Was Mother Teresa Really ‘Saintly’?

It’s debatable whether any human can actually be a saint, let alone Mother Teresa.

03.27.16 4:15 AM ET

“I don’t know whether there are any moral saints,” wrote the philosopher Susan Wolf, in her famous 1982 article “Moral Saints.” “But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.” As Wolf saw it, there was something dubious, suspect, about the idea of sainthood. One whose life was “dominated by a commitment to improving the welfare of others or of society as a whole” would be dreary, self-abnegating in the extreme, and well-nigh impossible to be around. And that personal dislikeability would, in itself, complicate the person’s ostensible saintliness.

To begin, the saint would have to eschew much of what makes any life great. All aspects of self-cultivation and pleasure-seeking, unless they somehow redounded to the welfare of others,  would be verboten—no passion for French cooking when one could be building houses for the homeless! The saint would at all times try to speak well of others—but how annoying is that? No gossip or cruel humor. “Although a moral saint might well enjoy a good episode of Father Knows Best,” Wolf wrote, “he may not in good conscience be able to laugh at a Marx Brothers movie or enjoy a play by George Bernard Shaw.” And in the saint’s conversation there must be no edginess, which by its nature risks giving offense. “A moral saint will have to be very, very nice. It is important that he not be offensive. The worry is that, as a result, he will have to be dull-witted or humorless or bland.”

I thought of Wolf’s article when I read the announcement last week that Pope Francis had set Sept. 4, 2016, as the date of the canonization of Mother Teresa. Her sainthood has been a foregone conclusion since December, when the pope ratified the requisite second posthumous miracle performed by the late nun: the 2008 recovery of a comatose and dying Brazilian man. For months, his relatives had prayed for Mother Teresa’s intercession. The Catholic Church, on getting word of this man, who had awakened, returned to work, and gone on to father two children with his wife, empaneled a medical commission to investigate, and last year it “voted unanimously that the cure is inexplicable in the light of present-day medical knowledge.” 

I always disliked Mother Teresa, in a way that felt good and didn’t seem to warrant scrutiny. But the news that she will now be an actual Saint, not just someone always called “saintly”—in other words, that her cult is now guaranteed to outlive us all—set me to interrogating my enmity. And the brief against Mother Teresa, I decided, begins with the arguments that Wolf adumbrates in her article—but does not end there. We should add to it Christopher Hitchens’s powerful claims about Mother Teresa’s coziness with right-wing dictators and her cruelty to the poor people she said she was helping. And, finally, we should cast an overdue eye on the institution of Catholic sainthood.

Mother Teresa, the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has long been an enduring metaphor for sainthood. In 1982, Wolf thought to mention Mother Teresa in her article, in part as a cautionary tale: “Despite my conviction that it is as rational and as good for a person to take Katharine Hepburn or Jane Austen as her role model instead of Mother Teresa, it would be absurd to deny that Mother Teresa is a morally better person.” Wolf didn’t quite say that Mother Teresa was humorless, self-righteous, and lacking even one ounce of self-deprecation—but she didn’t not say it, either. The implication was clear. Mother Teresa was an example of the problematic moral saint.

Wolf never got this far into pop sociology, but I think we know the type she means: the person who, because she comes to believe that her cultivated persona is such a force for good in the world, never lets the mask slip. A list of contemporary saintly figures—none has been as widely admired, or as carefully remote, as Mother Teresa—might include Elie Wiesel, Oprah Winfrey, the Queen Mother, and Maya Angelou. It’s debatable how much good any of them did—except in the case of Winfrey, who, by giving a TV platform to so many medical hucksters and New Age spiritual charlatans, did great harm. What’s not debatable is how each has performed the role of saintliness, with all the traits Wolf identifies: lack of irony, witlessness, a curious lack of observable joie de vivre. Can we picture any of them being silly, or experiencing genuine, laugh-until-you-spit-food joy?

