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THE MISSIONARY POSITION:
Mother Teresa's Crimes Against Humanity


by Danny Postel
09/15/98

An interview with Christopher Hitchens

What exactly inspired you to write a book about Mother Teresa?

I went to Calcutta—for a different reason—a few years ago. There was a general election in India, and I was actually making a documentary about a fraudulent cult movement there. I didn't go specifically to Calcutta, in other words, to see Mother Teresa. But when I was there I thought: here is probably not only the greatest name recognition in the second part of the 20th century for an ordinary human being—someone who isn't in power, so to speak— but also the most fragrant name recognition.

Apparently the only name about whom no one had anything but good to say. Now I will have to admit—no I won't have to admit, I'm proud to admit— that this was enough to make me skeptical to start off with. Call me old-fashioned if you will; say I have a nasty mind if you like. I won't say I'm a practicing Catholic or even a sympathizer with the Holy Mother Church, because I'm not. And I have my reservations in any case about the whole idea of the Christian missionary project in India and its historic links to British imperialism and the rest of it.

Okay. I went with an open mind, with the constraints I've just identified; it was as open as I could get it. And there she was. And you felt when you saw that grizzled face: I've known this face all my life. She gave me a tour; we went around a small orphanage—drop-in-the-bucket size, but quite nice.

So it began as an amicable encounter?

Indeed. I was even sort of thinking, hmmm. . . maybe I should fumble for some money. And with a gesture of the arm that took in the whole scene of the orphanage, she said: you see this is how we fight abortion and contraception in Calcutta. And I thought: Oh I see—so you actually say that do you? Because it had crossed my mind that part of her work was to bear witness for the Catholic creed regarding the population question, to propagandize for the Churchís line. But I hadnít realized it was so unmediated. I mean, that she would want to draw my attention to the fact that this was the point.

I donít know Calcutta terrifically well, but I know it quite well. And I would say that low on the list of the things that it needs is a Christian campaign against population control. And I speak as someone whoís personally very squeamish on the abortion question. People who campaign vigorously against contraception, I think, are in a very weak position to lay down the moral law on abortion.

So I thought, okay, thatís interesting. And then I noticed something else which I guess Iíd noticed already without realizing it. Calcutta has the reputation as being a complete hell hole thanks to Mother Teresa. You get the impression from her that it's a place where people are just about able to brush the flies from their childrenís eyes, the begging bowl is fully out, that people are on their knees and crawling.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Calcutta is one of the most vibrant and interesting cities in the world. Itís full of film schools, universities, bookstores and cafťs. It has a tremendously vibrant political life. Itís the place that produced the films of Satyajit Ray. Itís a wonderful city. It's architecturally beautiful. And the people do not beg. Theyíre not abject. Theyíre very poor; some sleep on the street, but theyíre usually working and hustling at something. They donít grovel, as in some parts of India I must say they do.

Itís hugely overpopulated partly because of the refugees, mainly from the successive wars of religion—stupid wars about God that have been fought in the neighborhood. Thatís not its fault. Itís basically a secular town. So I thought: What a pity that Mother Teresa should have given this great city such a bad name and made us feel condescending toward it.

So partly for the honor of Calcutta, and partly out of my feeling that her actions are being judged by her reputation rather than her reputation by her actions (a common postmodern problem in the image business of course, but amazing in this case), I sort of opened a file on her, kept a brief. And then I noticed her turning up supporting the Duvalier family in Haiti, for example, and saying how wonderful they were and how great they were for the poor and how the poor loved them.

What a coincidence. . .

Yes. And then I noticed her taking money from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan and saying what a great friend of the poor this great fraud and thief was. Then I noticed her get the Nobel Prize for Peace though she had never done anything for peace. And say in her acceptance speech in Stockholm that the greatest threat to world peace is abortion.

Then I noticed another thing. That no matter what she said or did at this time nobody would point it out because she had some kind of hammer lock on my profession. It had been agreed she was a saint and there was to be no argument about it. So I thought, okay, that does it, and I wrote a column for The Nation. That was all I did at first. And then I got approached from some comrades in Britain to make a documentary based on the column, and we found that an amazing number of her crimes against humanity were actually on film.

