Chris's Reviews > The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens
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Jun 02, 2011

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Read on May 25, 2011

Hitchens is true to form in this belligerent, but eye-opening look into the REAL Mother Theresa of Calcutta. I had read an interview online in which Hitchens explains his abhorrence of Mother Theresa’s conduct and mission, and he alluded to this book more than once. I had never heard anything so negative said about Mother Theresa before. I have even posted a picture of her on my Facebook page on Mother’s Day—a photo of her holding a baby closer to her face and gazing lovingly into its eyes—with the caption, “Happy Mother’s Day to all the other mothers.” But the spell might be broken for me. Hitchens, in his brash, haughty way revealed some unpleasant things about Mother Theresa’s life, conduct, and possible motives.

I will list a few things that raised concern with me immediately.

According to multiple eye-witness accounts by reporters, volunteers, nurses, doctors, and other hospitals in the area, Mother Theresa’s “Home For the Dying” in Calcutta is still pretty medieval in its technology, practice, and philosophy, despite millions upon millions of dollars being donated to her cause. What happens to all that money? No one really knows. There has been no financial audit or accountability for any of it. None. Would we allow any TV evangelist to get away with that? What charity operates that way?

Mother Theresa’s order values asceticism and austere practices to encourage spiritual concentration and sacrifice, often at the expense of physical convalescence, as evidenced by her determination to keep her charity branches and Home For the Dying in outdated conditions and a with a depressingly rigorous spiritual ethos. There are insider reports of nurses reusing needles with different patients, over-rationing simple painkillers, and medicating improperly. Some patients were allegedly denied the means for their recuperation because they were initially accepted as dying, and spiritual security became the primary concern. According to one Sister, Mother Theresa trained the caretakers to whisper to someone who was dying, asking if they wanted a ‘ticket to heaven.’ If the patient answered in the affirmative, the Sister would pretend to wipe their heads with a wet cloth, but would be silently and secretly baptizing them.

Mother Theresa was an aggressive advocate for the Catholic Church and campaigned tirelessly to reduce abortion and, ironically enough, birth control. Upon arriving in countries where political unrest and government cruelty ought to have been addressed, she often sidestepped the issues outside of her propagandist agenda with a simple injunction for the victims to ‘forgive, forgive, forgive.’
She accepted monetary donations from corporate magnates and political campaigns, regardless of their materialistic values or exploitive/abusive treatment of others. When wealthy persons that had given to her cause were convicted of embezzlement, she refused to answer requests for a return of the money to investors who had been swindled. Not quite the Zaccheus admirer! Yet, little if any of this money was used to improve the conditions of her own Calcutta, which, as Hitchens suggests, might have been motivated by Theresa’s interest in preserving the deplorable condition of her city’s ‘poor’ to remain the poster children for her religious crusade.

Hitchens makes a compelling case that Mother Theresa was no saint with completely pure motives, but rather a Catholic fundamentalist who may have been more concerned about proselytization than helping the poor and healing the sick. She was obviously passionate about establishing monastic orders (convents) with her name stamped on it, and may have been swayed by this honor more than we are comfortable admitting.

I guess in a way I wanted to believe in her based on her reputation alone, and this is what Hitchens jumps all over. “I began the project of judging Mother Theresa’s reputation by her actions and words rather than her actions and words by her reputation.” Nice play. I don’t believe with Hitchens that she was a terrible person…but a saint? I’m not sure the book answers all the questions for me entirely, but then again, the questions were never there before. I think the author’s work goal of planting doubt via this 100-pager was accomplished. Even without swallowing whole every ‘fact’ I read in this book, I am left to infer that Mother Theresa may quite possibly have been either naïve, cunning, or careless as she campaigned to popularize her beliefs and her order rather than mostly focusing on the suffering and dying as we usually assume. I don’t doubt she has done some good in this world—in fact it would be difficult, if not impossible, to say she didn’t help at all—but these kinds of works do a great job of challenging the masses blind acceptance of a religious icon.

So, the question remains, was Mother Theresa trying to improve the condition of the poor and ill, or merely trying to serve her own egoistic mission, even if part unconsciously, of propagating Catholic doctrine, striving for sainthood, and establishing orders with her brand. Her own words might be most incriminating:

“I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot…I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor.”

Easy for her to say.

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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Jen (new)

Jen Shank Yikes! I cringed reading this. How can this be?? And better yet, who is in the business of covering up such atrocity?

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