New York Times offers update on criticisms of 'Hell's Angel' (as in Mother Teresa)

Back in my Denver days, I covered a massive interfaith prayer event in which the featured speaker was Mother Teresa. I also had the chance to interview her, briefly, but that's a complicated story.

During her remarks, the tiny nun -- who was already being hailed as a living saint -- strongly defended Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life, from conception to the grave. This was not a surprise, but it was a key theme in what she said and, thus, I included it in my story for The Rocky Mountain News. I also called the local Planned Parenthood office seeking a response to Mother Teresa's words.

The spokeswoman was, truth be told, quite gracious and on point. She had praise for Mother Teresa's work, but also was very specific in her criticisms of the tiny nun's beliefs on abortion, artificial contraception, etc. I quoted her at length and, days later, she called to thank me for quoting her positive words as well as her negative comments. After all, she said, no one wants to be seen as someone who "beats up on Mother Teresa."

Unless, of course, you were atheist Christopher Hitchens or, apparently, Dr. Aroup Chatterjee of India.

In preparation for the Vatican rites in which Mother Teresa will officially become St. Teresa of Calcutta, The New York Times has run a perfectly valid story focusing on the views of one of her strongest critics (and there are plenty of them). However, note the headline on this story:

A Critic’s Lonely Quest: Revealing the Whole Truth About Mother Teresa

Apparently, the "whole truth" about Mother Teresa is a rather simplistic, one-sided story.

It would have been interesting to read a news feature in which Chatterjee -- a 58-year-old physician -- was allowed to trade punches with one of the many experts who have researched Mother Teresa's life in depth. This discussion would include the first decades of her work in which conditions in her Home for the Dying were rough, to say the least. But that is not what is going on in this Times piece. Here is a sample:

Growing up, Dr. Chatterjee, a native of Kolkata, found himself bothered by the narrative surrounding Mother Teresa, beginning with the city’s depiction as one of the most desperate places on earth, a “black hole.” ...
Dr. Chatterjee worked as a foot soldier for a leftist political party in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while he was studying at Kolkata Medical College, campaigning and sleeping in nearby slums. During a year as an intern, he also regularly saw patients from one of the city’s oldest and “most dire” red-light districts.
“We used to see very serious abuse of women and children quite often,” he said, noting that the city was still struggling to absorb an influx of refugees after the civil war in what was East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
“I never even saw any nuns in those slums that I worked in,” he said. “I think it’s an imperialist venture of the Catholic Church against an Eastern population, an Eastern city, which has really driven horses and carriages through our prestige and our honor.
“I just thought that this myth had to be challenged,” he added.

And what, precisely, is this "myth"?

Is it that Calcutta was a large, complex city that contained slums that contained people who could be described as "the poorest of the poor"? Was it that Mother Teresa was doing works of compassion by caring for the dying, as opposed to trying to run a full-service medical facility? Was it that Mother Teresa was a noble person who -- in the West, especially -- became an unlikely media figure who was then hailed as a saint?

The doctor has some very specific medical criticisms, which the Times all but runs unchallenged. However, it is also clear that he is offended by Catholic teachings on the nobility of those who are suffering. It would have been good to have published some of his actual views on Catholicism, to place his other work in context. For example, what is this man's faith background and current status?

 A key passage:

Over hundreds of hours of research, much of it cataloged in a book he published in 2003, Dr. Chatterjee said he found a “cult of suffering” in homes run by Mother Teresa’s organization, the Missionaries of Charity, with children tied to beds and little to comfort dying patients but aspirin.
He and others said that Mother Teresa took her adherence to frugality and simplicity in her work to extremes, allowing practices like the reuse of hypodermic needles and tolerating primitive facilities that required patients to defecate in front of one another.

This led to:

In 1994, Dr. Chatterjee contacted Bandung Productions, a company owned by the writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali. What started as a 12-minute phone pitch turned into an offer by Channel 4’s commissioning editor to film an exposé of Mother Teresa’s work. The social critic Christopher Hitchens was hired to present what would become “Hell’s Angel,” a highly skeptical documentary.

"Skeptical"? That's one way to put it.

Dr. Chatterjee drew his material from "volunteers, nuns and writers who were familiar with the Missionaries of Charity." The criticisms are strong and certainly worthy of serious debate. So how does the story handle the response of those who would defend Mother Teresa's work, especially in the years in which her resources were all but nonexistent and she was plunging into work that no one -- especially with the class structures of India -- wanted to do?

Here is that section of the story -- all of it.

In the past, when similar criticisms were made, the Missionaries of Charity typically did not deny the reports but said that the nuns were working on the matter. Today, they say, speech therapists and physiotherapists are regularly consulted to look after patients with physical and mental disabilities. And nuns said they frequently take patients who require surgery and more complicated care to nearby hospitals.
“In Mother’s time, these physiotherapists, they were coming, but at that time, there weren’t as many available,” said Sunita Kumar, a spokeswoman for the Missionaries of Charity. These days, Mrs. Kumar added, several nuns have undergone training to “spruce up their medical background,” and the general upkeep of facilities has improved.

And that's that. There is a paragraph of unattributed material and quotes from a spokesperson -- the new journalism normal, when dealing with the work and beliefs of those who clearly (in the views of the editors) are in the wrong.

I have interviewed people who worked in the Home for the Dying and have heard their descriptions of the conditions there, as well as the overwhelming challenges faced by Mother Teresa and her nuns. To be frank, it's a complicated story, with a tiny, fledgling religious order struggling to work with dying people who had, in many cases, literally been thrown into the streets.

Major news organizations are running waves of stories about Mother Teresa, right now. Many of them will stay at the level of sainthood and celebrate this event. That's understandable.

But the reality of her work, and her life, was much more complicated than the contents of many of these short stories. The lives of the saints are often quite complex and messy. The Times had a chance to cover the views of a serious critic of Mother Teresa's beliefs and her work, while offering other experts a chance to respond and add discuss other details in the story.

Apparently it was easier to simply attack a "myth" and leave it at that.

Please respect our Commenting Policy