In the Catholic Church since 2003, Mother Teresa was formally considered Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Sunday, Pope Francis canonized her as Saint Teresa of Calcutta.
Two outlets in particular have recently given voice to those who stridently take exception to what virtually the entire world recognizes as her noble life and works. On Thursday, the Washington Post chose to run a slightly updated version of an item (“Why Mother Teresa is still no saint to many of her critics”) originally published in December of last year. The really disgraceful work came out of CNN Sunday morning, where the headline described her as a “troubled individual.” Reporters Mallika Kapur and Sugam Pokharel featured the intensely personal criticism of a man who — undisclosed to readers — is a “progressive” who is obsessed with shutting down the religious order St. Teresa founded.
The recycled Washington Post item largely featured the intense criticism of the late Christopher Hitchens. A courageous journalist in many respects, Hitchens’ outlook on then-Mother Teresa, as summarized by a review of his related book entitled (not kidding) Missionary Position, which followed up on his documentary (again, not kidding) Hell’s Angel, was that she 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.” That would be news to the thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of whom weren’t Catholic and remained that way, whose lives her facilities have saved. Other specific criticisms of Hitchens and others found in the recycled Post article are mostly in the CNN report. I’ll eventually get to those, as well a couple which are unique to the Post.
The tone of Kapur’s and Pokharel’s writeup is so harsh that it’s important to recall that St. Teresa’s began her active work in the late-1940s, as seen in a September 2, 1964 Reuters article which refers to how “Fifteen years ago, few had heard of her.” Wikipedia’s entry on her supports that starting point: “In the beginning of 1949, she was joined in her effort by a group of young women and laid the foundations of a new religious community helping the ‘poorest among the poor.’”
It’s also important to note that being among the “poorest of the poor” in India, from before St. Teresa began her noble work up to and including today — though thanks to capitalism and free markets, their number is not as large — involves existing in horrible conditions very few in the U.S. can imagine.
St. Teresa’s primary tormentor is one Hemley Gonzalez, whose criticisms of the current work of the Missionaries of Charity may — emphasis may — have some validity. But his assessment of St. Teresa herself has none:
‘Troubled individual:’ Mother Teresa no saint to her critics
… Disillusioned former volunteer Hemley Gonzalez didn’t meet her in person, but what he calls the “horrific remnants of her legacy” have left him deeply uncomfortable. After visiting the facilities she’s responsible for starting, he feels only a “troubled individual” could have set them up.
After the financial crisis of 2008, Gonzalez took a break from his real estate business in Miami and headed to India, where he spent two months volunteering at Nirmal Hriday, a home for the dying run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) crowded Kalighat area.
Gonzalez says he was appalled at the poor level of hygiene and medical care he saw there. He says the organization didn’t vet him or the other volunteers. None, including himself, had any medical experience or received any training before working at the hospice.
… Chhanda Chakraborti is part of a group of local Kolkata volunteers who has been associated with the Missionaries of Charity for over 25 years. She served at Nirmal Hriday for several years before Gonzalez did.
“All these claims are rubbish. These critics are actually lying,” she says. ”You go to Kalighat, people come in dying condition. Most of them regain their lives. How can they give life to a dying person while being careless with their health?”
What they do in the homes run by the Missionaries of Charity, says Sunita Kumar, a spokesperson for the group and a close friend of Mother Teresa, is offer basic care to the poorest of the poor.
Undercutting Gonzalez’s hygienic assessment proved much easier than one might have thought.
I was able to locate an online Powerpoint presentation from 2005 (seen here in Google cache) by a professor at India’s Prathima Institute of Medical Services. That presentation asserted that a full 157 years (at the time) after what the author described as the “Great Sanitary Awakening in Europe,” India’s “sanitary awakening is still a dream.” St. Teresa died in 1997. If India’s hospitals and other medical facilities weren’t up to anything resembling Western standards eight years later, it seems more than a little unreasonable to go after the Missionaries of Charity at the time St. Teresa was alive for having sub-Western practices. It’s also hard to imagine that sanitation practices at Indian hospitals had substantially improved in the three years before 2008, when Gonzalez arrived on the scene.
Additionally, in a July 2013 op-ed column at the New York Times, Ada Calhoun recalled the following from when she “volunteered for a time with Mother Teresa”:
I watched as members of the order drove a makeshift fleet of rickshaws around Calcutta’s streets, returning with ever more people in acute states of distress and neglect, some of them hours from death. The facilities were almost aggressively rickety — there was a hole in the bucket the nuns used to pull water from the well — but they were as good or better than what was otherwise widely available (as I learned myself when some weeks later I wound up at a free clinic in another part of India suffering from amebic dysentery).
On my last night in Calcutta, Mother Teresa blessed me, gave me a Virgin Mary medallion and told me to come back someday. Even though I’m not Catholic, I was moved by her total commitment to the work at hand, which amounted to diverting a flash flood of sorrow, suffering and need directly into her front door.