There is film of her going to Albania and laying a wreath at the tomb of the dictator Enver Hoxha, vile bastard who oppressed Albania for years. She was Albanian by nationality, incidentally. Born in Macedonia. There was film of her groveling to the Duvaliers and flattering and fawning on Michele Duvalier in particular. There was film of her jetting around on Charles Keatingís plane which he used to lend her as well as giving her a lot of money that belonged to other people.

How how did she explain things like this?

She was never asked to.

She was simply never approached with these questions?

No. Nor have any of her defenders—many of whom have attacked me or my motives—ever come up with any reply. Iíve had acres of print reviewing this book, certainly in every country where English is spoken, including, by the way, a lot of very intelligent and interesting reviews in India. But also a lot in Britain and Ireland and the U.S. and Australia and so on. And a lot of it has been very abusive—from the faithful—which I expected and donít mind.

But what did interest me was that at no point did anyone say: "Hitchens falsely accuses Mother Teresa of groveling to the Duvaliers." Nothing like that. It was: "Hitchens attacks a woman who is older than him and helpless." Well excuse me. If I had attacked her thirty years ago it would have been alright? I mean infantile stuff of this kind. A real refusal to think that people might have been wrong, in other words. She was interviewed last year by the Ladyís Home Journal. I donít know if you get that publication.

I had just cancelled my subscription around that time. Afraid I missed it.

What a pity. In any case, they asked her what the effect of my book had been. And I wondered what her reply had been. She said it had been to get her to cut down on the number of interviews she gave to the press and to instruct her nuns when reporters came to Calcutta to say that she wasnít in.

In other words to lie. As a matter of fact I donít think she meant to keep this resolution because she remained more or less the recepient of uniformly heroic publicity. She did in the course of this interview say another interesting thing worthy of mention as an instance of what I mean about her morality.

They asked her about her friendship with Princess Diana. The two had become very matey. They had several meetings over the last few years. I think you can probably guess what each wanted from the other. And both of them got it. It made sort of the perfect friendship in a way. In any case, she was asked about Princess Diís divorce. She said, yes, theyíre divorced and itís very sad but I think itís all for the best; the marriage was not working, no one was happy and Iím sure itís better that they separate.

Two months before that Mother Teresa had been campaigning in Ireland on the referendum to lift the constitutional ban on divorce there. Ireland was the only country in Europe that had a constitutional ban on divorce and remarriage for women. It was a very hard-fought campaign for obvious reasons. First it was going to bring Ireland into the European family, as not having church-legislated law. Second it was very important in the negotiations for the Protestants in the north who quite justifiably, in my view, will never agree to be governed by the Vatican.

So most Irish political parties said, look, we really must show that the Vatican doesnít control life here. So a lot was hanging on it. And third, obviously, because Irish women should have the right to get divorced and remarry. Mother Teresa took the stand on this referendum and said: There will be no forgiveness for you if you vote for this.

Unless you happen to be the Princess of Wales.

Unless it turns out youíre the Princess of Wales. In other words it's pretty much like the state of indulgences in the Middle Ages. The bulk of humanity is described as a bunch of miserable sinners condemned to everlasting hell unless theyíve got the price of a pardon, which they can purchase at the nearest papacy. Itís no better than that. In fact itís slightly worse given the advances we think weíve made in the meantime. I've said this repeatedly. But I might as well not have bothered as far as most people are concerned. They simply do not judge her reputation by her actions. They consistently do the reverse and judge her actions by her reputation.

You mentioned the money she got from Charles Keating. The court attempted to contact her to let her know how Keating had gone about obtaining that money. Her response to the court says it all.

When Mr. Keating was finally brought to justice after the embezzlement of that titanic sum of money that weíre all still paying off—because, as you know, among the key principles of Clintonism is that private debts are covered by public money—he was sentenced to the maximum that California law allows, which heís still serving. The court, interestingly enough, was Judge Itoís court.

As in the judge for the first O.J. Simpson trial?

