The West’s big lie about Mother Teresa

This article was originally published in Salon, and can be found here

Reused needles, poorly trained staff and expired medications. The picture Hemley Gonzalez describes to me is not one often associated with adjectives such as “saintly” in the medical profession. Yet as he discusses his experience volunteering at facilities run by Missionaries of Charity, the organisation Mother Teresa founded, it becomes increasingly apparent that few of his anecdotes correlate with the reputation she enjoys. “I was shocked to discover the horrifically negligent manner in which the charity operates,” he recalls.

His story is not atypical. Writing in the New Internationalist magazine about her experience working at Missionaries of Charity’s headquarters in Kolkata, another volunteer urged that the organisation be “finally held accountable for its actions of abuse and neglect”. Similar concerns were raised in a 1994 Channel Four documentary that featured the story of a 15-year-old patient who had been admitted with a “relatively simple kidney complaint”. His condition had deteriorated soon after the facility had refused to transfer him to a local hospital to undergo surgery.

Today, Gonzalez runs an online campaign called Stop Missionaries of charity. He hopes to “educate unsuspecting donors” about how their donations are spent on what he regards to be “a systematic human rights violation”. Aroup Chatterjee shares similar feelings. Born in Kolkata and now a doctor in the UK, he was inspired to write a book about Teresa’s legacy. It describes detailed accounts of her patients being denied visitors, refused painkillers and forced to shave their heads. “If people knew what she was actually like, they would find her repugnant,” he tells me, clearly frustrated by the manner in which the media have reported news that she is to be canonised later this year.

Criticism of Mother Teresa’s mission has also come from the medical profession. Dr Robin Fox, former editor of the medical journal The Lancet, described the Missionaries of Charity facilities as “haphazard” as early as 1994, recounting how he witnessed a young man with malaria be treated with only ineffective antibiotics and paracetamol. “Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Theresa’s approach” he wrote in an article for the journal.

These claims are in such contradiction with the Western narrative of Mother Teresa – a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize as well as a number of other accolades – that it’s hard to respond to them with anything other than disbelief. Having received hundreds of millions of pounds in donations, there are seemingly few excuses for such poor medical care aside from either recklessness or malicious intent. Yet either of these accusations would be met with fervent denial from even the staunchest of secularists. How then, has somebody with such a troubled legacy enjoyed almost universal adoration from the world’s media?

Much of the reason is undoubtedly related to the fact that Mother Teresa’s order does not perceive these examples to be failings. Speaking in 1997, she remarked that “the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people,” describing how it was “very beautiful for the poor to share [their suffering] with the passion of Christ”. For Mother Teresa, poverty and sickness were gifts that provided the opportunity to develop one’s connection with God. Her mission was not so much to alleviate suffering but to ensure it happened within a framework of religious belief. Indeed, by her own admission she was motivated by a desire to fulfil her own religious convictions rather than altruistic concern for the world’s poor. “There is always the danger that we may become only social workers… our works are only an expression of our love for Christ,” she told a BBC journalist in 1969. This attitude is manifestly disparate from the utilitarian principles by which humanitarian efforts are ordinarily judged.

Yet this reality, of Mother Teresa as a missionary first and an altruist second, is not the image that has taken precedence in the West. She won the Nobel Prize not for her religious convictions but “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty”. Reports from volunteers, journalistic investigations and academic research that decries her “glorification of suffering instead of relieving it” has had little impact on her glowing reputation. This remains as true within secular communities as religious ones, with pollsters consistently reporting that Westerners consider her one of the most admired figures of the 20th century.

The extent to which Mother Teresa is considered a humanitarian hero is a significant victory for the Catholic Church, which co-ordinated a high-profile campaign to have her “fast-tracked” to sainthood. However, in many ways it is no surprise that she remains so popular among Westerners. She presented a narrative – of a European nun going to help the world’s poor – that acted to both resolve the internal guilt of wealthy churchgoers while also presenting their religion as a relevant, modern force for good. Meanwhile, her conceptualisation of suffering as a positive experience provided rebuttal to those who criticised the West’s repeated failings to inspire tangible action on global inequality.

Speaking on world tours, her fatalistic attitude toward poverty, combined with an insistence on remaining “apolitical,” defined her disinterest in confronting the structural causes of destitution. She presented to the West a perfect role model: a do-gooder who didn’t threaten to challenge the status-quo. In the words of Kolkata-born journalist Mihir Bose, “She’s part of the western agenda, it makes the West feel better; ‘this is one of us, once again rescuing the third world’”.

The rebranding of Mother Teresa’s religious mission as a humanitarian effort was also convenient financially. Despite comprehensive accounts never having been published, researchers estimate that Missionaries of Charity was receiving up to C$100 (£48) million in annual donations by the end of Mother Teresa’s life. A 1991 investigation by the German news magazine Stern found that only seven per cent of this money was being used for charitable activity.

The money that was spent was spread incredibly thinly – across 610 missions in 123 countries – a sign that the quality of care was severely compromised by Mother Teresa’s desire to disseminate her religious agenda as widely as possible. Reports that nuns were taught to conduct “secret baptisms” on Hindu and Muslim patients only further suggest that her order’s interventions were at times actively detrimental as well as being a distraction from genuine humanitarian efforts.

In pioneering Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa adopted the role of a medical provider. As any doctor or nurse will testify, this role imparts certain responsibilities; to act only within your capabilities, to respect a patient’s best interests and to not impose your personal, religious or political beliefs on patient care. On all of these counts, Mother Teresa failed. Judged by any metric of medical standards, it is difficult to remember her legacy as anything other than an inefficient, sanctimonious and wholly ideological franchise.

Teresa of Kolkata should by all means be remembered as an extremely successful evangelist. But to claim she is a champion of altruism, medicine or humanitarianism would be to fundamentally misunderstand her mission.

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