited, leaving many skeptics wondering how much money has been raised and how much of it is not being used according to the donors’ intentions.

Former senior nun Susan Shields resigned from the order in 1989 after nearly ten years of service. She later penned an eye-opening account in Free Inquiry of what happened to donations: “We received touching letters from people, sometimes apparently poor themselves, who were making sacrifices to send us a little money for the starving people in Africa, the flood victims in Bangladesh, or the poor children in India. Most of the money sat in our bank accounts.”

In 1991 Mother Teresa was checked into the Scripps Clinic in San Diego, California, due to breathing troubles caused by coronary ischemia (caused by a lack of blood flow through the coronary arteries). Scripps currently boasts about saving her life on their website. This means she welcomed the aid of science she advised others to reject, advising them to accept divine providence instead.

“Praising the Perpetrators”

As president, Ronald Reagan awarded Mother Teresa the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling her “the flame of charity” and said her work “inspired so many Americans to personally become involved, themselves, in helping the poor.”

Media critic Michael Parenti points out in his 1994 book, Land of Idols, that “Like most religious personalities, Mother Teresa remains steadfastly unconcerned about the destructive effects of economic power, preferring to direct her admonitions at the victims of injustice rather than the perpetrators.”

Demonstrating this point is her relationship with the late Haitian despot, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who inherited the office from his father Jean-Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1971. “Baby Doc” indulged in a lavish lifestyle while the Haitian people toiled in the abyss of poverty.

The United Nations accused the Duvalier regime of crimes against humanity. This did not stop Mother Teresa from partaking in welcoming donations from “Baby Doc” (who died in 2014) and his equally wicked wife Michèle. Mother Teresa would say in 1981 she had “never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with [Michèle],” calling the experience “a beautiful lesson.” These “poor people” were so familiar with the Duvalier family that they overthrew the regime in 1986.

Mother Teresa accepted funds from dubious financial giants like real estate developer Charles Keating, the S&L Bank stocks and savings swindler of the 1980s. Given his history of support, Mother Teresa intervened on Keating’s behalf by writing a letter addressed to the Honorable Lance Ito, using the Missionaries of Charity stationary. In it she stated that she didn’t “mix-up” in business, politics, or courts, and yet went on to say, “I only know that [Keating] has always been kind and generous to God’s poor, and always ready to help whenever there was a need.”

These actions have been defended by the saint’s apologists by saying she was too kindhearted to look a gift-horse in the mouth, even if it was filled with stolen money.

Child-abuse allegations

With the 2015 movie Spotlight winning an Academy Award for its portrayal of a team of Boston Globe reporters uncovering the pedophile-clergy scandal with the Boston archdiocese in the early 2000s, the Catholic Church responded to renewed interest in the scandals with the “Catholics Come Home” media campaign, which naively implies former members of this “strayed flock” forgot why they left in the first place, ignoring the “elephant in the confessional,” as it were.

The Church’s darkest scandal also left its mark on Mother Teresa. In 2012 the San Francisco Weekly helped shatter her stained-glass public image when journalist Peter Jamison reported on the saint’s earlier defense of Father Donald McGuire, a Catholic priest who was removed from the ministry for sexually abusing boys in the Bay Area in 1993.

McGuire’s misconduct, which went back to the 1960s, continued until he was arrested in 2005. For years the Jesuits of his order had been alerted about McGuire’s behavior, but refused to take the proper steps to ensure others’ safety. In 2006 he was convicted for molesting two boys in Wisconsin. He was released on parole, waiting to appeal his case just to be jailed on two occasions for violating his probation.

Mother Teresa urged McGuire’s superiors to reinstate him due to his work with her charities and for political reasons, as evidenced by a letter said to be written in 1994:

I understand how grave is the scandal touching the priesthood in the USA and how careful we must be to guard the purity and reputation of that priesthood. I must say, however, that I have confidence and trust in Fr. McGuire and wish to see his vital ministry resume as soon as possible.

Mary Johnson, who served as a nun in Mother Teresa’s order for over twenty years, said Mother Teresa worked closely with those who aided her efforts to put an end to birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Mother Teresa, as well as other nuns, had an affinity for McGuire because “his theology was adequately conservative for the sisters’ tastes,” according to a public statement from Johnson.

Johnson said that Mother Teresa had “a blind spot when it comes to the effects of sexual abuse” and how she “had expressed on numerous occasions that it was a greater sin to talk about this abuse than the actual abuse itself.”

“Forgive” Corporate Sins

On December 3, 1984, over forty tons of a lethal and toxic substance known as methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the cheaply constructed Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) facility in Bhopal, India, killing between seven- and ten-thousand people in the course of three days.

Originally built in 1969 and based on designs by US-based parent company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the facility’s lack of safety features and irresponsible management was responsible for afflicting over 100,000 people with various illnesses, mostly due to the contamination of water wells and pipes from the abandoned plant. Despite a lack of legal action against Union Carbide, protesters continue to raise awareness for the crimes committed against the people of Bhopal.

Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, author of Mother Teresa—The Final Verdict, describes a well-publicized incident taking place in the aftermath of the chemical leak involving Mother Teresa, who “looked at the carnage, nodded gravely three times and said, ‘I say, forgive.’ There was a stunned silence in the audience. She took in the incredulity, nodded again, and repeated, ‘I say, forgive.’ Then she quickly wafted away, like visiting royalty.”

Human rights activist Satinath Sarangi has lived in Bhopal since the disaster and has been supporting the survivors’ struggle for justice. He was an engineering graduate student studying in another part of India when the tragedy occurred. He only planned to stay in Bhopal for a short while, but has remained there as a leader of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), a member of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal coalition.

Sarangi told the that Mother Teresa did something “unforgivable” by recommending impunity for Union Carbide, referring to the perpetrator as “Killer Carbide.”

“[I]t was obvious in the early days that the corporation had caused the disaster by deliberately cost-cutting at the expense of safety,” Sarangi notes.

A Legacy in Doubt

With the 2007 publication of a collection of Mother Teresa’s private letters, it became known that she possessed some serious doubts about her faith. In 1959, she described these feelings in the following entry: “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not existing.”

When these writings were made public, the world was shocked to learn that a woman who devoted every waking moment of her existence to following the will of God (and, as some contend, had allowed others to suffer and die because of “God’s will”) had had her doubts.

And now the doubtful mother is a saint. According to a recent press release from the Mother Teresa Center of Calcutta: “The entire Missionaries of Charity family…rejoices and is grateful to Pope Francis for this significant event in its history and in the life of the Church during this Jubilee of Mercy.”

While St. Teresa of Calcutta can be credited with picking up people who were dying in the streets and providing them a more comfortable place to expire—hers was an early form of hospice—humanists must acknowledge that her commitment to the church and to saving souls often came before affirming people’s worth and saving lives.