That's the one. Mother Teresa wrote to the court and said, look, Charles Keating is a great friend of the poor and a lovely man and you should go easy on him. I reprinted her letter, in which she says if heís done anything wrong she canít believe it and she doesnít know what it is. The deputy D.A. of L.A. County a very clever guy by the name of Paul Turley, who I would say from his letter must at least have been a Catholic in his life, if he isnít still. He wrote her back a letter, explaining the process by which Keating had separated really large numbers of poor people from their life savings without any scruple at all or remorse, and then pointed out that in their audits they discovered that quite a lot of the money he had stolen heíd given to Mother Teresa. He said, now that you know this when are you going to give it back? At this point she broke off the correspondence and made no move to return the money.

Let's say she really didnít know. Letís make the assumption of innocence and imagine that when she wrote the letter to the court she really had no idea what Keating had been doing. Well, she knew subsequently because the letter is extremely careful and highly persuasive and very well-sourced. She knew she was in receipt of stolen money. She did nothing to redeem that. As a matter of fact itís not possible to discover anything about what is done with the huge fortune she amassed. Thereís no audit. Nobody knows what the accounts are; itís impossible to get at them. But I can tell you where it isnít going. Itís not going to the hospices and orphanages of Calcutta, because Iíve been to them and so have many other people.

Most people are surprised first off at the sheer primitiveness of the poverty and backwardness of these places. I mean when Mother Teresa got sick she didn't go there—let me put it like that. People go there to die; thereís not much else you can do. Needles are washed in cold water. There have been many reports in the medical journals of really squalid and primeval conditions there. So thatís not where the moneyís going.

With half the money she got just from the prizes sheís been given she could have built a teaching hospital for Calcutta; she certainly never did that. If you wonder where itís gone my best guess would be the interview she gave where she said sheís opened convents in more than 150 countries. Sorry to have to break the news to people who think their money is going to the relief of the poor of Calcutta. Instead, they've just equipped a nice chalice-infested convent richly decorated with lots of incense somewhere in Kenya.

Aside from this sort of muckraking you do in the book, you also explore Mother Teresa as symbol, as icon: the place she occupies in the cultural imagination of the industrial world. What is it, precisely, that she symbolizes? What do we need her for?

I make the case in the book that sheís symbolic indeed, or emblematic, of two things larger than herself. One, the fact that the rich world has a poor conscience—a poor conscience about what it used to call the Third World. It knows it doesnít do much about it. It likes to think someone is doing it and hands off the task vicariously to the old mission racket and probably therefore doesnít want to hear this isnít all that it appears or all that it might be.

Thatís only one aspect of the way in which religious figures are given this sort of special pass on credulity. It's either consciously or subconsciously assumed that a person of the cloth actually has better morals. There's precious little evidence of this; thereís a great deal of evidence to the contrary, in fact. But somehow itís still considered—especially in a country like America which suffers from a sort of mediocre version of multiculturalism—a possibly offensive thing to suggest. Because youíre not attacking a religion; you're attacking the Catholic community—a rather different proposition. And the idea of offending that is anathema to so many people.

Do you think the title of the book might have contributed this? Could it have deterred certain people from even opening it up?

It was a risk one ran. Once I thought of the title I realized I was gonna have to do it. I was very hurt by somebody describing the title as "sophomoric," because itís a triple entendre, which is not all that common. You have three layers of pun. I had wanted to call it Sacred Cow (laughter), but that would have had only one pun in it. The Missionary Position has two.

What are the multiple meanings, after all?

Well, there's the theory and practice of the missionary—the idea of the evangelizing of the world by Christians, which has this long imperial history. There's Mother Teresa's desire to have control over the sex lives of the poor—in other words, her belief that only Princess Diana had the right to get divorced, that there should be no contraception, etc. She adopted the most extreme version of all Catholic teaching on matters of sex and reproduction and did so in countries where it is actually possible, if the church is powerful enough, to withhold these things from people, to deny them access to contraception. And her extraordinary view that abortion is the greatest threat to world peace. And the third meaning is one Iíve forgotten, but Iím sure some of your listeners will remember... [ L i P ]

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Author: Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for The Nation and Vanity Fair. His most recent book is The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso).
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