"Hitchens Takes on Mother Teresa," Newsweek's website proclaims this week, which is about as fresh a bulletin as Saturday Night Live's standing gag of "Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead." That Newsweek would invite Hitchens to write an online essay is no great surprise. Even when Hitchens' purpose is to whistle a happy tune over Mother Teresa's grave, he does it with a certain flair. Here is a crucial point in his argument:
The case of Mother Teresa, who could not force herself into accepting the facile cure-all of "faith," is that of a fairly simple woman struggling to be honest with herself, while also -- this is important -- striving to be an example to others. And I believe I have a possible explanation for the crisis. It derives from something that Lord Macaulay said, when reviewing Leopold von Ranke's "History of the Popes." The Roman Catholic Church, he wrote, "thoroughly understands what no other Church has ever understood, how to deal with enthusiasts" [my italics]. Wise bishops have long known to beware of the fanatical and the overzealous. After being lectured on doctrinal matters by the ultraconservative convert Evelyn Waugh, the pope is said to have concluded the audience by murmuring, "Yes, Mr. Waugh. I am a Catholic, too."
What's a greater surprise is that Newsweek would devote three pages of its publication to Hitchens' essay, along with photos to adorn his anti-hagiography. In a full-page portrait, a poor man holds Mother Teresa's hand as she looks off in the distance. "Faith or Works?" the caption begins, as if Teresa had to choose. On the closing page of the essay, four photos show her with Yasir Arafat, Princess Diana, the Reagans and Hillary Clinton. The pull quote is well-aimed: "Like not a few overpromoted figures, she suffered from more self-hatred the more she was overpraised."
Hitchens concludes his essay with this haymaker: "I say it as calmly as I can -- the Church should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe."
Hitchens nods to the Dark Night as a reality for several Christian saints throughout the centuries, yet still misses its fundamental point: The saints who have endured the Dark Night have not surrendered to disbelief. Hitchens depicts Teresa as no longer a believer, yet at the same time a fanatic:
If Santayana was right to define fanaticism as 'redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim, then Mother Teresa's international crusade against divorce, abortion and contraception was the tribute that doubt paid to certainty: a strenuous and almost hysterical effort to drown out the awful fear of "absence."
Just before quoting Santayana, Hitchens refers (naturally) to Teresa's "enthusiastic fundamentalism," lest that all-purpose insult ever escape anyone's mind.
The news here is not that Christopher Hitchens still loathes Mother Teresa, but that he's still trying to reinterpret her, to assume supernatural insight into her interior world, in vindicating his thesis in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1997). This protracted and belabored "I told you so," the rhetorical fireworks display aside, is becoming an embarrassment.