Today seems like a strange time to defend St. Teresa of Calcutta, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
Actually, my goal in a post earlier this week -- then in our "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) -- was not to defend the tiny Albanian nun who dedicated most of her life to serving poor people who were dying in a dark corner of Calcutta. There are plenty of articulate, qualified people who have spent decades studying the fine details of her life and work who can defend her.
Yes, there are also critics who have spent decades developing detailed arguments for criticizing her, especially when it comes to the messy medical details of life and death inside the Home for the Dying. Both sides of that debate are worth attention.
Of course, there are Catholics who totally embraced Mother Teresa's defense of church doctrines on subjects such as contraception, abortion and the authority of church leaders -- including herself in her role as founder of the Missionaries of Charity. But there are Catholics on the left who believe she abused that power and that she should have used her clout to fight for social change in India and around the world.
Many doctrinal conservatives were upset that Mother Teresa and her sisters didn't strive to convert Hindus and Muslims to the Christian faith. There are others on the left who are just as upset that, when people whose lives she touched wanted to know about Christianity, she was more than willing to help them convert.
So what's the bottom line here? In the earlier post and the podcast, I stressed that it is totally appropriate to cover the controversies that surrounded Mother Teresa's life, as well as covering her fame as a living saint -- in the eyes of millions -- who served the poorest of the poor. What I questioned is media coverage that discusses the facts raised by her critics, without turning to authoritative voices on the other side to offer their side of this debate.
Take that CNN piece about her critics. It offers waves of secular and religious criticism of Mother Teresa, and then responds with these words from a former volunteer:
Chhanda Chakraborti is part of a group of local Kolkata volunteers who has been associated with the Missionaries of Charity for over 25 years. ...
"All these claims are rubbish. These critics are actually lying," she says. "You go to Kalighat, people come in dying condition. Most of them regain their lives. How can they give life to a dying person while being careless with their health?"
What they do in the homes run by the Missionaries of Charity, says Sunita Kumar, a spokesperson for the group and a close friend of Mother Teresa, is offer basic care to the poorest of the poor.
"She didn't want to start a five-star hospital or anything like that," she says.
That's valid material. However, when quoting critics who are making detailed accusations about finances and medical issues, it helps to include some factual material in response from church authorities who have researched those same issues -- the kind of research that is expected during the process that leads to a proclamation of sainthood.
Now, is it possible that NONE of these Mother Teresa experts were available to CNN right now? Perhaps. If that is the case, then say so.
Also, what do you make of this passage?
Mother Teresa's dogmatic views on abortions, contraception and divorce may have been welcomed by the socially restrained Vatican, but they have also been criticized in more progressive circles and put her at odds with the feminist movement.
She raised some eyebrows when, during her Nobel Peace Prize Lecture after winning the prize in 1979, she said the "greatest destroyer of peace is abortion."
Raise your hand if you are shocked that Mother Teresa was not a beloved figure among feminists. Shocking.
Now back to CNN:
Additionally, some critics accuse Mother Teresa of trying to convert those she served to Christianity.
This is something the Missionaries of Charity firmly rejects. "She looked after everybody in the same spirit, whether they were Muslim or Hindu or Sikh," says Kumar, who herself is Hindu and Sikh.
"When I used to go pray with her, she would say 'Sunita, come to the chapel and you sit the way you do for your prayers and I'll sit the way I do and we'll say our prayers,'" she says.
Let me end by pointing GetReligion readers to a Crux piece by Austen Ivereigh focusing on a crucial subject linked both to her worldwide fame and to the passionate views of those who hated her -- Mother Teresa's unlikely role as a media superstar.
Here is the heart of the matter:
Mother Teresa regarded the global fame that accompanied her media stardom as divine providence -- a means for her to evangelize and to enable her to fulfill her mission of helping the very poorest. The purity of that focus was disconcerting -- and again, irresistible to journalists.
Combining a total trust that she was doing God’s bidding with a peasant pragmatism, she turned encounters with powerful and wealthy people into opportunities to secure favors that would better enable her expanding order to respond to human need.
Some of the best stories about her are of the little nun badgering a cardinal, or dictator, or president, until she secured what she required -- whatever would give greatest freedom to her Missionaries of Charity to pursue their goals.
There is the time, for example, that she held up a supermarket queue in London with a trolley full of £500 worth of goods, telling the cashier they were for the poor and waiting for someone to offer to pay (eventually someone did.) Or there was the time the Indian government gave her a free rail pass; she then asked them for the same privileges on its airline, gamely offering to work off her passage as a flight attendant.
This counter-cultural brazenness was documentary pure gold. She lived among the poor, dressed in a simple sari, sat rock-like in her chapel until late at night, and whenever the microphone was passed to her spoke freely and frankly; yet she moved millions of dollars, received awards and honors from universities and presidents, and spent time with Princess Diana.
The world loves a saint; but loves her even more when she moves through the world with a big smile, indifferent to wealth and celebrity, ruthlessly bargaining on behalf of the poorest of the poor.
Read it all, and enjoy the podcast.