Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shattering The Myth Of Mother Theresa.


In all the universe of religious experience, few figures are so beloved as the Catholic nun known to the world as Mother Teresa. The official biography holds that she selflessly devoted her life to ministering to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, suffering through poverty and deprivation nearly as great as that of her patients without complaint, and asking no reward except the knowledge of doing God's will. She was a beloved figure to millions and a trusted counselor to powerful leaders and celebrities worldwide, was showered with rewards and honors during her life, and attracted huge crowds as she lay in state after her death.

As I said, that is the official story. But atheists and freethinkers, more than any other group, should recognize how pious words are so often used to conceal ugly acts of inhumanity, and to gloss over the disreputable elements of stories presented as inspirational and noble. Teresa's story is perhaps the supreme example of this. In this post, I intend to look past all the uncritical praise and point out some unsettling facts about her life and her mission that devotional biographies tend to avoid.

Teresa was a friend to vicious dictators, criminals and con men.

As Christopher Hitchens documents in his book The Missionary Position, Teresa was acquainted with a startling number of unsavory characters. Two such were the Duvaliers, Jean-Claude and Michelle, who ruled Haiti as a police state from 1971 until they were overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986. (They looted the country of most of its national treasury when they fled.) Teresa visited them in person in 1981 and praised the Duvaliers and their regime as "friends" of the poor, and her testimony on their behalf was shown on state-owned television for weeks.

Bizarrely, she also visited the grave of brutal Communist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1990, laying a wreath of flowers on the tomb of a man who had viciously suppressed religion in Teresa's native Albania. The list also includes the Nicaraguan contras, a Catholic terrorist group who unleashed death squads on the civilian population in their bid to conquer the country.

Teresa was also a friend to Charles Keating, a conservative Catholic fundamentalist who served on an anti-pornography commission under President Nixon. Keating would later become infamous for his role in the Savings & Loan scandal, where he was convicted of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy for his involvement in a scam where customers were deceived into buying worthless junk bonds, resulting in many of them losing their life savings.

Keating had donated $1.25 million to Mother Teresa in the 1980s, and as he was awaiting sentencing, she wrote a letter to the court on his behalf asking for clemency.

The prosecuting attorney, Paul Turley, wrote a reply to this letter. In his reply, he explained what Keating had been convicted of, and observed, "No church... should allow itself to be used as salve for the conscience of the criminal." He also pointed out that the $1.25 million Keating had donated to her was stolen money, and suggested that the appropriate course of action would be for her to give it back: "You have been given money by Mr. Keating that he has been convicted of stealing by fraud. Do not permit him the 'indulgence' he desires. Do not keep the money. Return it to those who worked for it and earned it!"

Teresa never replied to this letter.

Teresa cloaked a reactionary right-wing political outlook in false protestations of innocence and naivete. Although she insisted on several occasions that her mission was resolutely apolitical, Teresa's true interests were anything but. Like the right-wing conservative Catholic she was, she traveled the world to lobby against the legality of abortion, contraception, and even divorce.

When the International Health Organization honored Teresa in 1989, she spoke at length against abortion and contraception and called AIDS a "just retribution for improper sexual conduct". Similarly, when Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she proclaimed in her acceptance speech that abortion was the greatest threat to peace in the world. (Hitchens cuttingly notes that when the award was announced, "few people had the poor taste to ask what she had ever done, or even claimed to do, for the cause of peace").

 In 1992, she appeared at an open-air Mass in Ireland and said, "Let us promise Our Lady who loves Ireland so much that we will never allow in this country a single abortion. And no contraceptives." She also campaigned in Ireland to oppose the successful 1995 referendum to legalize divorce in that predominantly Catholic more