In response to:
In Defense of Mother Teresa from the September 19, 1996 issue
To the Editors:
Since the letter from Simon Leys [“In Defense of Mother Teresa,” NYR, September 19] is directed at myself rather than at your reviewer, may I usurp the right to reply?
In my book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory and Practice, I provide evidence that Mother Teresa has consoled and supported the rich and powerful, allowing them all manner of indulgence, while preaching obedience and resignation to the poor. In a classic recent instance of what I mean—an instance that occurred too late for me to mention it—she told the April 1996 Ladies’ Home Journal that her new friend Princess Diana would be better off when free of her marriage. (“It is good that it is over. Nobody was happy anyhow.”) When Mother Teresa said this, she had only just finished advising the Irish electorate to vote “No” in a national referendum that proposed the right of civil divorce and remarriage. (That vote, quite apart from its importance in separating Church from State in the Irish Republic, had an obvious bearing on the vital discussion between Irish Catholics and Protestants as to who shall make law in a possible future cooperative island that is threatened by two kinds of Christian fundamentalism.)
Evidence and argument of this kind, I have discovered, make no difference to people like Mr. Leys. Such people do not exactly deny Mother Teresa’s complicity with earthly powers. Instead, they make vague allusions to the gospels. Here I can claim no special standing. The gospels do not agree on the life of the man Jesus, and they make assertions—such as his ability to cast demonic spells on pigs—that seem to reflect little credit upon him. However, when Mr. Leys concedes that Mother Teresa “occasionally accepts the hospitality of crooks, millionaires, and criminals” and goes on to say, by way of apologetics, that her Master’s “bad frequentations were notorious,” I still feel entitled to challenge him. Was his Jesus ever responsible for anything like Mother Teresa’s visit to the Duvaliers in Haiti, where she hymned the love of Baby Doc and his wife for the poor, and the reciprocal love of the poor for Baby Doc and his wife? Did he ever accept a large subvention of money, as did Mother Teresa from Charles Keating, knowing it to have been stolen from small and humble savers? Did he ever demand a strict clerical control over, not just abortion, but contraception and marriage and divorce and adoption? These questions are of no hermeneutic interest to me, but surely they demand an answer from people like Leys who claim an understanding of the Bible’s “original intent.”
On my related points—that Mother Teresa makes no real effort at medical or social relief, and that her mission is religious and propagandistic and includes surreptitious baptism of unbelievers—I notice that Mr. Leys enters no serious dissent. It is he and not I who chooses to compare surreptitious baptism to the sincere and loving gesture of an innocent “cannibal” (his term) bestowing a fetish. Not all that inexact as a parallel, perhaps—except that the “cannibal” is not trying to proselytize.
Mr. Leys must try and make up his mind. At one point he says that the man called Jesus “shocked all the Hitchenses of His time”: a shocking thought indeed to an atheist and semi-Semitic polemicist like myself, who can discover no New Testament authority for the existence of his analogue in that period. Later he says, no less confidently, that “Jesus was spat upon—but not by journalists, as there were none in His [sic] time.” It is perhaps in this confused light that we must judge his assertion that the endeavor to be a Christian “is (and always was, and will always remain)” something “improper and unacceptable.” The public career of Mother Teresa has been almost as immune from scrutiny or criticism as any hagiographer could have hoped—which was my point in the first place. To represent her as a woman defiled with spittle for her deeds or beliefs is—to employ the term strictly for once—quite incredible. But it accords with the Christian self-pity that we have to endure from so many quarters (Justice Scalia, Ralph Reed, Mrs. Dole)these days. Other faiths are taking their place in that same queue, to claim that all criticism is abusive, blasphemous, and defamatory by definition. Mr. Leys may not care for some of the friends that he will make in this line. Or perhaps I misjudge him?
Finally, I note that he describes the title of my book as “obscene,” and complains that it attacks someone who is “elderly.” Would he care to say where the obscenity lies? Also, given that I have been criticizing Mother Teresa since she was middle-aged (and publicly denounced the senile Khomeini in his homicidal dotage), can he advise me of the age limit at which the faithful will admit secular criticism as pardonable? Not even the current occupant of the Holy See has sought protection from dissent on the ground of anno domini.
December 19, 1996