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Why is Mother Theresa criticised for not doing things that weren’t her job?

4 September 2016

12:31 PM

4 September 2016

12:31 PM

Mother Theresa has been canonised today; cue for contained rapture on the part of her Missionaries of Charity and supporters in Rome and a rather different kind of satisfaction on the part of her critics, who now have a useful opportunity to air their objections to her work and cult.

It’s hard to think of two groups not so much at odds but at cross purposes. The BBC news reports on the canonisation by the excellent Caroline Wyatt rehearse some of the more familiar criticisms: her hospices lack the best medical equipment and good hygiene; moreover, she took money from dictators. And according to representatives of Hindu nationalist groups, she also unhelpfully projected an image of Calcutta (to use the old designation) as being poverty-ridden and somewhere people die on the streets. Oh, and for good measure, she didn’t tackle ‘the underlying causes of poverty’. And she proselytised among the dying…forced them to convert to Catholicism. Will that do for now?

Alas, Mother T’s most celebrated critic, Christopher Hitchens, is no longer with us, lending elegant prose to the attack – Hell’s Angel, et al. I recall his famous killer documentary, made with Tariq Ali, on Mother T, chiefly for a clip of her holding a baby. She was patently dandling the little thing, but once the footage was speeded up and accompanied by Psycho style throbbing music, it looked like a prima facie case of Shaken Baby syndrome, enacted before our very eyes.

Look, unlike some people I know, I never met the new saint, though I spoke at some length to an Albanian priest who knew her well, in Kosovo. But even without that, it’s possible to see that she’s being criticised for not being what she never set out to be, for not doing things which she never saw as her job.


Mother Theresa had a pretty clear idea of what she was about: it was to give the poorest people, not just decent care, like a dignified death in a bed rather than on the streets, or care and food and shelter, but love. That is to say, it wasn’t just important to feed people; it was important how and why you did it – as if they were Christ himself. It sounds corny, but there you go: that was how she saw it and what she said in her Nobel prize acceptance speech.

The other aspect of her mission was that she wanted a radical kind of equality between her nuns and the people they served: they should be as poor as they were. That, I may say, is one area where I part company with Mother T… just because the poorest people can’t afford fridges, or sanitary towels, I can’t quite see why her nuns couldn’t have had have them, especially when there were American donors desperate to give her hospitals a nice Smeg. But that too is part of the quite specific idea she had of what constituted service. Her sisters, she said, were not social workers. And it’s about as far as you can get from the model of contemporary aid work, characterised by the white four-by-fours in which aid workers drive around the countries they work in, and the uplift they give to the best restaurants in their areas of operation.

Her mission was to treat everyone as if they were Christ. That doesn’t mean that her sisters were, are, medical experts; that her hospices were well equipped hospitals. That wasn’t their main function, though the one aspect of the criticism I find hard to credit is that they were unhygienic, if by that we mean plain dirty. I have a lifelong experience of nuns, and I would bet the sum of my debts that those hospices were clean. So, if you were dying of age and want, you would, I hazard, prefer dying in the care of her Missionaries of Charity than where they found you. But if you have complex medical needs, including for palliative care, you would obviously be better off in a British hospital or hospice. But I am not sure that this was quite the à la carte choice available to the people her nuns care for, though obviously the options are very different now than they were when she began her work.

What she wasn’t was a head of government. She didn’t address the fundamental causes of poverty because she was addressing the symptoms and she did that well. I should probably not want Mother Theresa to be a politician; theirs is a different job, one of which is to identify the structural and social reasons why poverty exists, and to deal with them. Though I take her point that you can deal with all the physical manifestations of poverty and still be left with the debilitating kind you get here, of being unloved and lonely. As I say, she dealt with different problems than politicians and she can hardly be blamed for not changing the world in ways they can, and which she was fundamentally unequipped to do. Pope Benedict addressed precisely this distinction between Christian charity and the political/structural ways of dealing with poverty in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, and for gluttons for punishment, I’ll put a bit of it below.

What Mother Thresa was, was Albanian – her family came from Prizren and moved to Skopje where she was born; later her mother and sister moved to Tirana: the present day demarcations into Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania didn’t apply back then. But by dint of being an Albanian there are some things one can say quite categorically about her. One was that she was respectful of other people’s religions; she would have grown up with Muslim neighours (their primary identification would have been in terms of nationality rather than religion) because back then and to a decent degree now, Albanians were rather good at religious cohabitation. I simply do not buy the notion that she was out to convert Hindus and Muslims to Catholicism; it’s at odds with that culture. The other thing was, she was wholly practical; she just couldn’t bear the sight of poor people dying on the streets and not do something about it. And that too is in part because of her background. In Albanian culture – dispersed through three countries in the Balkans – poverty is a given, but it’s very unusual to see homeless people on the streets, other than gypsies. They’re given a space in outhouses, something to eat in people’s homes. And this small, highly determined Albanian woman was simply not prepared to tolerate the spectacle of unrelieved poverty under her nose.

And because of that practicality, her sense that the great priority was to give hungry people something to eat, and homeless people somewhere to sleep, of course she took money from God knows where. One of the funniest quotes attributed to her is: ‘Give me your money and I will make it clean’. Of course, purists can say that she should have remonstrated with her dodgy would-be donors, or turned down their money because of how it is made (organised crime in the case of Kosovo right now). She, rather, preferred that it should be spent on the poor than in the usual quarters – in high end London property, for instance. And that seems fair enough to me. She wasn’t bloody Interpol.

Certainly, Mother Theresa only addressed a part of the problem of poverty: the immediate symptoms, but that was more than her critics did (how many people have I, or Christopher Hitchens, RIP, rescued from dying on the streets? None.) You can take issue with her views, say on contraception or her insistence that married rather than single couples should adopt orphans. You can deplore the fact that she didn’t try to alter the structures of society. You can also take issue with her silence about some of her donors’ palpably criminal backgrounds. That’s fine. She wasn’t trying to do anything except treat people at the margins of society as if they were Christ himself. It’s both a small thing, and a very big thing. She was a saint all right, miracles or no miracles.

PS Pope Benedict’s entire, very useful, encyclical, Deus Caritas Est is a useful account of Christian charity and its limits, especially section 28 and 29, Justice and Charity. One quote may give the flavour of it:

‘…the formation of just structures is not directly the duty of the Church, but belongs to the world of politics, the sphere of the autonomous use of reason. The Church has an indirect duty here, in that she is called to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run…The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity… Even if specific expressions of ecclesial charity can never be confused with the activity of the State, it still remains true that charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as “social charity”…

‘…The Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organised activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always, need, love.’


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