Criticism of Mother Teresa: Too little and too late

Yes, today’s the day that Mother Teresa becomes Saint Teresa, and so, as the Vatican hands her the receiver for a Hotline to God, let’s review the evidence that she’s not as saintly as everyone thinks.

First, here’s an article from the August 26 New York Times about Aroup Chatterjee, an Indian doctor who has written two books debunking the Mother Teresa myth: Mother Teresa: The Untold Story, and Mother Teresa: The Final VerdictI haven’t read either, but have reserved the second one (now out of print as well as borrowed) from our library. The second book is reviewed favorably by T. Hanuman Choudary at Swarajya. (Click on picture below to go to the article.)

Among the accusations against the incipient saint by Chatterjee (who is from Calcutta, home of Mother Teresa’s most famous mission), as well as by Choudary, are the following (these are all direct quotes):

  • “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.”

  • “Over the next year [1995], Dr. Chatterjee traveled the world meeting with volunteers, nuns and writers who were familiar with the Missionaries of Charity. In over a hundred interviews, Dr. Chatterjee heard volunteers describe how workers with limited medical training administered 10- to 20-year-old medicines to patients, and blankets stained with feces were washed in the same sink used to clean dishes. [JAC: Things are reported to be somewhat better now, but Mother Teresa’s reputation as a saintly woman was already well established by 1995.]”
  • [Following are summary’s of Chatterjee’s arguments given by Choudary]: “Chatterjee found that what was propagated about Mother Teresa was only partially true, and much of it fiction. She accepted donations from drug peddlers and swindlers knowingly. What is worse, she even wrote to the prosecuting government officers and judges in the US to not punish them. In response to Mother Teresa’s letter to let a swindler go, an American prosecutor once wrote to her to return the monies to the cheated – monies she accepted from the swindler – in the true Christian spirit.”
  • “Mother Teresa lied by exaggerating the figures of persons she was feeding daily in her acceptance speech while receiving the Nobel Prize in 1979. The ambulances donated by a Calcutta businessman were, in fact, used by her nuns as taxis to ferry around in Calcutta. Her nuns refused to pick up dying persons within even 200 meters of the compassion house. (Chatterjee has recorded his telephone conversations with the nuns and reproduced them verbatim in the book). But Mother Teresa continued to tell her Western audiences that her mission routinely picked up abandoned babies and the dying and dead bodies from Calcutta’s pavements.”

My editor at OUP, Latha Menon, also reviewed Chatterjee’s book in The New Humanist and gives a favorable verdit. One excerpt:

Chatterjee’s researches confirm in depressing detail the now familiar story of neglect, appalling lack of medical care, and emphasis on prayer rather than proper nursing in Mother Teresa’s homes. He compares the minute impact of the Missionaries of Charity with the efficient and wide-ranging activities of other charities such as the Ramakrishna Mission and the Child in Need Institute. These groups, a number of them established by Indians long before Mother Teresa’s appearance, provide schools, properly equipped hospitals, and training in useful skills; they distribute free condoms and advise on reproductive health. Unlike Mother Teresa’s outfit, they encourage slum dwellers to become strong and self-sufficient.

You can find a lot more about the grim conditions at Nirmal Hriday, the Calcutta hospice, by online searching. The Wikipedia entry, however, is telling, because the sole description of care at that facility is below, and it hasn’t been taken down. I suspect it’s accurate in the details (it also notes that Mother Teresa encouraged her nuns to baptize the dying regardless of their religion):

In 1991, Robin Fox, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet visited the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and described the medical care the patients received as “haphazard”. [JAC: You can see that letter here.] He observed that sisters and volunteers, some of whom had no medical knowledge, had to make decisions about patient care, because of the lack of doctors in the hospice. Fox specifically held Teresa responsible for conditions in this home, and observed that her order did not distinguish between curable and incurable patients, so that people who could otherwise survive would be at risk of dying from infections and lack of treatment.

Fox conceded that the regimen he observed included cleanliness, the tending of wounds and sores, and kindness, but he noted that the sisters’ approach to managing pain was “disturbingly lacking”. The formulary at the facility Fox visited lacked strong analgesics which he felt clearly separated Mother Teresa’s approach from the hospice movement. Fox also wrote that needles were rinsed with warm water, which left them inadequately sterilized, and the facility did not isolate patients with tuberculosis. There have been a series of other reports documenting inattention to medical care in the order’s facilities. Similar points of view have also been expressed by some former volunteers who worked for Teresa’s order. Mother Teresa herself referred to the facilities as “Houses of the Dying”.

