Critics of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the saint-in-waiting whose work with India’s poor inspired a groundswell of vocations, are thick on the ground just days before her canonization by Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Mother Teresa truthers allege the Catholic nun propagated a fraud by dubiously managing vast sums of money accrued for her work from disreputable contacts throughout the West, and the poor in her charge languished in a “cult of death and suffering.”
The Washington Post, and CNN each ran reports Thursday rehashing such allegations, stemming from the accounts of several individuals who briefly volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity, and from a years-long campaign mounted against Mother Teresa by British polemicist Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens created a documentary heavy on criticism of the nun called “Hell’s Angel” in 1994, later supplemented by a provocative pamphlet called “The Missionary Position.” The pieces draw heavily from a single source, the British writer Aroup Chatterjee, who completed a short tour of duty in one of Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying poor.
The film and ensuing polemic claim the quality of care and hygiene in the facilities more closely resembled that of a Nazi concentration camp, where attendants cared more for catechism and the salvation of souls and less for solicitude and medical practice. Her work, claim Hitchens and Co., are mere “demonstrations of compassion,” naive fanaticism posing as the real thing.
She is also implicated in a conspiracy to promote the “greater Albania” project, a communist-backed effort to unite all ethnic Albanians in a single state. The film notes the cause “was once smiled upon by Pope Pius IX and his friend Benito Mussolini.” What is meant by the allegation is unclear, as Pius IX died three years before Mussolini was born.
Hitchens concluded that Mother Teresa was “less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable source of wretchedness on which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs.” (RELATED: Catholic Church Front And Center In Peace Deal With Colombian Narcos)
CNN’s reportage notes other Mother Teresa truthers accuse the Nobel laureate of unscrupulous financial practices. Little is known of the ledgers kept by the Missionaries of Charity, but critics claim the beneficence of her supporters is not reflected in the squalor where her Missionaries live and work. They claim her accolades and legacy obscure decades of egregious financial mismanagement.
“They get a free pass because of religion; they get a free pass because of the influence of the Vatican,” a former volunteer named Hemley Gonzalez told the network. Gonzalez, whose short stint with the sisters occurred a full decade after Mother Teresa’s death, anchors much of the piece. What influence the Holy See, itself plagued by fiscal malfeasance, exercises in this area is a mystery. He also calls Mother Teresa a “troubled individual.”
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, a contributor to the Catholic news platform Aletria.org, argues the criticisms are equal parts bad theology and thin conspiracy theorizing.
Noble argues the Missionaries of Charity do not aspire to the justice-oriented activism of others in the church. Their commitment, she says, is to corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which unite the sisters to the suffering through a solidarity both tangible and mystical.
“The sisters join the poverty of the people they serve,” she wrote in April. “Their mission is not to build state-of-the-art hospitals, or work for political or social change, which many Catholics do. They provide care for children and adults in the most desperate of situations, people who would otherwise be living and dying on the streets.”
“This criticism often comes drenched in a mind-set of first-world privilege that has no idea what kind of conditions people experience in third-world countries,” she further notes.
The alleged maltreatment of the dying poor was seriously evaluated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican department charged with evaluating claims to sainthood. Hitchens himself gave extensive testimony during the Congregation’s consideration of Mother Teresa’s cause. They concluded after a years-long study that the accusation lacked merit.
“What many do not understand is the desperate conditions Mother Teresa constantly faced, and that her special charism was not to found or run hospitals – the Church has many who do that – but to rescue those who were given no chance of surviving, and otherwise would have died on the street,” Fr. Peter Gumpel, a priest assigned to the Congregation, told William Doino of First Things in 2013.
Doino reports the Congregation meticulously corroborated Mother Teresa’s generous financial support of charitable fronts throughout the Catholic world, unburdening herself of practically every dollar her sisters did not need in furtherance of their efforts. Those levying charges of mismanagement make no reference to this pattern, nor do they advance a theory as to what was done with the vast surplus of funds the Missionaries of Charities were therefore left with.
His 2013 dispatch ends on a wry note:
“Not a single person cared for by the Missionaries speaks on camera,” he writes. “Was this because they had a far higher opinion of Blessed Teresa than Hitchens would permit in his film?”
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