Hitchens on Ma Teresa

It has come to my attention that this business of ‘Mother’ Teresa’s being a horrible nightmare instead of the tiny little saint she’s cracked up to be is not common knowledge. Well I knew that, but it’s not common knowledge even among the kind of warped, twisted people who read B&W; that I didn’t know. I should have realized though. It’s meme stuff. The phrase ‘Mother Teresa’ is a kind of pop culture synonym for self-sacrificing altruism, and the corrections of that illusion get drowned out as a result. So let’s get to work and spread the counter-meme, shall we? She was a horror.

Christopher Hitchens wrote the book on the subject in 1995. He gives some highlights in this article in 2003 when the then pope was all in a lather to get her canonized while he was still alive.

This returns us to the medieval corruption of the church, which sold indulgences to the rich while preaching hellfire and continence to the poor. MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself…

There’s an interview with Hitchens here that points out the whole reputation drowning out criticism problem.

I didn’t go specifically to Calcutta, in other words, to see Mother Teresa. But when I was there I thought: here is probably not only the greatest name recognition in the second part of the 20th century for an ordinary human being—someone who isn’t in power, so to speak— but also the most fragrant name recognition. Apparently the only name about whom no one had anything but good to say. Now I will have to admit—no I won’t have to admit, I’m proud to admit— that this was enough to make me skeptical to start off with…So partly for the honor of Calcutta, and partly out of my feeling that her actions are being judged by her reputation rather than her reputation by her actions (a common postmodern problem in the image business of course, but amazing in this case), I sort of opened a file on her, kept a brief…Then I noticed another thing. That no matter what she said or did at this time nobody would point it out because she had some kind of hammer lock on my profession. It had been agreed she was a saint and there was to be no argument about it.

That would be bad enough even if she were a saint; given what she actually was, it’s horrifying.

In other words it’s pretty much like the state of indulgences in the Middle Ages. The bulk of humanity is described as a bunch of miserable sinners condemned to everlasting hell unless they’ve got the price of a pardon, which they can purchase at the nearest papacy. It’s no better than that. In fact it’s slightly worse given the advances we think we’ve made in the meantime. I’ve said this repeatedly. But I might as well not have bothered as far as most people are concerned. They simply do not judge her reputation by her actions. They consistently do the reverse and judge her actions by her reputation.

Which is a mistake. Just a plain old vulgar mistake in thinking. Made a great deal more difficult to avoid by the fact that journalists make the same mistake and journalism is how we learn of such reputations in the first place. Journalism really ought to be a great deal more careful and conscientious than it is.

…religious figures are given this sort of special pass on credulity. It’s either consciously or subconsciously assumed that a person of the cloth actually has better morals. There’s precious little evidence of this; there’s a great deal of evidence to the contrary, in fact. But somehow it’s still considered—especially in a country like America which suffers from a sort of mediocre version of multiculturalism—a possibly offensive thing to suggest. Because you’re not attacking a religion; you’re attacking the Catholic community—a rather different proposition. And the idea of offending that is anathema to so many people.

Exactly. Hence the journalistic habit of talking about the doings of the pope as if he were the pope of everyone, which he isn’t.

There’s a spirited review by our friend Peter Fosl here and more from Hitchens here.

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