Mother Teresa was canonized today, September 4. Officially she is now St. Teresa of Calcutta,* but I suspect she will always retain the name she was known by in her lifetime, Mother Teresa. This sometimes happens -- a few Catholic saints are known by their non-saint names, such as Father Damien, Padre Pio, John-Paul II. So I will call her Mother Teresa, or MT, and I don't think anyone will take offense. So much for names.
Mother Teresa is the most acclaimed religious figure of our time. While most Catholics accept her sainthood without question, there are a few people who have voiced doubts. Was she really as great as people say she was?
Perhaps it is fitting that a woman Father James Martin calls “the saint of doubters” inspires doubt in a few people. I sympathize. Like a lot of people, when acclaim reaches near-unanimity, the contrarian in me sees a sheep stampede. Is she as great as she is cracked up to be? Let's look at a few of the criticisms.
One criticism of Teresa was that she collected millions of dollars for her cause, but has very little to show for it. Almost all the money she collected she turned around and gave to the Vatican. When she started her ministry, all she had was a small building in Calcutta that she used to deliver care to the dying. A hospice. By the time she died, she barely had anything more than that.
She ran a hospice, but from what I can gather, it was not a perfect one. Dying patients were taken care of by nuns who had little or no medical training. There were stories of re-used needles, of people suffering from conditions that might have been better managed in a hospital. Some have asked why, given MTs resources and the amount of money she collected, couldn’t she have built a real medical facility and practiced a bit of real medicine? Wouldn't that be a better use of the cash than turning it obediently over to the Pope?
Being a physician, I can’t fully dismiss this criticism. But I don’t see that I need to. MT was not perfect. Saints are not perfect. On the contrary, Church history is littered with stories of saints doing unsavory things. It is probably true that if you took all the marvelous things saints did and wrote them in one book, and all the bad things they did and wrote it in another, the books would be about the same size.
Sainthood does not mean perfection. It never did. God is perfect. The rest of us struggle. What we are supposed to get from the lives of the saints is not that they are perfect, but that the struggled and sinned just as we did. They just did a better job of struggling.
It can be a hard thing to embrace. But we have to remember that most saints lived before the media age. We don’t have pictures of St. Paul, or video of St. Thomas Aquinas giving a homily. Mother Teresa’s life is well-documented, and that makes her imperfections more clear. Although I seldom would presume to speak for MT, in this case I will. She almost certainly would say, “Look at my imperfections! Learn from them!” She would be fine with her imperfections known as long as they helped another person towards God.
In all likelihood, she did not build a Mayo Clinic because she did not think that medical technology was the path to heaven. She was not a doctor, and did not want to be one. What she wanted was to show compassion for the suffering, and that is what she did. India had hospitals, then as now, and it had doctors, then as now. I know many doctors who were trained in India. There is nothing deficient about Indian medicine. They may lack our money, but they do not lack knowledge and sophistication.
MT wanted to provide what she thought medicine did not — compassion. She thought that the goal of living was to get to heaven. She did not think this world was an end of itself. That is to say, she did not think humans should be striving to make earth a heaven. She was a knowledgeable Catholic, and knew the teaching of Original Sin, that humans are all flawed, and that we are all born into a sinful world and will all sin eventually if given the chance. She thought that trying to perfect the world is a task bound for failure. We cannot perfect ourselves.
Given this, MT thought that the goal of life on earth was to spread love and compassion, nothing more. I don’t think she objected to doctors or thought what they were doing was evil, but she did think that love and compassion were more important than curing. Her hospice was set up that way. It delivered love and compassion first, medical care second.
One can argue with this way of running a hospice. As a doctor I would not run a hospice quite that way. But that does not mean what she was doing was wrong. Her hospice was not a prison. People could go to the hospital if they wanted to. But they chose MT because they preferred to die in love than live in indifference. In that sense, MT was holding the world to a harsh standard. What does it mean that a person would rather be loved than cured? This question has never, to my knowledge, been completely addressed in the medical profession. We just plow on with our new technology and techniques, and fail again and again to wonder if we are leaving humanity behind.
Mother Teresa insisted that we never leave humanity behind. Or God. Her insistence stands as the same challenge it did in her lifetime. Build a Mayo Clinic? Sure. But will the gleaming new building be a monument to loving kindness, or to human ambition? MT had her answer. Not in words, but as usual, in her actions.
I will be the first to say that her devotion to low-tech medicine was a fault. But again, saints are not perfect. She provided love for the dying, and that has to overshadow her shortcomings as a medical administrator. Let’s remember that we all have to die someday. No doctor ever saved a man’s life — death can only be postponed. MT would say there is no need to postpone death if you are prepared for it.
This is a very difficult challenge to Western values, especially Western medical ethics. And we are not meeting it on its own terms. We in the West have an idea what heroism is, and it usually involves social change and overcoming barriers or saving fellow soldiers or landing a plane safely in the Hudson river. These may all be examples of heroism, but is this really all it is to be a hero?
Isn’t being a hero loving other people? Isn’t it human concern, basic and quiet, and not necessarily an act that will turn the world on its ear? People can criticize MT or any saint, but MT did not ask to be world famous. A few critics, most notably Christopher Hitchens, considered her a self-serving media star, a charge that is ridiculous. If I wanted to be a global celebrity, there are many ways I might go about it, but none of them involve wandering the slums of India, looking for dying people to take care of.
