Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mother Teresa Was No Saint

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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog…
Unfortunately, you make a number of bold and yet curiously unsubstantiated claims, to which I extend invitations to you to provide proof that supports your statements.
Let’s review:
1. “…CONTRIBUTED TO THE MISERY OF THOSE FOR WHOM SHE CARED”: a purely subjective statement and a derogatory accusation for which you offer no evidence. You appear to base you claim on your subjective opinion that she could have done more. It is my opinion (and most likely, other would agree) that unless your own charitable works match hers, you are in no position to criticize.
2. DEFINITION OF “SAINT”: You state that because (in your opinion) MT did not fight against the causes of poverty, she “should not be considered saintly by any definition at all.” For this to be an accurate statement, there would have to be (at the very least) a definition of saint somewhere that explicitly requires fighting the causes of poverty is the key criteria for sainthood. Since “saint” is at its heart a Catholic term, you may wish to start with a Catholic dictionary. (Hint: there is no such definition).
3. “…ADVOCATE FOR AND AGAINST ISSUES WHICH…CONTINUE AND EXACERBATE HUMAN SUFFERING…” You fail to provide objective substantiation for your claim by offering any real data, and you’re obviously slanting the information by not listing the other roots of poverty (a top ten list with a quantitative weighting would have been a start). I’m not disputing the importance of women’s rights in fighting poverty –I’m disputing the way the information has been presented (or omitted to fit your case).

And about your selective commentary on Catholic Doctrine:

OPPOSITION TO BIRTH CONTROL & ABORTION: The Catholic opposition to birth control also applies to men, and its pro-life stance not only prohibits abortion, but capital punishment as well. As such, these positions (if correctly understood and honestly approached) cannot be interpreted as a conspiracy against the rights of women.

Your lack of substantiation for your claims and selective call-outs of Catholic doctrine make it all-too-obvious that you have an ax to grind against the Catholic Church. However, your personal grudge does a disservice to your readers.

Regardless of whether you agree with MT’s canonization, if you’re going to criticize and make derogatory accusations, you should provide bullet-proof substantiation so your readers can weigh the facts and judge for themselves. Otherwise, ironically, it is YOU who is failing to use your platform to be an advocate to end to human misery and in propagating misinformation, ultimately contribute to it.

NOVA Rob said...

I apologize for the necro-post but, frankly, the internet is forever so I don't really believe anything is "necro." I found this topic today, 7 months after it was written, but I still think my comments will be useful to the next person who reads them.

1. She was staunchly against birth-control. Birth control is something which helps reduce human reproduction. Having a child can cause misery, that is why birth control is used - to reduce misery. Thus, by advocating against birth-control MT was contributing to the misery of those she was helping. While it is true that men can use birth control, the reality is that women can take a pill and CONTROL whether or not they get pregnant. See the difference, there? In one situation she is free to make her own decision, in the other she must rely on someone else.

Another example of 1. is divorce, something she was against. Being in an unhappy marriage can make you miserable. Being unable to escape said marriage can make you miserable. By advocating that divorce be illegal in India, MT contributed to the misery of those for whom she cared.

2. Accurate but I actually remember nodding emphatically as I read that part. She wasn't a saint, by my definition either. Unless you'd like to put forth a definition for what a saint is you've, essentially, left the definition up to the reader. If you disagree, you owe an explanation as to what, exactly, a saint is. Otherwise we get it and you don't.

Funny how Catholics use the word but don't define it, huh?

You're trying to argue that birth control, since it applies to men, is not a way to control women. What you omit is that while men and women are equal, they are not equivalent and birth control has a greater impact on women (the people who hurt for 9 months) than it does on men.

Further, in countries where women are less than men, men are often free to divorce, leaving a woman with a brood of children and no one to take care of them.

I find it ironic that those who would hold MT up as a Saint don't even bother to define the term, nor to admit the possibility that she did both good and evil in her life. And even more, she KNEW she was doing both good and evil because she'd have to be mentally retarded to not understand that having no rights, sucks.

Christopher Hitchens did a book called The Missionary Position. Read it.

Also see Colette Livermore's book Hope Endures: Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning. Colette used to work with MT but left because of some of her practices.

Miranda. said...

This is the third time I've come across your post, I find it very interesting. It covers most of how I feel. Thank you for the good read!

Sandy Waters said...

Also, Mother Teresa had great doubts, sufferings, and depression. She did not have peace in her heart--a sign that she really was a saint.
I think that by operating under the guise fo the Catholic Church, she could be compared as in an "unhappy, miserable" marriage. She could not divorse--and was trapped. So I know you (Raving Lunatic) are right about the rights of women.
She had deep misgivings about her faith, and felt a darkness deep inside.
I was raised a Catholic, and lived in an abusive marriage--and now free of both.
No, Mother Teresa was not a saint--a great and good woman--but not a saint because she did not embrace life, and feel the peace and happiness of the miracle of life on this earth.
Perhaps she helped and loved the sick and miserable, but she was incapable of bestowing peace through her spirit.
As for you being a "Raving Lunatic," perhaps you are sane person in a lunatic world?

Christie said...

I agree with all the points in the first comment that was made anonymously. My main problem with this post is that you are stating that Mo. Teresa could have done more.

I think you are in no position to say that unless you can say that unless you are doing what she has done and STILL HAVE THE TIME to work socially and do what you are suggesting.

Everyone has limits even Mo. Teresa.

Always remember that it is easier to criticize people when you are not in their position.

Renee Orlandi said...

the point about people suffering depression can't be saints is quite insulting and hurtful to those who suffer depression. That disease does by it's nature make you feel awful all the time pretty much and it isn't under your control. The fact that she continued on even when feeling such a deep lack of faith and emptiness is a testament to her strength, not a weakness that would deny her sainthood. For myself, I don't know if she is a saint. But I don't subscribe to catholic views on these matters. Plenty of people live and die as saints, and no one ever knows it. Many who suffer depression are among them.

Renee Orlandi said...

the point about people suffering depression can't be saints is quite insulting and hurtful to those who suffer depression. That disease does by it's nature make you feel awful all the time pretty much and it isn't under your control. The fact that she continued on even when feeling such a deep lack of faith and emptiness is a testament to her strength, not a weakness that would deny her sainthood. For myself, I don't know if she is a saint. But I don't subscribe to catholic views on these matters. Plenty of people live and die as saints, and no one ever knows it. Many who suffer depression are among them.