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In Defense of Mother Teresa

In response to:

The Shadow Saint from the July 11, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

So Mother Teresa isn’t perfect. She has, as Murray Kempton noted in his review of Christopher Hitchens’s book [“The Shadow Saint,” NYR, July 11], accepted donations from dictators and other unsavory characters. Mother also tolerates substandard medical conditions in her hospices. Still, Mr. Kempton’s hysterical attack on her is unwarranted and not a little unfair.

He protests that Mother Teresa books herself into chic hospitals when falling ill, while her own hospices treat clients with only minimal health care. But anyone familiar with religious orders will be aware that a sick superior is, more often than not, urged by the members of her community to treat herself better than she would if left on her own. Conversely, when poverty-minded superiors are allowed to let their own medical problems go untreated, people profess horror. Such was the case with John Paul I, who died in 1978. As John Cornwell pointed out in his book A Thief in the Night, the papal household were far too deferential to the Pope’s instructions not to call for quality medical care even when he was obviously ill. In this case, though, Mother Teresa’s subordinates force her to take better care of herself, perhaps against her wishes. Is this a sin against poverty, a hypocrisy, or, more likely, a demonstration of the deep affection of the Missionaries of Charity for their founder?

More serious is Mr. Kempton’s objection that Mother Teresa actually hastens death by not providing the poor in her hospices with decent medical care.

But primary health care is not what Mother Teresa’s order was founded to do. There are hundreds of Catholic medical orders which generously fill that need (the Medical Missionaries of Mary, who operate overseas, and the Daughters of Charity, who have for decades run numerous hospitals in this country, to name but two). Rather, the charism of the Missionaries of Charity (with whom I have worked)is, quite specifically, to provide solace to the very many poor patients who would otherwise die alone.

Yes, it would be wonderful if everyone living in the developing world had access to modern medical care. And though religious orders and other dedicated caregivers, religious and lay, have struggled for decades to do so, this is not yet the case. But surely this is not Mother Teresa’s fault.

Despite the selfless efforts of caregivers, then, the terrible fact remains that many poor persons still die in wretched conditions, neglected and alone. This situation, of course, is exceedingly difficult for the West to accept, as it demonstrates not only our own human limitations but also our unwillingness to help the poor more fully.

And so regarding the “poorest of the poor,” those who today die neglected, there would seem to be two choices. First, to cluck one’s tongue that such a group of people should even exist. Second, to act:to provide comfort and solace to these individuals as they face death. Mr. Kempton chooses the former. Mother Teresa, for all of her faults, chooses the latter.

James Martin, S.J.
America Magazine

To the Editors:

Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do. Besides, it appears that the attacks which are being directed at Mother Teresa all boil down to one single crime:she endeavors to be a Christian, in the most literal sense of the word—which is (and always was, and will always remain) a most improper and unacceptable undertaking in this world.

Indeed, consider her sins:

  1. She occasionally accepts the hospitality of crooks, millionaires, and criminals. But it is hard to see why, as a Christian, she should be more choosy in this respect than her Master, whose bad frequentations were notorious, and shocked all the Hitchenses of His time.

  2. Instead of providing efficient and hygienic services to the sick and dying destitutes, she merely offers them her care and her love. When I am on my death bed, I think I should prefer to have one of her Sisters by my side, rather than a modern social worker.

  3. She secretly baptizes the dying. The material act of baptism consists in shedding a few drops of water on the head of a person, while mumbling a dozen simple ritual words. Either you believe in the supernatural effect of this gesture—and then you should dearly wish for it. Or you do not believe in it, and the gesture is as innocent and well-meaningly innocuous as chasing a fly away with a wave of the hand. If a cannibal who happens to love you presents you with his most cherished possession—a magic crocodile tooth that should protect you forever—will you indignantly reject his gift for being primitive and superstitious, or would you gratefully accept it as a generous mark of sincere concern and affection?

Jesus was spat upon—but not by journalists, as there were none in His time. It is now Mother Teresa’s privilege to experience this particular updating of her Master’s predicament.

Simon Leys
Canberra, Australia

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