Any criticism of Mother Teresa usually begins with a reference to Christopher Hitchens book The Missionary Position, the documentary he hosted, Hells Angel, or perhaps even Arup Chatterjee’s book, Mother Teresa: The Untold Story. Hitchens went so far as to call her “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.”
But before we can address the criticisms, it’s important to have the right context, and to have context, we must know her story.
The Early Years
Born in 1910 in Skopje, while it was still part of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu’s father died when she was just eight years old. Raised by a religious mother, the young Anjezë was a deeply devout Roman Catholic and by the age of twelve already decided that she wanted to devote herself to religious service. According to the biography by Joan Graff Clucas, she was inspired by stories of Catholic missionaries in Bengal.
When she was eighteen, she travelled to Ireland and joined the religious order Sisters of Loreto, where she learned English, which was required if she wanted to work in India. In 1929, she began training to become a nun in the city of Darjeeling in Bengal, where she learned Bengali and worked as a teacher. She chose the name Teresa in 1931 when she finally took her religious vows, after Thérèse de Lisieux, the Catholic patron saint of missionaries.
Teresa the Teacher
Sister Teresa spent the next two decades of her life as a school teacher in Calcutta, becoming the headmistress of the Loreto Convent School in 1944. In her authorised biography by Kathryn Spink, Teresa was truly happy with her work as a teacher but she wasn’t immune to the circumstances around her. In 1941, the Japanese invaded Burma, resulting in half a million Indian refugees streaming into Assam and Bengal.
She saw firsthand the ensuing horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which an estimated 3 million people died of starvation and diseases such as dysentery, smallpox, malaria, and cholera. The effects of the famine were very visible on the streets of Calcutta and left Sister Teresa more and more disturbed with each passing day. Then in 1946, the communal violence preceding the Partition of India erupted in Calcutta, leaving over 4000 dead and more than 100,000 residents homeless within just 3 days. It was around this time that she felt the call to serve the poor and live among them. However, the convent superiors were worried about letting her set out on her own into the most dangerous parts of the city. It took two years of petitions and patience for the convent to give her permission.
Teresa the Missionary
In 1948, Sister Teresa left her convent, underwent several months of basic medical training, and began working for the poor. As she formally became an Indian citizen, she also abandoned the traditional nun’s habit, and began wearing the now iconic blue-bordered saree. Her first two years were the hardest. A middle aged European woman with no home or income on the streets of Calcutta, she found herself begging for food and supplies, not just for herself but for others too. In this time she set up a school for poor children. With no classroom or equipment, she used sticks to draw letters in the dirt in order to teach. Her dogged determination inspired volunteers to join her, many of whom were her former pupils from the Loretto Convent School. By 1950, she received permission from the Vatican to create the Missionaries of Charity.
Saint of the Gutter
In 1952, with the help of Calcutta officials, she opened the Kalighat Home for the Dying, a hospice for people she found dying in the streets. The work she did there attracted volunteers, donations and recognition. Shortly afterwards, she started another hospice for people afflicted with leprosy, and in 1955 she started Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, a haven for orphans and homeless children. As her organization grew through the 1960s and 70s, she opened more centres across India and the rest of the world. The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War saw millions of refugees pouring into India, and once again, she was able to serve many of them. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the 1980s, when the world was awakening to the scourge of AIDs, she recognized that patients were being shunned and ostracized as lepers were decades ago, and her Missionaries of Charity started some of the first homes for people suffering from AIDs. In 2016, she was canonized by the Vatican and pronounced a Saint.
Sinner or Saint?
Mother Teresa has been subjected to a variety of criticisms, ranging from her way of caring for the sick, her political contacts, her management of the charitable contributions her organization received, and her views regarding birth control, abortion, and divorce. Yet despite these allegations, she remains revered in India and across the world.
In order to understand why she was such a source of inspiration for so many Indians around her, one would need to know how lepers were treated at that time and that place. At the time, lepers (people infected with leprosy) were ostracized, often abandoned by their families. When my father was a child, he described how the children of the village would drive away lepers by pelting stones at them. Most people believed leprosy was contagious, and the very sight of them was revolting. No one cared if they lived or died, it was better for these people to starve and die in the jungle.
Mother Teresa wasn’t a student of medicine, or very educated about finance. All she had was her religious beliefs, and those beliefs led her to a third world country where she would lift lepers barehanded, which was shocking to most Indians. She would wipe their festering sores, and feed them, hold them and talk to them. She would treat them like human beings, something that was unheard of in India.
That made her famous. As her fame grew, she didn’t suddenly become a doctor or accountant. She would ask people to help the poor, sick and dying, but she didn’t manage the finances of her order. All she knew was that, as people lay dying, they needed care and food and shelter, and maybe not to die alone on the streets. All she knew was how to teach and run hospices and orphanages, so all she could do was run more hospices and orphanages.
People blame her for not doing more. But none of these people would ever touch a leper, or HIV patient, or any poor person they saw dying in the street. People blame her for preaching her faith, but none of these fine people acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, since she herself was inspired and comforted by her faith, she thought that was the way to inspire and comfort others.
With regards to her views on abortion, contraception and divorce, they seem fairly consistent with her religious beliefs. After all, at the end of the day she was a Catholic nun. So it should not come as a surprise that she would stand by those beliefs. Keep in mind, this is a woman born more than a century ago, and who spent most of her life in a conservative religious environment. Comparing her to feminist ideals and applying modern notions of morality seems to be the worst form of presentism.
Her organization accepted donations from people who may have obtained that wealth unethically like Jean-Claude Duvalier and Charles Keating, but she didn’t live in luxury, or try to join politics, or take extravagant vacations, or buy private islands, unlike any of the shady televangelists and swamis we see nowadays. In her opinion, anyone who wanted to help, could help.
Finally, the miracles attributed to her which made her eligible for sainthood are criticised as religious superstition, and that those patients recovered as a course of medical treatment. But then again, all religions are inherently based on superstition and faith in the supernatural. It is more a criticism of religion that of Mother Teresa.
So was Mother Teresa a saint or sinner? Only you can decide that for yourself. But one thing is certain. Her journey will always be a source of inspiration for millions, and while many may find faults in her, few have ever achieved what she did.