One of the most controversial stories covered on HuffPost and HuffPost Live this week is this new study by Canadian academics on Mother Teresa, claiming that she was "anything but a saint."
This isn't new: Mother Teresa always had her critics, the fiercest of all being the late Christopher Hitchens who went as far as making a documentary about her called "Hell's Angel." I know that all the great people of this world have seen their name dragged through the mud at some point in their life. And I'm sure that Mother Teresa would have been the last one bothered by these criticisms, because she had far more important things to take care of. But I still had to write this post, if only for the fact that for one bad thing published about Mother Teresa on HuffPost, there would also be a good one.
I was baptized, but I consider myself a Catholic by culture and not by belief. Therefore I do not admire and defend Mother Teresa because I think she is a saint, but because I believe she is an incredible human being. On a more practical note, I have volunteered twice with the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, in Calcutta and in Cuzco. I have therefore been able to experience first hand the work these women do as they follow the example set by Mother Teresa.
Firstly I'd just like to state what might be a simplistic and yet fundamental reason why I find criticism of Mother Teresa extremely hard to hear: who are we, sitting in our office or in the comfort of our home in our cocoon-like world, hiding behind books and computers, to criticize a woman who abandoned everything to spend her life and bring attention to the forgotten of this world? The day someone will lead a similar life to Mother Teresa's and still criticize the way she acted, then I will truly respect that opinion. But unsurprisingly that day still hasn't come.
In order to keep succinct on a topic that tends to create endless controversy, I will just address two of the most recurring criticisms of Mother Teresa which both the Canadian study and Hitchens shared: the way she cared for the sick; and her opposition to abortion and contraception. I will say why, in my modest opinion and experience, they are wrong or missing the point entirely.
The way she cared for the sick
The sick and dying do not receive appropriate care, despite the amount of money donated to the charity each year: this has been an ongoing criticism of the Missionaries of Charity. One simple answer: yes they do care for them appropriately and even if they didn't, to the risk of sounding extremely harsh to some, it's better than dying on the street.
First thing I was told by the sisters in Calcutta was that if we didn't agree with the way they proceeded, they understood it and respected it but then we didn't have to help. And they were completely right. After all, we were only there for a short period of time when it was their everyday life. They couldn't possibly adapt to everything that volunteers would complain about, using big words like "human decency" or "truly helping the poor," when in a few weeks they would be running away from the dirt of Calcutta back to the comfort of their home.
Yes it's true, Mother Teresa was a Catholic and therefore believed that dying wasn't such a bad thing. Although I do think dying is pretty bad because I don't believe there's such a thing as afterlife, I do not think her attitude was wrong given the context she was working in.
Most of the people the sisters care for are physically and mentally handicapped, or very old and very sick. They live in places of the world where it's hard enough to survive when you are young and healthy. I have seen the sisters do everything they can to make these people's lives better and I have seen their heart ripped apart when a little girl died one morning in Cuzco, even though they are so strongly convinced that being with God is so much better than being on this planet. Yes, maybe if that little girl had gone to an expensive hospital in America she would have lived longer. But the fact is that she couldn't go to that hospital, and ultimately she had a far better life than the one she would have had had the sisters left her in the garbage they found her in.
Her opposition to abortion and contraception
Yes, Mother Teresa was adamant and very vocal about this. Although I usually scream loud and clear when I hear any politician questioning what I consider two fundamental rights, I do not hold it against Mother Teresa. In fact, I understand her and see it as a necessary price to pay for all the good she has done to this world. Her fundamental belief is that everyone, absolutely everyone in this world deserves love and care. She cherished every single life on this planet more than anyone ever did, and that's why she created the Missionaries of Charity: to help and welcome the poorest of the poor, those whose life had not been judged worthy enough to live and who had been rejected by everything and everyone.
Without that belief that every life is worth it and therefore that abortion and contraception are wrong, she would not have created such a powerful organization, nor would she had the strength to carry it on her shoulder all her life. I am not saying that in order to do good in the world one necessarily has to be against abortion, that would be stupid; I'm just saying that her belief in the sanctity of life was her main driving force to do the good that she did, and that looking back at her work I do not believe that, in the grand scheme of things, she can be criticized for it.
The Canadian academics conclude that, based on many books they read but zero visit to the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa was a lot more helpful to the Catholic Church than to the people she said she was helping, and that a lot more should be taken into account before the Vatican decides to make her a saint (she's on the fast track to become one.)
I mean, come on! What do we need to be a saint? Who even really believe in miracles? Mother Teresa created 517 missions in 100 countries, helped hundreds of thousands of people, and inspired generations of volunteers all over the world: to me that's a far bigger miracle than the one the Church credits her with (that she cured a woman who was suffering from intense abdominal pain)!
So to all the Mother Teresa haters: if you don't like her, that's your right and I respect it. But please, do not waste all this time writing studies or articles on her that have no other value than being controversial enough to be published. Pick your battles. Surely there are a lot worse people than her in this world who deserve your energy! And if Mother Teresa did such a bad job helping others, why not save that time spent criticizing her to instead try to make a difference in this world?