I did not anticipate this being my first substantive post on this blog. However, with the news of Christopher Hitchens’ passing, it seems timely. I did a cursory search for responses to Christopher Hitchens’ position on Mother Teresa and didn’t find many helpful articles. Accordingly, I’ve provided my own response.
It’s true: Christopher Hitchens was a talented writer. That is, he was able to write well. I don’t have any specific proof, but I’d venture to say “talented writer” is often equated with “veracious writer” or “accurate writer”. One only needs to note the countless polemicists whose malfeasances have regrettably impacted history to see the falsity in such a statement. Hitchens’ writings have never merited this level of criticism, but he is certainly not immune to the charge that his views were imprecise, particularly with regards to Mother Teresa.
What was Christopher Hitchens’ position on Mother Teresa? In his words, Mother Teresa was a “fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”. He questions her ties to Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and noted fraudulent financier Charles Keating; he questions her views on poverty, namely whether she sought to care for the poor, or whether she sought to keep the poor impoverished; he questions her views on Catholic doctrine, alluding that her positions on abortion and divorce surpassed the ultra-orthodox view and, in a peculiar way, toed the line of heresy. Hitchens observed that the Catholic Church has an ability to contain extremism, and that the rush to make Mother Teresa a saint was a function of the containment. The implication is obvious: Mother Teresa was a fanatic fundamentalist whose views on the poor sought to keep poverty extended rather than alleviate it, and that she was not able to conform to the requirements of the Faith as shown by her ultra-orthodox-nearing-heretical beliefs.
Mother Teresa’s views on poverty find an analog in St. Francis of Assisi’s philosophy of poverty. For St. Francis, poverty was to be embraced insofar as it brings one closer to God. How does it do that? Presumably, the less possessions one owns, the less likelihood exists for one to be distracted by them, or, worse, to become obsessed with them. In that sense, poverty was a virtue, because it allowed those participants the chance to ignore material items, which thereby allow total focus on things eternal. In other words, if you were surrounded by material things, you could lose your perspective as to what truly matters: the eternal, for that is where God resides. For a literal example: say you have a lot of nice cars. Your impulse would be drive them; perhaps you’d like to show off the cars you own. This, quite literally, turns the spirit down–down towards the cars, which necessarily have a fleeting nature. Poverty, on the other hand, eliminates that. Furthermore, and even more important, you are able to mimic the life of Christ by disowning your possessions. Christ, I assume, disowned his possessions for this very same reason: to dedicate all of His existence to the Lord.
Hitchens does not see the possibility in poverty, or at least thinks the philosophy of St. Francis is not ripe for the Calcutta children. Rather, Hitchens sees praiseworthiness only if Mother Teresa can help lift the children out of poverty, to break the cycle that keeps generation after generation subordinate to the status quo. If she were to destroy the chains of poverty, then Hitchens would praise her. Until then–if she keeps providing only bare necessities while explaining the virtues of the poor–Hitchens sees Mother Teresa as a part of the cycle she should destroy. Hitchens once said that Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor, she was a friend of poverty.
Htichens’ metric is almost entirely predicated on the objective that the poor be no longer poor; and they can be no longer poor when they receive some modicum of wealth, or, more probably, receive some modicum of civilized help in the form of hospitals, education, and a cognizable way to leave Calcutta.
Aristotle once commented that, in order to engage in the life of philosophic inquiry, one needed necessities of life to do so. In other words, the beggars of Calcutta have no chance until their thoughts shift away from “where will I drink next” and “what food shall I provide for my family”. In a way, Teresa and Hitchens agree with Aristotle. However, the value of poverty relief for the two remains the ultimate issue. For Mother Teresa, the poor must escape base poverty so that they may better appreciate and understand the Lord, as well as learn to subordinate their wn wants and desires to God. If you’ve ever wondered what the Beatitude “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth” meant, I think you can find out in the philosophy of St. Francis and Mother Teresa.
Perhaps Hitchens and Mother Teresa have a conflicting definition of what it means to get out of poverty. For Hitchens, it seems “getting out of poverty” means getting into a modern society. For Mother Teresa, it seems “getting out of poverty” means getting out of extreme poverty–to the extent that one can still function without want of basic necessities–and then to turn their souls to the light of the eternal; to see what truly matters: the divine, and the eternal, and the virtue given to us by the divine.
At this point, Hitchens statement that Teresa was a “friend of poverty” makes less sense. She was not a friend of the institution. Suffering for suffering’s sake has never been advocated by the Catholic Church, or the Holy Father. She is a friend of poverty that allows the soul to see its worth, as its worth is tied to the Lord, not to the Earth. Her goal is to create an environment where needs and wants are given to the Lord, and that the Lord’s plan is entwined in those needs and wants. A community where the Heart of Mary truly reigns: to be servants of Christ, and by being faithful servants, becoming closer to Christ. She is a friend of a mechanism that launches the soul into a higher understanding of what it means to be a child of God.
Saints are not perfect in their lives. Padre Pio had an infamous temper after spending 12 hours in the confessional. However, as a Vatican Official said in response to his temper: “Padre Pio is on the path to perfection. Should we fault him for not having reached the destination?” Mother Teresa’s affiliations with several questionable characters is insufficient to claim that her life was not led conforming to the virtues of the Catholic Faith. Though she may have made some arguable errors, her aggregate service indicates that she was, indeed, on the path of perfection.
Her stances on abortion and divorce were impassioned. Perhaps the Holy Father would not have said “in order to be truly Catholic, you must write in a provision against divorce in a secular country’ constitution”, as Mother Teresa suggested to Ireland. The Church speaks only to divorce. One need not create documents to force fidelity to the Church–that is not a part of the dogma. On the other hand, her insistence that an amendment be made and passed does not rise to the level of heresy. At worst, naieve could be the word used to describe her contention; at best, utopian. It is undeniably true, however, that the Church preaches against divorce. Mother Teresa promulgated that dogma in a zealous way, but it does not give rise to heresy. Her claim that abortion was the greatest destroyer of peace could be hyperbolic, but her emphasis that it should never happen is consistent with the dogmas of the Faith.
Her service to the poor was unique: she wanted them to see the potential to be great, without having to revolutionize the world around her. She wanted them to see that a higher calling in life existed: to know the Lord. For Mother Teresa, had the children sought to hoard material items for the sake of becoming nominally “better”, they would have missed the important message of Christ’s birth in a manger, and Christ’s life in poverty.
Now, who has the better aim? Hitchens wants them, I assume, to be most like Hitchens as possible, in that Hitchens lives in a modern society. Mother Teresa wants them to see that, in their plight, a plight which alleviation is not guaranteed, they may see the beauty, importance, and promise of their own existence. Beyond providing the basic needs of life–which Mother Teresa did–it is not apparent that Hitchens goal of material wealth, or community wealth, to be fairer, can match up to Mother Teresa’s aim. Mother Teresa is more faithful to Aristotle than Hitchens.
Accordingly, Hitchens misses the point of poverty and Mother Teresa. Sure, Hitchens’ arguments against her are all well written, but they have poor reasoning backing them, and a dubious goal for the end of poverty.
Most importantly, this philosophical difference does not rise to the level where Mother Teresa’s sainthood should be in doubt.