The Shadow Saint

The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

by Christopher Hitchens
Verso, 98 pp., $12.95

Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa; drawing by David Levine

Eric Partridge has informed us that “the missionary position” is an expression of South Sea islander coinage. If Christopher Hitchens did not share the widespread misapprehension of blasphemous intent in his grand remonstrance against Mother Teresa, he could scarcely have chosen to present it under a rubric so resounding with echoes of pagan disdain for piety’s disabling effect upon investigative curiosity.

Hitchens would have little cause to boast or blush if he were indeed the blasphemer that he mistakes himself to be. It is by no means a certainty that blasphemy is a trespass that much disesteemed by the Maker of Heaven and Earth. His complaints to Isaiah against the stiflings of His nostrils by incense powerfully suggest zests for the combat mode that would much prefer contending with Athalia’s heartful Baalist conviction to coughing with the smoke of Saul’s unfelt oblations.

But Hitchens’s stirrings are so far from blasphemous as almost to resonate with the severities of orthodoxy. He came to scoff, but the murmurings that recurrently rise from his place in the pew unmistakably imply the man who has remained to pray. Mockeries suffuse his tones; but their charms, seduce us though they may, cannot conceal the fierce purpose of their employment, not in God’s despite but on His behalf. The compelling impulse in The Missionary Position’s heartbeat is not to make fun of a holy woman in her wither but to chastise a heretic.

There aren’t many heresies older and none perhaps worse than Mother Teresa’s, because it abides in stubborn disdain for the sacred obligation to preserve life on earth. “Reverence for life, especially in its vulnerable condition in utero, is the sine qua non of Catholic teaching,” Hitchens reminds us with proper respect, “and one which possesses a great moral strength even in its extreme forms.” However unquestioningly the Church must accept “Thy Will Be Done” as the one be-all-and-end-all passage in scripture, it charges itself with the barely secondary duty to resist and defer the applications of the Divine Will so long as life still breathes in any soul under its care.

What then are we to make of the evidence that Hitchens piles up to persuade us that Mother Teresa’s hospitals work so pitilessly not to prolong the sufferer’s earthly existence but to teach him how to die?

When The Lancet’s Robin Fox visited her in Kalighat in southern Calcutta, at her “Hospital for the Dying”—a grisly label long ago expunged from hospital nomenclature elsewhere—his manners could not disguise the shock of his discovery that recourse to medical advances in diagnosis, treatment, and the easing of pain are “seldom permissible” because “such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home.”

For all the weight of its professional authority, Dr. Fox’s testimony is less telling than Hitchens’s reminder of the care for self that Mother Teresa has habitually displayed on the several…

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