It’s disturbing to me that patients who could have been cured, including children, were allowed to die. Certainly Mother Teresa could have had a doctor look them over and do some triage. The fact is that she just didn’t care, for she thought she was winning souls for the Christian God.

And I’ll add that the miracles ascribed to Mother Teresa are rarely questioned, although the one I’ve looked at, the “cure” of Monica Besra’s cancer by the ill woman holding Mother Teresa picture on her stomach, is completely bogus. Besra had tubercular tumors, not cancer, and received conventional medical treatment. In fact, Besra’s doctors take credit for her cure, and argue, correctly, that emphasizing the curative power of prayer may discourage Indians from seeking medical care. Despite that, NBC News, reporting on the imminent canonization last night, noted that as there was an “exhaustive investigation” by the Vatican of her two miracles. Like hell!

Finally, I’ve put below the 24-minute film, “Hell’s Angel,” narrated by Christopher Hitchens but inspired by Chatterjee. It was shown on Channel 4 in Britain in 1994, and I can’t imagine such a film being shown on any network in the U.S. these days.

The film goes heavily into Mother Teresa’s unsavory political connections—and you may see it as stretching a bit—but it’s worth paying attention to her crusade against abortion and birth control—in India!—and the minimal care she gave the dying patients in her Calcutta hospice. (Notice the gruesome sign on the wall, “I AM ON MY WAY TO HEAVEN”.)

And, of course, any Mother Teresa aficionado must read Hitchens’s own published critique:  The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. (There’s also a fairly new paper, though in French, by two Canadian researchers who come to pretty much the same conclusions as do Chatterjee and Hitchens.)

I recommend watching this, and it’s good to see Hitchens when he was young and angry (though he controls it well):

All I can say after reading all this (Chatterjee and Hitchens were both the formal “Devil’s Advocates” at Mother Teresa’s sainthood vetting) is that any religion that would turn this woman into a Pipeline to God is deeply dysfunctional. As Hitchens says, she is venerated in the West not so much for her actual deeds as for the perception that somebody from the West was doing something tangible to help poor brown people. In that sense Mother Teresa was a living Virtue Signal, and, as so often happens, those signals mask a lot of unpleasant noise. And, as Latha Menon said in her review of Chatterjee’s book:

Any illusion of genuine virtue being a requirement for official sainthood must be fading fast in people’s minds. The successes of Josemaria Escriva and Pius IX will have seen to that.

Speaking of unpleasant noise, you can find that over at PuffHo (click on screenshot if you must):

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 11.09.22 AM


  1. Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    To my mind the worst thing about Teresa was that her refusal to give pain killers or medical care to those in her “hospice” was a deliberate reveling in suffering because she thought it was a good thing (not her own suffering of course, but that of other people):

    “…All that suffering, where would the world be without it? It is the suffering of innocent people, and it is like the suffering of Jesus. He suffered for us, and all the suffering of innocent people is joined to His in the Redemption. It
    is a coredemption. It contributes to sparing the world the most terrible calamities…”

    “I often wonder what would happen to the world if innocent people did not suffer so much. They are the ones who are interceding all the time. Their innocence is so pleasing to God. By accepting to suffer, they intercede for us.”

    “Pain and suffering will come into your life, but remember: pain, distress and suffering are only the kiss of Jesus — signs that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you. Accept them as gifts — all for Jesus. You are really reliving the Passion of Christ, from now on accept Jesus just as He enters into your life. Battered, divided, full of pains and wounds.”

    Of course she was also a huge hypocrite, in that she herself had only the best medical care and pain relief when she needed it. She was truly one of the most vile and odious of people.

    • Carey Haug
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I think the worse thing about Agnes is that she was in a position to do some real good in the world with the money and publicity she gained, but she did not. I admired her before reading Hitchens and was appalled to learn the truth.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Exactly. During a discussion on why I did NOT agree that ‘Mother Teresa’ was an example of the highest level of goodness human beings can achieve, I brought out that very point and directed it to a woman who volunteered in a hospice. Mother F. Teresa’s “hospices” did not include painkillers. It wasn’t because they couldn’t afford it. It was because they were ideologically against the medical relief of suffering. Gentle and sympathetic nuns were there to give the dying a sense of relief — and bring them to Jesus.

