A.J. Howard's Reviews > The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
by Christopher Hitchens
bookshelves: finished-in-2011, saturday-nights-and-sunday-mornings
The Missionary Position, by the sake of its cover alone, is arguably one of the most bold polemics in recent memory. The title itself forces you to picture the wrinkled, ancient, and now deceased, woman on the cover.... well, let's just say engaging in an activity that we have good reason to believe she abstained from for the entirety of her life. Let me pause while I shudder quickly. Despite the pure shock power of the title, Hitchens' originally preferred title may have been more appropriate, The Sacred Cow. Because if you were unaware of Hitchens' argument, Mother Theresa of Calcutta seems to be one of the least appropriate target for such harsh criticism, even when the bile is produced by such a virulent contrarian and secularist as Hitchens.
However, Hitchens makes clear that his ire is not directed at Mother Theresa herself, or devout Catholics who consider her a saint. This book is for the secular or casually religious who consider the late nun as the exemplar of charity, compassion, humility, and devoutness. Hitchens argument is that all the modifiers but the latter are inappropriate.
Hitchens main point is that the good Mother Theresa did for the world were means to the end of promoting a specific and retrograde worldview, "to propagandize one highly subjective view of human nature and need, so that she may one day be counted as a beatific founder of a new order and discipline within the Church itself." Hitchens also points out that when the welfare of the poor conflicted with any of her religious beliefs it was the former that were sacrificed. This is not only relating to her frequent pronunciations on the evils of birth control. The Catholic Church, and Theresa as one of the most outspoken mouthpieces of the organization on this subject, is liable for the millions of deaths and and an untold amount of suffering worldwide by its unbelievably outdated position on the subject. But wait there's more. Hitchens cites testimonials that make it appear that people under the care of the Missionaries of Charity suffered needlessly not because of a lack of funds, but because Mother Theresa sought to maintain conditions of poverty. Better care for patients under their care was not provided, not because Mother Theresa was unable to provide, but because she was unwilling to provide it.
Hitchens also ridicules Mother Theresa's supposed refusal to engage in politics. Of course this was only the case where politics didn't involve moral issues, and she didn't hesitate to give her blessings to demagogues who shilled her line. Also, her supposed non-engagement freed her up to be used as a pawn by thugs, dictators, and crooks who were eager for a photo-op. One such engagement was when she wrote a letter to Judge Lance Ito, appealing for leniency in the sentencing of Charles Keating, the perpetrator of the Savings and Loan scandal. She had the gall to cite how Keating donated money to her charities as proof of his better nature, while never addressing the fact that this money was stolen by Keating through fraud. When faced with calls to return these stolen funds she answered with complete silence.
Hitchens has several more bones to pick that I won't get into. Hitch's screed is more of a pamphlet than a book, coming in at just under 100 pages scarcely filled pages that will take at most a couple of hours to read. Because it's so brief, I'm going with three stars instead of four. Hitchens is the kind of guy you would never want to get into an argument you want to win with. Here, he takes aim at the previously unassailable and manages to but a few dents in her secular halo.