Christopher Hitchens: The Missionary Position

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Hitchens, Christopher. The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (London: Verso, 1995)

Tomorrow would have been Mother Teresa's 100th birthday, a fact that is widely evident in our religion-friendly society. Not only does Time magazine have a special commemorative issue in her honor, the USPS will issue a postage stamp featuring her. Amid the adulation, voices of dissent are nonetheless occasionally evident. With the 1995 publication of Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, iconoclastic writer Christopher Hitchens aimed a book-length broadside at the Catholic nun who had been all but free from critical examination.

From the first sentence, Missionary Position strives to justify its very existence, asking "Who will be so base as to pick on a wizened, shriveled old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and the destitute?" (p. xi, Foreword) The average person will wonder just what is objectionable about Mother Teresa, who has been all but sanctified in the corporate media for her charity work. In the not-quite-100 pages of Missionary Position, Hitchens borrows heavily from his three-part "Hell's Angel" video (parts one, two, and three) in laying out a case against MT not just for her counter-productive crusades against abortion and contraception, but for providing substandard medical care (especially when it comes to pain-relief medication), accepting vast financial donations that are hoarded instead of used for their intended purpose, and associating with an assortment of dictators (Haiti's notorious Duvalier family) cultists (John-Roger) and other crooks who were willing to offer indulgence-like donations to MT's operations. Here is a photo of her with a million-dollar donor:

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In the book, this photo is captioned: "Mother Teresa with Charles Keating, the convicted Savings & Loan swindler from whom she received over a million dollars. In return, she sent a personal plea for Keating's clemency to the trial judge." More devastating than her letter was the reply from a District Attorney:

"Ask yourself what Jesus would do if he were given the fruits of a crime; what Jesus would do if he were in possession of money that had been stolen... [...] I submit that Jesus would promptly and unhesitatingly return the stolen property to its rightful owners. You should do the same. [...] If you contact me I will put you in direct contact with the rightful owners of the property now in your possession." (p. 70, Deputy DA Paul Turley)

Mother Teresa declined to either respond to the letter or to return the stolen money, but her money-hoarding appears to have been a consistent problem. Susan Shields (who was quoted by Hitchens) worked for Mother Teresa for nearly a decade, before becoming disillusioned enough to leave. She wrote in "Mother Teresa's House of Illusions" (Free Inquiry) that "there are many who generously have supported her work because they do not realize how her twisted premises strangle efforts to alleviate misery. Unaware that most of the donations sit unused in her bank accounts, they too are deceived into thinking they are helping the poor." Hitchens addresses this point several times in the text:

Without an audit, it is impossible to say with certainty what becomes of Mother Teresa's hoards of money, but it is possible to say what the true purpose and nature of the order is, and to what end the donations are accepted in the first place. (p. 47)

Nobody has troubled to total the amount of prize money received from governments and quasi-government organizations by the Missionaries of Charity, and nobody has ever asked what became of the funds. It is safe to say, however, that if all the money had been used on one project it would have been possible, say, to give Calcutta the finest teaching hospital in the entire Third World. (p. 63)

Dr Robin Fox wrote in Lancet on 17 September 1994 that "Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Teresa's approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement." (p. 39) Despite "immense quantities of money and material," Hitchens observes that Mother Teresa's Calcutta operation "is as he [Fox] described it because that is how Mother Teresa wishes it to be. The neglect of what is commonly understood as proper medicine or care is not a superficial contradiction. It is the essence of the endeavor, the same essence that is evident in a cheerful sign which has been filmed on the wall of Mother Teresa's morgue. It reads 'I am going to heaven today'." (p. 39) The preference for proselytization over palliative care was endemic under MT's rule. As noted by Susan Shields, this extended to surreptitious religious ceremonies:

"In the homes for the dying, Mother taught the sisters how to secretly baptize those who were dying. [...] The sister was then to pretend she was just cooling the person's forehead with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptizing him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not become known that Mother Teresa's sisters were baptizing Hindus and Moslems." (p. 48)

I was somewhat disappointed with the book's brevity; I wasn't expecting Missionary Position to provide equivalent argumentative rigor to Hitchens' The Trial of Henry Kissinger, but some of the arguments were lacking in depth. Even in its diminutive form, this book drove Bill (Catholic League) Donohue to near apoplexy. In "Hating Mother Teresa," Donohue asks, "Why does Hitchens hate Mother Teresa?" and suggests that "because he is a determined atheist, he cannot come to terms with Mother Teresa's spirituality and the millions who adore her. More than this, it is her Catholicism that drives him mad." Donohue makes much of MT's letter to Charles Keating's judge, but doesn't mention the DA's request that MT return the stolen money. (Also interesting is Donohue's excoriation of Hitchens for allegedly making "cheap ad hominem attacks" when his own critique was filled with such attacks against Hitchens--but ideologically-induced blindness seems to be one of Donohue's strengths.) Among many others, this complaint stands out:

An unrelenting secularist, [Hitchens] cannot comprehend how Mother Teresa can console the terminally ill by saying, "You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you."

That statement would only qualify as consolation if the dying person in question is Christian--a religion that comprises about 2% of Calcutta's population. I suspect that medical care--or at least adequate use of painkillers--would have been far more a consolation for this person, who responded that MT should "please tell him to stop kissing me." Hitchens continued, in a passage that Donohue is assuming his flock won't read:

There are many people in the direst need and pain who have had cause to wish, in their own extremity, that Mother Teresa was less free with her own metaphysical caresses and a little more attentive to actual suffering. (pp. 41-42)

Donohue is also annoyed that the Empire State Building wouldn't add a MT tribute to their lighting schedule. It's nice to see that not everyone complies when Catholic groups issue demands for special treatment for Mother Teresa--although they are free to do so within their own ranks. In 2003, Hitchens wrote in "Mommie Dearest" (Slate) that Mother Teresa's fast-tracked beatification was "the elevation and consecration of extreme dogmatism, blinkered faith, and the cult of a mediocre human personality:"

Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions.

While not specifically addressing Mother Teresa, this paragraph by Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism sums up my attitude toward both the Catholic Church in general and its more notorious apologists:

Whatever humanitarian work [the Church] performs, it's more than counterbalanced by the real and serious harm that Catholic teachings do: teaching medieval, misogynist notions of female inferiority; exacerbating poverty, overpopulation and AIDS by opposing contraception; opposing abortion even for raped children, or when the alternative is the near-certain death of the mother; battling tenaciously against civil rights for gay and lesbian couples; trying to dictate to parishioners how they should vote; trying to stifle life-saving stem-cell research; and last but certainly not least, the conspiracy of silence among the hierarchy to protect and shelter child rapists and abusers worldwide. There are plenty of secular groups that do just as much good for the needy without spreading these poisonous memes.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on August 25, 2010 4:06 PM.

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