'The Dark Side of Mother Teresa'

In a new paper (in French) for the journal Studies in Religion, three University of Montreal professors make the case that the late Mother Teresa isn't worthy of praise, let alone sainthood.

The paper, which has garnered quite a bit of media attention, particularly in India, argues that Mother Teresa had a disturbing worldview that romanticized poverty and discouraged the economically disadvantaged from seeking to change their circumstances. She was also politically naive -- maintaining friendly relations with dictators like Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and laying a wreath at the tomb of Albania's communist ruler Enver Hoxha. They also recount reports of shockingly poor medical conditions at facilities run by her Missionaries of Charity and allegations that funds sent from abroad were funneled to the Vatican rather than those she professed to serve. Then there's the question of Teresa's beatification, which is based on a dubious "miracle" -- a Vatican-recognized "inexplicable" healing from cancer that even the patient's own husband doesn't believe. (One more miracle is required for Teresa to become a saint.)

I recently spoke via e-mail with one of the paper's authors, Serge Larivee of the university's School of Psychoeducation. 

Larivee says he and his coauthors first became interested in the topic, "as part of an ethics course, when we were discussing whether pure altruism exists." Reading more about Teresa's work, they concluded that "if the relevant facts were known, no one had yet produced a synthesis of them."

Of course, they're not the first to take up this case. The best-known broadside against Mother Teresa was the late Christopher Hitchens's book The Missionary Position. Larivee says while he was initially skeptical, in the course of his research, Hitchens' "work has gained a lot of credibility in my eyes."

I asked Larivee if, sainthood aside, he feels Mother Teresa did more good than harm.

"I think Mother Teresa was very consistent in her view of the Catholic religion. Everything was done as if her primary mission was to allow the sick and suffering to resemble Christ and to quickly reach the hereafter. So the medical care, or should I say the lack of medical care, that she provided were based on the cult of suffering. She likened the suffering of the poor to divine grace, so it was normal in her mind that her hospice was nothing like a hospital. It was for her to welcome the dying and accompany them in their death.... However, she could have given them proper care. She had millions of dollars in various banks. Instead, it was used to build houses for hercommunity and to send money to the Vatican."

Larivee wonders if there was a PR calculation the church's "fast-tracking" of Mother Teresa's satinhood. "John Paul II made over 600 beatifications and 300 canonizations during his pontificate, while in the previous four centuries only 679 people were canonized," he said. "A theologian whom I spoke with told me, "What better than the canonization of a model saint to revitalize the church, at a time when the churches are empty and the Roman authority is declining.""

John Paul II was himself beatified in 2011. As with Mother Teresa's case, there has been some suspicion of the "miracle" attributed to him. The church still demands supernatural occurences -- usually miraculous healings --  for sainthood, rather than earthly deeds. This is a lot tricker today, when medical recoveries that once seemed miraculous can be easily explained by modern medicine. 

With both Teresa and John Paul II waiting on their second miracles, we may soon see how Pope Francis handles the issue.  Modern sainthood might have a bit more credibility if actions like standing up against communist dictatorships or inspiring the world to care about the plight of the poor were considered valid grounds for sainthood, rather than a tumor disappearing thanks to a medallion.

Even Larivee acknowledges, "While we criticize the way Mother Teresa cared for the sick, consorted with dictators, and misused the money she was given, we must recognize that she probably stimulated the development of humanitarian action and inspired the work of people genuinely committed to helping those crushed by poverty."

But he also quoted another theologian he had consulted who told him, "Everyone knows that miracles do not exist...The people wanted a saint and [the pope] gave them one."