      The response was basically a shrug. I could see that criticizing a religious reason for allowing people to die in pain was … too painful. But at least I startled her, I think, and introduced some cognitive dissonance.

      (The ‘F.’ in “Mother F. Teresa” stands for exactly what you think it stands for.)

    • bluemaas
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      … … “a huge hypocrite:” ALL of the hypocrisy surrounding Bojaxhiu (and religions at all) is boggling.

      & to me, angering.

    • yiamcross
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      It’s far, far worse than that. She denied proper treatment to those who could certainly have been saved, in the physiological rather than spiritual sense, in favour of some crazy notion that their sacrifice to her god was in some way beneficial. Who benefits I have no idea bu the sure and certain losers were those who fell into her evil clutches.Hypocrite is not a big enough word to describe someone who should be classified as a mass murderer for withholding treatment which could have saved hundreds if not thousands of lives, many young, and caused immeasurable suffering in the name of her bloodthirsty god.

      • yiamcross
        Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        Instead the Catholic church make her a saint. My only surprise is they haven’t canonised Hitler yet. Give them time.

  2. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I know that Mother Teresa unavailable for questioning and probable criminal charges, but what about the other people who worked at these grim places? If a secular based hospice in India or anywhere else did this sort of thing, surely there would be an investigation and arrests.

    • bluemaas
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Correct flip / reverse, Dr Sturtevant: IF we atheists performed such “works” as Bojaxhiu’s, why the backlash and blowback — everywhere — ‘d be deafening ! And, of course, prosecutable !

      “Too little, too late” and, for me re these still – living fawners (of her / of Roman Catholicism / of religions at all), nauseatingly disgusting.


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 3:06 am | Permalink

      Between PCC’s posting and Hitch’s film, I have the impression that many of those workers at the hospices were better intentioned than Mother F Teresa, and that conditions may have improved a little since the old bat kicked the bucket.


  3. BobTerrace
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    2000 years of immoral, unethical behavior continues on.

  4. Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    The software of false humility has corrupted the hardware of those gullible enough to consider it virtuous. Religious narcissism, misplaced intercession, and carte blanche negligence under a naïve patina of selflessness.

  5. Kevin
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Mother Teresa is a metaphor for wanting pain for oneself and others. A genuinely un-innocuous member of our species.

  6. Alexander
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Probably the Mother Teresa affair should be viewed as one of the biggest PR stunts of the Vatican. Calcutta was always known for its widespread misery and filling her homes was no problem at all. She got a lot of money, but did not spend it on drugs and pain killers. At the same time she had this ongoing mantra of stupidities about suffering because Jesus loves you, etc, continuously published the world over, finding a fertile ground in a naive and ignorant catholic public, and still now, if you look at the press. With her becoming a saint, the catholic propaganda machine is still churning on, full blast.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Hitchens’ film was a sensation on British television with very high ratings, but no American network even back then (never mind “these days”) would touch it with a 1000 foot pole. It’s only celluloid showing in the US was in an art museum in Baltimore.

    The cult of suffering that afflicted Teresa is the same thinking that afflicts Mel Gibson’s justly maligned film “Passion of the Christ”. It’s a piety that dates back to around the 14th century, the era of the Black Plague, and involves obsessive concern with the atoning value of specific physical pain.

    It might be interesting to compile a more extensive list of least deserving official Catholic saints. My list would certainly include Robert Bellarmine, the prosecutor of Galileo. (I continue to find it ironic that Catholic schools often to a far better job of teaching evolution than public schools (especially in the deep South) but nonetheless hundreds of Catholic high schools are named after Bellarmine.)

    • somer
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      A lot of the spread and recurrence of the plague was due to the medieval Christian belief (dating from around the collapse of the Roman empire) that washing oneself reflects worldly concern with the body over the spirit. Christians washed or were washed 3 times in their lives – at baptism, after their wedding night and ritually at death.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted September 4, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        In general, the importance of hygiene was not recognized until the 19th century. Medical knowledge stagnated in the Middle Ages, but even in the more scientifically minded ancient Greece, diseases were usually assumed to be airborne.