But, one may ask, didn’t Mother Teresa do a tremendous amount of good? After all, the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, offered shelter and care to the poor, sick, and dying, most famously in Calcutta but around the world. Here I’d defer to Hitchens’s brilliant, and brilliantly titled, 1995 manifesto The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. In this little book, which was much dismissed by Mother Teresa’s apologists but never really contradicted, Hitchens showed the ruthless side of Mother Teresa. She spoke well of the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, which had given money to her religious order. She sent a plea for clemency to the judge sentencing savings and loan swindler Charles Keating, who had given her over a million dollars. She appeared with 1970s cult leader and sexual predator John-Roger, who also had given her money.

So Mother Teresa’s friendship was for sale—but that wasn’t the worst that could be said about her. Hitchens’s hostility to religion could cross over into hysteria, even idiocy: He once reproduced in print the urban legend that Orthodox Jews have sex through a hole in a sheet, so that their bodies don’t touch. But he got something essentially right about Mother Teresa’s theology when he noted that she wanted those in her care to suffer. Why else did she—despite the unaudited millions that her order brings in in donations—provide her homes’ dying residents with thin cots, instead of proper hospital beds? Why did she deny them adequate narcotic pain relief? And why did she treat their pain as a beautiful thing? Because she believed that suffering brought the sick closer to Jesus Christ.

“The point,” Hitchens wrote, after adducing careful evidence, “is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection. Mother Teresa (who herself, it should be noted, has checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age) once gave this game away in a filmed interview.” Describing a person in the last agonies of cancer, she “told the camera what she told this terminal patient: ‘You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.’ Unconscious of the account to which this irony might be charged, she then told of the sufferer’s reply: ‘Then please tell him to stop kissing me.’”

The Catholic Church, of course, does not canonize people for their moral perfection. For Catholics, all human beings are fallen and sinful in nature; canonized saints are not perfect beings but simply people who led lives worthy enough to receive special recognition in their afterlives (as a technical matter, saints are those whose names can be invoked in the liturgy). So Mother Teresa could be as bad as Hitchens said she was, and yet in relevant ways good enough to deserve sainthood. And therein lies a problem. For while the church never claimed that saints are necessarily super-human, our popular perception of saints requires them to be, and so we develop historical amnesia about who they really were.

Some of the Catholic saints, even some of the real biggies, were perfectly dreadful. For starters, a startling number were anti-Semites. “How dare Christians have the slightest intercourse with Jews, those most miserable of all men,” asked St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century church father. In Jesus’ time, the Jews’ “evil ways corrupted the morals of the people,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas. “Jews are slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets,” said St. Gregory of Nyssa. If it seems bit unfair to hold men ancient and medieval to our modern ideals of toleration—after all, to be a European Christian was, once upon a time, to be taught to despise Jews—then consider all the saints who were bloody crusaders, or cruel catechizers of unwilling native peoples. One begins to see that there’s something unnerving about the whole category. 

Of course, Wolf, the philosopher, would immediately recognize that Catholic saints were not supposed to be moral saints, not as she understands the term. The Catholic Church has historically looked to canonize people of grandeur—institution builders, martyrs, self-flagellators, mystics, and of course miracle workers—but not always men and women of particular kindness or generosity. Contemporary Americans have tacked on a third expectation of saints, the Winfrey expectation, that they publicly perform warmth and love, if possible after encountering, in their own lives, great suffering. By brushing against evil—Mother Teresa in the Calcutta slums, Wiesel in the Holocaust, Winfrey and Angelou in their own childhood abuse—and then emerging as beacons of love and optimism, they shore up our wishes for the perfectibility of the world.

It is our shortsighted, and very modern error, that we want Mother Teresa to be a saint by all these definitions. She was a shrewd operator, one of the great institution builders of our time. And she was a kind of witness to depravity. But she wasn’t always kind, and only by suspending our honest judgment could we find her easy to love.