Three years ago, after battling cancer courageously, Christopher Hitchens passed away at the age of 62. A renowned author and journalist, Hitchens was feared and respected for his unrivalled wit and intelligent observations. With a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the British American polemicist never strayed too far from controversy, As one of the most outspoken atheists the world had ever seen, Hitchens regularly questioned organized religion, something that inspired him to write the provocatively titled, “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”
Utterly unconvinced by the Bible and heroic tales of Jesus Christ, the dexterous debater dismantled religious philosophies and teachings like no other. A political activist, his 2005 debate on the Iraq war with British M.P. George Galloway will forever stand as one of Christopher’s most impressive moments.
However, it is his 1995 book, “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice,” that I really wish to discuss.
Hitchens was one of the first to publicly examine and often ridicule the heavily praised Roman Catholic religious sister. Although she was awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa’s condemnation of abortion and contraception attracted criticism from more liberal-minded folk. In his book, meticulously and methodically, Hitchens questions Teresa’s motives, a woman who regularly used her celebrity status to promote the Church’s ‘moral’ beliefs on abortion and contraception.
Beyond this obvious bone of contention, Hitchens cleverly highlights the support, recognition, and donations she received throughout her years as a religious leader. Arguing that Teresa was an expert in the field of exploitation, the writer tells us how she had a real knack for manipulating people’s gullibility. Hitchens accuses her of fabricating the degraded image of Calcutta in order to win internationally-scaled praise.
A riveting read, allegations concerning the Macedonian’s willingness to accept donations from dishonourable sources also appear. Hitchens states that in one particular case, the Missionaries of Charity founder knew or ought to have known that the money she accepted was stolen. Furthermore, the reader is told that she gladly accepted money from the autocratic and nepotistic Duvalier family in Haiti, which she visited in the early 80’s. She may have been lavish with her prayers, but these reportedly came with a price tag firmly attached.
The Vatican completed the beatification of Mother Teresa, the last step before sainthood, twelve years ago, but according to Hitchens, the Vatican refused to acknowledge her ‘rather unorthodox’ way of treating the sick, along with her debatable political contacts and her questionable management of the generous amounts of money she received. If you couple these accusations with Teresa’s extremely dogmatic stance on abortion, contraception and divorce, well, the one-time portrait of perfection no longer looks so pristine.
According to Hitchens, Mother Teresa believed the sick must suffer like ‘our saviour’ did on the cross. “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,” the author reported her as saying.
The outspoken writer goes on to label Teresa “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud.”
She did indeed run 517 ‘homes for the dying’, however, unhygienic conditions and an obvious shortage of actual care, food and painkillers were noted by first-hand observers. As I already stated, lack of funds cannot explain these deficiencies, especially since Mother Teresa’s order of the Missionaries of Charity had amassed millions upon millions of dollars in aid money. Interestingly, when the nun herself required medical attention, she received it in a top American hospital, not in one of her own ‘homes’. Furthermore, the advanced treatment she received for an unabated heart condition, one which would eventually claim her life, is further evidence of her personal hypocrisy, according to Mr. Hitchens.
The author wants the reader to consider one important point: Mother Teresa’s altruistic image is a myth, a lie, a complete fallacy. Even so, he recognizes the power of her extraordinary reputation. Admitting that she inspired many humanitarian workers whose selfless deeds actively addressed the causes of poverty and deprivation, Hitchens also states that the media coverage of Mother Teresa could and should have been far more scrupulous.
The expanding wealth of the order Teresa founded appears to be Hitchens’s biggest grievance, and it’s hard to argue with his disillusionment: On one side, through large accumulated amounts in non-interest bearing, US accounts, sizeable sums were being spent on new convents and further missionary work, while on the other hand, her ‘homes for the dying’ maintained a harsh, sombre ethos, places where only the very desperate would venture.
Hitchens’s cleverly titled book doesn’t just cast an unpleasant light over the woman christened Agnes Gonxha, , it exposes elements of deceit and dishonesty, even criminal behaviour. The book, polemic and poignant, is as mesmerizing as it is well written, and though the facts were (and still are) shocking, the author was never sued nor his assumptions repudiated, not once.
Nothing screams Christmas like controversial church-related literature.