        • somer
          Posted September 4, 2016 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

          I agree but for a long time there was also an actual belief that washing other than ritually on religious occasions was a form of paying too much respect and attention to the body as opposed to the spiritual life.

      • Posted September 5, 2016 at 6:11 am | Permalink

        Washing at death isn’t only ritual. After death, bladder and rectum release their contents. So without washing, there would be no dignity in the final farewell to the deceased person, regardless of religion.

  8. nwalsh
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Mother Teresa The untold story is available from ibooks free.

  9. Christopher
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Remember that if miracles were efficacious, prayer would be a branch of medicine.

    • Alexander
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Ha, yes! What about the ‘scientific’ investigation of the effect of intercessory prayer on the recovery of heart patients funded by the Templeton Foundation a few years ago? Medical doctors from big university clinics took participated.

  10. Pliny the in Between
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    25 years in trauma burned into my brain the fact that there is no dignity in unnecessary suffering. Whatever miracles that occurred were due to the skill of the care teams and the resiliency of human physiology.

    Lastly, the very notion of intercessory prayer always stuck in my craw – the intervention of a supreme being shouldn’t be a popularity contest like American Idol.

    Some of my ire was dissipated somewhat by this collection of rants.

    • Nell Whiteside
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Miraculous rants!

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I recommend you look at these! Great collection!

    • rickflick
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      I shared one of those. I’m sure you won’t mind.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 3:16 am | Permalink

      ROTFL!!! Those are brilliant. I particularly loved the third one down, and the one with the drug company CEO.


    • Kevin
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      Fantastic, as usual. Like a real light shown upon the world of cruelty and self-absorbance that was Teresa.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      That next-to-last one — S’alright!

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Blessed are the advocati diaboli: for theirs is the path of righteousness.

    • somer
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      righteousness too often winds up being arrogance

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 4, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        So you’d like to see the unrighteous inherit the earth? Tell it to the Righteous Brothers. 🙂

        Anyway, it’s not so much righteousness itself that matters; it’s the path of righteousness — or, as the Beatitudes have it, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness …”

        • somer
          Posted September 4, 2016 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

          well I wouldn’t call don Corleone any sort of role model

          • somer
            Posted September 4, 2016 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

            I definitely agree that society has to have norms to encourage appropriate behaviour and sanction destructive behaviour.

            Just I personally think the term “righteousness” is too often used as a flag of virtue-status associated with power or used by entrenched elements of belief that have lost their usefulness or were even unpleasant to begin with. Those who have power can define whats right and beliefs that have become socially entrenched are not always moral, yet following them conveys respect and status in certain groups or even the whole society.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted September 5, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            My comment below was meant as a reference to the Gordon Willis-style cinematography in the embedded video. I didn’t mean to suggest the don as a role model. 🙂

            As for the use of “righteousness,” I’ll simply quote MLK quoting the prophet Amos: Let us not be satisfied “until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

            • somer
              Posted September 6, 2016 at 12:27 am | Permalink

              I see your point, my worry is though when some people interpret justice as a traditionalist system – many conservative religious people interpret the autocratic system imposed by their rules as “justice” apparently everyone will be equal when a theocracy is in place – as in equal but different.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    You’re right; it’s great to see Hitchens healthy again and venting his controlled fury.

    He looks good, too, shot in that chiaroscuro cinematography — shades of don Corleone in his study dispensing street justice on the day of his daughter’s wedding.

  13. Heather Hastie
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Cory Booker used to follow me on Twitter. He posted a Mother Teresa quote and I tweeted back that it was a pity she didn’t practice what she preached. He made a comment in response, supporting her. I can’t remember what he said, but it was basically that I was nasty to question her. Then he unfollowed me.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Forget it, Jake; it’s politics.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted September 4, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        I had forgotten it – it was years ago. This post reminded me. I don’t care – it was more a comment about how people believe the myth surrounding her. Last night I was talking to a recent atheist, and she had no idea about any of the bad stuff Mother Teresa did.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted September 5, 2016 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

          All I meant was that Booker — as much as I like him — is a consummate political animal. A retail pol like him, he’s never gonna alienate his Catholic constituency by saying anything remotely disparaging of Mutha Tee, or associate himself in anyway with anyone who does.

