The Vatican announced Friday that Pope Francis will be making Mother Teresa a saint in 2016, after officially recognizing her second miracle, which is required for canonization, according to the BBC. As a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Roman Catholic nun renowned for her work caring for the sick and poor in the slums of Calcutta, India, Mother Teresa probably seems to most people like an easy choice for saint status. But, look a little deeper into Mother Teresa’s work and beliefs, and things get a little murky, at least in my mind.
Former Pope John Paul II began Mother Teresa's process of beatification not long after her death in 1997. On the surface, it’s easy to see why: Mother Teresa has long been considered the personification of kindness and selfless service to others. She also left behind a legacy that includes a charity which currently operates almost 20 homes for the sick and needy, as well as schools and hospices.
She's also a pop culture icon, to some extent: people refer to someone who is always doing good as "a Mother Teresa" or often ask what Mother Teresa would do. But by glorifying her and canonizing her, supporters and the Church overlook or condone her fundamentalist beliefs and some very questionable choices. Here are four solid reasons why it's problematic that Mother Teresa is being granted something as high as saint status.
Her Religious Beliefs Were Extremely Strict, To The Detriment Of Others
Although there’s no question that Mother Teresa’s work was focused on providing care for those in need, it encountered lots of reasonable criticism. As a nun, her practices were naturally inspired by her religious beliefs, but many have wondered if the same strict beliefs actually stood in the way of her compassion for others.
According to the Washington Post, Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said in February that religious conversion, not service to others, was really the primary motive behind Mother Teresa’s work. The late British writer, Christopher Hitchens, was even more critical. In a 2003 essay for Slate he stated that “she was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud":
Her position was ultra-reactionary and fundamentalist even in orthodox Catholic terms. Believers are indeed enjoined to abhor and eschew abortion, but they are not required to affirm that abortion is the greatest destroyer of peace, [as she did]. Believers are likewise enjoined to abhor and eschew divorce, but they are not required to insist that a ban on divorce and remarriage be a part of the state constitution, as [she] demanded in a referendum in Ireland.
But abortion and divorce weren’t the only issues Mother Teresa stood against. She also didn't believe in single or divorced people having children. According to a report by the Associated Press, Mother Teresa’s charity closed its adoption centers in India in the wake of new laws allowing unmarried and/or divorced people to adopt, as it went against Catholic doctrine.
Then again, Mother Teresa probably wouldn’t have argued with any of these criticisms — she was very upfront about her strict and unwavering belief system, which many people might be surprised to hear. The Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center shared the following quote on their website, from one of Mother Teresa’s public speeches:
[If families] pray together they will stay together and if they stay together they will love one another, they’ll have time for each other...Abortion has been the greatest destroyer of the family life. By destroying the child they are destroying the very life of the family. That is why we need to pray to Our Lady to help us to go in search of the child and bring the child back home, for it’s the child that unites the family.
Of course, Mother Teresa and the nuns who have followed her are entitled to adhere to the beliefs of their faith and make decisions accordingly. But it's also worth recognizing that the popular notion that Mother Teresa's example of care was unconditional wasn't actually the case.
The Care She Provided May Not Have Been That Great
Hitchens argued that her narrow view of religion extended even further to affect the kind of care she provided, specifically choosing to allow for the continuation of unnecessary suffering because she believed it brought people closer to God:
[Mother Teresa] 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...The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been...[and yet] she preferred California clinics when she [needed hospice care].
And interestingly, Mother Teresa didn’t disagree here either: “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ's Passion," she said, according to Hutchens. "The world gains much from their suffering,"
Researchers Serge Larivée and Genevieve Chenard of the University of Montreal found that most of the people coming to Mother Teresa’s missions hoped for cures or at least treatment, and yet, that’s not at all what they received. According to a press release from the university:
At the time of her death, Mother Teresa had opened 517 missions welcoming the poor and sick in more than 100 countries. The missions have been described as "homes for the dying" by doctors visiting several of these establishments in Calcutta...The doctors observed a significant lack of hygiene, even unfit conditions, as well as a shortage of actual care, inadequate food, and no painkillers.
Given that description, I think I would have preferred to receive palliative care in a private, American clinic they way she did, too.
She Allegedly Misused (And Even Hid) Large Sums Of Money
The lack of quality care Mother Teresa provided wasn’t an issue of funding. Despite the poor conditions of her missions, her charity was actually worth millions, according to Larivée and Chenard. Yet, little is known about how the money was actually being used, because it didn’t appear to go directly to those in need. According to the study,
Mother Teresa was generous with her prayers but rather miserly with her foundation's millions when it came to humanity's suffering. During numerous floods in India or following the explosion of a pesticide plant in Bhopal, she offered numerous prayers and medallions of the Virgin Mary but no direct or monetary aid.
The sources of her funding have also been widely criticized. The Washington Post reported that Mother Teresa had “relationships with dubious figures all around the world, most notably Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and scandal-hit American financier Charles Keating,” from whom she accepted funding for her charities.
She Probably Didn’t Actually Perform Any Miracles
Even if people don’t particularly have a problem with the above issues, there’s still the question of whether or not Mother Teresa qualifies as a saint in a purely technical sense. The Vatican requires saints to perform two miracles during their lifetime, and according to The Guardian, Mother Teresa’s miracles came in the form of two people who were reportedly cured of cancer after praying to her.
The first "miracle," which was recognized in 2003, involved an Indian woman named Monica Besra who said a beam of light coming from a picture of Mother Teresa in her home cured her cancerous tumor.
But, according to the New York Times, Besra’s doctor, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, said in a telephone interview that Besra didn’t actually have a cancerous tumor at all, but a cyst from tuberculosis that was successfully treated with medication. The second miracle involved a man from Brazil who claimed his multiple brain tumor were cured in 2008, though not much else is known about him.
There’s no question that Mother Teresa is still beloved by many and is an inspiration for those who have also decided to live lives of service. That still matters, of course, regardless of the debate over religious dogma or funding or lack of quality medical care. But her good deeds don't erase some of the problematic aspects of her beliefs and work, not does her impending sainthood — and that matters, too.