The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Mother Teresa is still no saint to many of her critics

This post has been updated. It was previously posted in December 2015. 

This Sunday, Mother Teresa will become a saint. The late Roman Catholic missionary who became an international icon for her charitable work will be canonized, the Catholic Church's highest honor, on Sept. 4.

For Mother Teresa’s many fans — most of whom had viewed her canonization as inevitable and perhaps even overdue — the day will no doubt be filled with celebration. However, it will probably also bring new fuel to the difficult and sometimes bitter debate about the merits of Teresa’s charitable work and the nature of her legacy.

The Vatican believes Mother Teresa cured this woman. But was it a miracle?

In India, where Teresa carried out the majority of her work, that legacy was called into question last year, when the head of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sparked outrage by criticizing her intentions.

“It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa’s work had ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity,” RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said at the opening of an orphanage in Rajasthan state in February 2015, the Times of India reported. “In the name of service, religious conversions were made. This was followed by other institutes, too.”

Thousands gather in Vatican City as Pope Francis proclaims Mother Teresa of Calcutta a saint. (Video: Reuters)

Bhagwat’s comments caused a storm among opposition politicians, angered by the implication that a woman who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in India would have had ulterior motives. Congress Party official Rajiv Shukla demanded an apology, and the newly elected Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said Teresa was a “noble soul” and asked RSS to spare her.

The controversy surrounding Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, is far from new. Her saintly reputation was gained for aiding Kolkata's poorest of the poor, yet it was undercut by persistent allegations of misuse of funds, poor medical treatments and religious evangelism in the institutions she founded.

Pope Francis attributes second miracle to Mother Teresa, paving the way to sainthood

In his critique of Teresa, the devoutly Hindu Bhagwat would find an unlikely ally in the work of devoutly atheist Christopher Hitchens. The late British writer became one of the most vocal critics of Teresa in the 1990s, tying his reputation to assailing a woman who was, at the time, an unassailable figure.

In 1994, Hitchens and British Pakistani journalist Tariq Ali wrote an extremely critical documentary on Teresa titled “Hell’s Angel.” You can see it for yourself below.

The documentary, which drew heavily from the account of Aroup Chatterjee, an Indian-born British writer who had worked briefly in one of Teresa’s charitable homes, listed a catalogue of criticisms against her. It found fault with the conditions in the facilities of her Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, which one journalist compared to the photographs she had seen of Nazi Germany’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and Hitchens rallied against what he called the “cult of death and suffering.”

The documentary also argued that Teresa was an “ally of the status quo,” pointing to her relationships with dubious figures all around the world, most notably Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and scandal-hit American financier Charles Keating. “She may or may not comfort the afflicted, but she has never been known to afflict the comfortable,” Hitchens said.

“Hell’s Angel” sparked an international debate, and Hitchens soon followed it up with a pamphlet, unfortunately titled “The Missionary Position,” which repeated and expanded upon his criticisms. As Bruno Maddox put it in a review for the New York Times, Hitchens concluded that Mother Teresa was “less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable source of wretchedness on which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs.”

Hitchens’s critiques of Mother Teresa may come across as polemical, but they were far from the only criticism. British medical journal the Lancet published a critical account of the care in Teresa’s facilities in 1994, and an academic Canadian study from a couple of years ago found fault with “her rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception, and divorce.” Multiple accounts say that Teresa’s nuns would baptize the dying and that she had a reputation for proselytizing. Chatterjee also published his own extremely critical book on Teresa in 2003.

Many who support Teresa dispute these accounts, of course, but the accounts exist and are frequently debated. They do not appear to have delayed or otherwise impeded her path to sainthood, however.

“She built an empire of charity,” the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor of the Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency AsiaNews, told the Associated Press after news of the upcoming canonization broke. “She didn’t have a plan to conquer the world. Her idea was to be obedient to God.”

More from WorldViews

Chart: The world’s most Catholic region is becoming dramatically less so

The dark side of Winston Churchill’s legacy no one should forget

The growing diplomatic importance of Hindi to Narendra Modi’s India