  14. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I know if a woman (American) who has entered hospice now becaus she said she was tired of being treated as a drug addict when she went for pain relief. In hospice, you are given pain relief easily. However, they do nothing for her fatigue and tell her that it is “part of the process”. Good grief, according to who?

    I often wonder how much of the disinterest by medical institutions in training doctors in pain relief or pribiding adequate pain management is a hang up of our Christian past.

    • Roo
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      This is anecdotal from people I know in the medical field, but I actually think it’s a backlash to overdone pain management culture at hospitals (years ago, when this was reportedly going on, I had a cousin who reported being injected with heavy duty painkillers without her permission or consent when she went in for blood poisoning, for example – that was when everyone started to get the little happy to sad face ‘rate your pain chart’.) where there was a lot of bureaucratic push from the top to document ‘better’ (often meaning ‘more’) pain management. After things like oxy abuse became an enormous national problem, I think there’s now a reactive shift in the opposite direction.

  15. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Is the Vatican selling “Mother Theresa” brand toilet paper yet? My piles are giving me gyp, and I feel the need for the healing tongue.

  16. Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    When the world’s economies have transitioned to renewable energy we will all learn what frugal living is like. Frugal dying too.

    Which of our political leaders will then be revered as the acolytes of Gaia?

  17. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the link to the Hitchens film – even though it enraged me to watch. How anyone (other than addle-brained Catholics) can be conned into thinking the loathsome sleazy bitch* is morally any better than Pol Pot utterly baffles me.

    I’d missed that she was friends with Papa Doc / Baby Doc of Haiti – all I recall of them is that they were too much even for Readers Digest. But not, apparently, for Agnes Bojaxhiu, who was happy to spread her recipe for religiously-enforced misery everywhere.

    “Let us promise Our Lady who loved Ireland so much, that we will never allow in this country a single abortion – and no contraceptives.”
    (at 9:15)
    In response to that – and the only possible practical way to say “Fuck you!” to the spectre of the old ghoul – I just made a small donation to Abortion Support Network who provide practical assistance to Irish women in desperate need. Burn in hell, Saint Bojaxhiu.

    * apologies to d*g lovers

  18. somer
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    The canonisation of Mother Teresa ignores and downplays those clergy and lay people who do real humanitarian work, and there are many who do. Of course, what has to be emphasised the most are the missionary figures or those upholding traditional sexual ethics (and MT did both). Same goes for the more conservative Protestant churches.

  19. Roo
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure what to make of Mother Teresa. While I obviously disagree with what she did if such accusations are true, I also don’t see a lot of evidence that she asked to be evaluated on secular terms, so I don’t necessarily fault her for that. Not saying I *agree, any more than I agree with faith healing, but if a person is more or less up front with their ascetic beliefs, then that’s different from the charity owner who says they meet a certain standard on camera and then funnels donations into offshore accounts. It seems to me that this is more a case of the public making someone a celebrity based on possibly false assumptions, but not really assumptions that she herself was out there propagating. Asceticism is a rough but ancient school of thought – sounds to me like she wasn’t really hiding the fact that this was her orientation. Even dealing with drug dealers and thieves – I mean if that’s a religious sentiment she was consistent with, treat everyone the same, don’t judge, etc. – well, ok, again, that’s not an uncommon sentiment among extremely religious types (Jesus sympathizing with the harlots and sinners and tax collectors and all that.)

    Strangely, there are plenty of Christian missions, hospitals, charities, and so on that do quality work in impoverished areas. Whether or not you agree with the missionary element or underlying motivation aside, they provide 21st century medical care, education, and resources with 21st century transparency and standards (no swindler donations) in things like financial operations. I think something about Mother Teresa’s story spoke to people or, if I’m being more cynical, it was a case of branding and name recognition where, once she had the momentum of her name, there’s a push to promote people who are ‘selling’ the best. I appreciate the motivation, intent, and sentiment behind what she did but I think it’s important to appreciate that she carried it out via her own particular worldview or lens, which is not one that I fully agree with.

  20. Posted September 6, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    The bit about the needles should be enough get anyone thinking, IMO, yet …

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