To be clear, if the current Missionaries of 2016 aren’t at least keeping up with local practices, they deserve criticism. But even if that’s the case, based on what’s been presented here, that doesn’t do anything to discredit St. Teresa, who died 19 years ago.
But that hasn’t stopped Gonzalez from trying. CNN’s reporters allowed him to personally attack St. Teresa, and even used his assessment in their headline, even though he obviously never met her. As such, CNN owed us more background about Gonzalez, and failed to provide it.
It won’t surprise longtime readers that what CNN didn’t tell us about Mr. Gonzalez is quite revealing, and far from complimentary. Here is some of what CNN omitted, all of which is quite relevant when someone starts calling a person they never met who demonstrated visible lifelong selflessness a “troubled individual”:
- His Facebook page, STOP the Missionaries of Charity, is filled with anti-Catholic tirades. One in particular, posted two dozen times, with different accompanying graphics, contends that “The concept of sainthood is a fabricated process by the vatican in order to continue to extract money from its followers and to try and remain relevant in a world that is increasingly rejecting these medieval and anachronistic practices. Mother Teresa’s upcoming canonization and new title of ‘saint’ is nothing more than a new wave of religious propaganda and fundamentalism disguised as compassion.”
- Gonzalez has a problem with religion in general. In a December 2013 interview at TheHumanist.com, he criticized “some religion-based organizations that have no progressive plans in effect to educate and empower children, women, and men out of poverty.” There’s that giveaway word: “progressive.”
- The intro to the Humanist.com article claims that “Gonzalez is revolutionizing humanitarian efforts with Responsible Charity, a nonprofit humanist organization he founded in 2009 that is making strides in “education, planned parenthood, and self-employment” in India. Though there’s not enough information available to discount the value of Gonzalez’s work, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that his effort accomplished nothing meaningful during its first four years of existence — an annoying habit of “progressive” governments and organizations — while St. Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in its first four years had already saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, and by 1955 had opened a home for orphans and homeless youth.
- At this point, it’s almost confirming the obvious, but Gonzalez also contends in that same article that “Standing firm against family planning … and a myriad of other solution-based initiatives, Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor but rather a promoter of poverty.” In other words, St. Teresa was uncompromisingly prolife (that’s what genuine Catholics are, sir), and didn’t risk her reputation backing government-based initiatives she couldn’t control.
- Extending the point about Gonzalez’s love of government and other secular involvement to the exclusion of faith-based efforts, here’s his antagonistic assessment of St. Teresa’s life: “… her regressive policies, religious fanaticism, and promotion of poverty have clearly left a shameful mark on humanity. Receiving millions and millions of dollars in donations, here’s a woman who could have easily set up progressive centers to promote education, birth control, preventative medical solutions, and sustainability programs to get folks out of poverty.” Sir, even if she could have done any of these things (other than birth control, which as a practicing faithful Catholic she naturally opposed), she couldn’t be all things to all people — and besides, the best long-term solutions to poverty involve free markets and capitalism.
Gonzalez is also a very frequent poster of relatively lengthy items at Humanists.com on a wide range of topics. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that, but it’s more than a little unusual that St. Teresa’s most intense critic, who is supposedly “revolutionizing humanitarian efforts,” is going after someone who rarely if ever took a break from her work, yet spends a great deal of time on non-charitable pursuits. Yet only he supposedly knows how genuine charitable efforts should be conducted.
By now, it should be clear that either CNN should have told readers a lot more about Hemley Gonzalez — which would have exposed him as an anti-religious fanatic obsessed with ruining the legacy of arguably the past century’s most dedicated and accomplished humanitarian — or it should have given him no attention at all. My vote would be for the latter.
Other criticisms of St. Teresa CNN and the Washington Post attempted include the following:
- “Mother Teresa’s dogmatic views on abortions, contraception and divorce may have been welcomed by the socially restrained Vatican, but they have also been criticized in more progressive circles and put her at odds with the feminist movement.” — CNN acts as if this is a bug. It’s really a feature.
- “Some critics accuse Mother Teresa of trying to convert those she served to Christianity.” — In the CNN article, the Missionaries of Charity denies this. I would argue that they are doing so by example, but constructively helping people find God would not be a bad thing if done with respect — and it wouldn’t be successful if it wasn’t.
- A disputed miracle. Though CNN reports that the husband of the person whose health remarkably improved has had varying opinions of the miracle’s legitimacy, the beneficiary never has.
- She accepted an award from Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier in 1981. After his ouster, he was found to have stolen millions from his country’s coffers. The Post needs to recognize that Teresa is a saint, and wasn’t a psychic.
- She took money from people like the late Charlie Keating. For heaven’s sake, WaPo. Again, she’s not a psychic. Moreover, ”Keating was convicted of a crime that did not exist until he was charged with it,” and “the convictions which caused him to ‘serve prison time’ were thrown out.”
Finally, there’s the issue of financial accountability and transparency. This is something the current sisters could consider improving. But there’s no record of any reported irregularity occurring during St. Teresa’s life, and she certainly lived the life of poverty she promised to live when she took her vows as a nun.
Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.