The Case Against Mother Teresa
Recently, I have debated some Facebook friends regarding Mother Teresa. In that discussion, I took the unpopular position that Mother Teresa is no saint and that in many ways, she contributed to the misery of those for whom she cared. Needless to say, this has generated a great deal of heat from her supporters. In this brief essay, I will outline my case against Mother Teresa.
Without a doubt, Mother Teresa is one of the most loved and admired figures of the late 20th century. Her efforts to provide care to the most impoverished people in Calcutta, India are very well documented. In 1979, she received the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts. I will not dispute in any way the fact that Mother Teresa was a kind, humane, caring person. I will not dispute that she provided mercy to those who so greatly needed it. I do admire her compassion and believe that if everyone shared this level of compassion for their fellow man, the world would indeed be a better place.
This is all well and good until you consider what she failed to do once she rose to international fame. Mother Teresa had a platform from which she could have advocated an end to this misery. However, she did not. Instead, she used this platform to advocate for and against issues which, in fact, continue and exacerbate human suffering and misery. Mother Teresa was a noble figure against the symptoms of poverty. She provided important palliative care for the poor. However, she also had an opportunity to fight against the causes of poverty which she did not take. For that reason, she should not be considered saintly by any definition at all.
Several years ago, I participated in a large study which examined the roots of poverty, failed states, and economic collapse in the post World War II world. In this study, historians, economists, and political scientists researched several case studies with the hope of being able to better describe the conditions and causes of global poverty. While the circumstances around each case were specific to that case, we were able to identify a list of items which when many were absent from a country usually signaled poverty and misery. When many of these items were present in a country, it usually indicated a much greater degree of stability and far less poverty. While we do not have time here to discuss all of these factors, I would like to look at a few which relate to this discussion.
A key factor in the lessening of poverty can be seen in how women are treated in a society. Societies where women have greater rights and autonomy generally have far less poverty. Sub-points of women’s rights include reproductive autonomy, physical autonomy, and economic autonomy. Reproductive autonomy indicates that a woman has the right to choose how and when to participate in reproduction. Things which indicate levels of reproductive autonomy include access to birth control, access to abortions, and access to medicine specific to female reproduction. Physical autonomy describes the right of women to control their movements. Indications of this are the ability for women to live outside of a patriarchal home (whether that is a father or husband.) The ability travel at will is also an indicator of this autonomy. Finally, economic autonomy describes a woman’s ability to access jobs, money, and other economic resources. Education, relatively free access to the workplace, and the ability to personally own property are all indicators of economic autonomy. While women’s rights are only one of many factors in identifying poverty, they are clear indicators of it.
Mother Teresa was not an advocate of women’s rights. In nearly all of her public discourse, she spoke out against women’s rights. Mother Teresa was vehemently opposed to abortion and birth control. In being so, she was also against reproductive autonomy for women. Mother Teresa public statements also promoted the “traditional” family and “traditional” family values. Traditional family values describe a home where the woman in subservient to her husband and her traditional role is to be a caretaker for the family. Traditional family values are, at their very best, neutral to physical and economic autonomy for women. More often, they are antagonistic toward physical and economic autonomy for women. Thus, Mother Teresa did not advocate physical and economic autonomy for women. In no cases, did Mother Teresa push an agenda which would support these things. In no cases, did Mother Teresa adopt a position which would made positive changes in the overall culture of poverty that gripped large sections of India and the world. Rather, she was willing to provide palliative care for the ailing but was unwilling to participate in the cure.
It should be noted that Mother Teresa was staunchly supporting the larger Catholic positions on these issues. Outside of that dogma, Mother Teresa may have been very different. However, her efforts were tempered by the fact that she had to curry favor from God and the Pope along with provide merciful care for the sick. In being a devout Catholic, she was unable to participate in efforts which would have granted greater autonomy to women and would have help cure the problem. Her desire to help was largely cultivated by her faith. Ironically, her ability to help was greatly hamstrung by her faith. Thus, no matter what we want to believe about Mother Teresa, we have to understand that she was not the saint that we wish her to be. Given the platform that she was, Mother Teresa had the ability to help cure poverty. Instead, she advocated for policies which continued it.