There is a jealously in accusing her of seeking celebrity, an anger that she got so famous by being so small, which flies in the face of almost everyone else, who seek fame by becoming larger and larger. No wonder such people distrust her -- she short-circuited the entire business of becoming a world leader.
If she had never been world famous, she would have toiled out her entire life in Calcutta, doing what she was famous for anyway. And God might have opened the doors of heaven to her at her death, as He does for many unknowns, and she would have been a saint nonetheless, except we wouldn’t have known it.
If there is a testimony to her greatness, it is this: She probably would have been exactly the same woman, Nobel Prize or not. Fame or not. She was devoted to compassion, your approval and my approval not needed, and whether we approved of her methods or not didn’t matter either. She wanted to please God and save the souls (not the lives) of her patients. She did that, no matter what we think.
Mother Teresa has also been criticized for her wholehearted support of the Catholic Church and the papacy, which is sometimes seen as a male-dominated organization. She was a simple woman who lived in a time when women’s liberation was in full swing. Although she was probably the most revered Catholic of her time, she submitted to the Church in every way. She was never able to say Mass, or even preach a homily. She remained either silent or completely supportive of the Papal position on many women's rights issues of her day, including birth control, divorce, and the role of women in the Church.
Many would argue, what kind of woman leader submits herself completely to a male hierarchy? Didn’t she owe the women in the world more than silence and complicity?
This is not a question I can completely answer. Mother Teresa would have to answer that question herself, but on that subject she was characteristically silent. She was not the kind of person to challenge sacred authority.
This can be discouraging, but it is worth remembering that after her death a series of her letters was published, under the title “Come Be My Light,” in which it was revealed that Teresa profoundly struggled with what theologians sometimes call “spiritual dryness,” or the feeling that God is absent. And while she struggled with this mightily, she remained unwavering in her public commitment to the Church. Some have even argued that this meant she was a fraud, a secret atheist who enjoyed her celebrity and played it for all it was worth.
Poppycock. Mother Theresa was devoted to her work. One must ask — how do you judge someone, by their words or by their actions? Clearly actions tell more about what is in the heart than words. We can all think the right things, and usually do, but acting on our convictions is much more difficult, and much less common. We can be distracted by the day-to-day anxieties in her letters, or we can look at her almost 90 years of devotion to her Church and weigh that more heavily. An easy choice.
The truth about her spiritual struggles is that she believed in God, but for long stretches she didn’t “feel” God’s presence. She said so, quite literally, several times in her letters. She didn't say God didn't exist, she said she did not feel His presence. This is not the same thing. Floating in water, I can say that I don't feel the force of gravity. This cannot be taken to mean I am denying gravity. When MT said she didn't feel God's presence, she meant precisely that. She didn't feel Him there, but that didn't mean she didn't believe He was there. To ignore this distinction is to ignore everything that she ever said, and more importantly, everything she ever did, her life's work. Which one can do. But then one is taking issue with an imaginary Teresa, not the real one.
But back to the letters: The letters tell us something else interesting about Mother Teresa. Her inner spiritual life was very different from her public persona. We tend to forget that about famous people. We tend to forget that about practically everyone. What goes on inside people is not necessarily what we think is going on. So how can we know or judge what Mother thought about the Church? Can we really know that she had no qualms, ever, about the role of women in it? Not really. To say that we do is to be unjust to her. We know she supported the Church wholeheartedly. But that does not mean there was no nuance in her thinking.
Sometimes when I think of MT and her fidelity to the Church I think about Muslim women and the burqa. There are many Muslim women who would not wear a headscarf if given the choice. They are forced by circumstance to do so. But there are many who wear because they want to, it out of reverence to God. As a Westerner I have some problems with that, as many Westerners do, but I need to hold my tongue.
Why is it that when a woman stands up to the limitations of society, when she bucks the system and fights back against sexism, we see her as a hero, but when she decides, completely of her own volition, to conform to a religious or social requirement (by wearing a burqa or staying at home with the kids), we see this as weakness? It isn’t fair. Part of the outcome of social freedom is that some people will choose traditional roles for themselves. This is no more or less an act of feminism than any other, provided the woman does so freely.
This applies to MT as well. She chose to adopt a very traditional role in the Church. That she did so freely is beyond question. She moved thousands of miles from her birthplace in Albania to serve as a nun, leaving her family life and traditions behind. She moved to India and started her religious order all alone, her own choice, and did so despite some resistance from her bishop. There is no question she chose to be what she was. In that sense, she is as much a feminist as anyone ever was. We have to honor her decision, and set aside our expectations of what a feminist is or should be. She chose her life and did so with an informed and free conscience. Our right to say she was not the feminist leader she ought to have been is extremely limited here. She chose her burqa. Which in her case, was a nun's habit.
* The official spelling now Kolkata, which was changed in 2001 by the city to closer approximate the Bengali language. Since Teresa died in 1997 and was known her entire life as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Catholic Church has retained the old spelling when attached to Teresa. Seems reasonable to me.