Are the criticisms of Mother Teresa fair?

On Sunday, 4 September, Mother Teresa was officially declared to be Saint Teresa. 

As predicted, the critics of this – or any – Catholic celebration were out in force.  In the case of St Teresa, much of the criticism followed a familiar theme.  It is summarised well in an article which appeared in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, written by somebody who looks a little bit young to remember her as anything other than a person from history.  Seb Starcevic writes:

Along with operating a string of hospices in developing regions that often failed to meet basic standards of hygiene set by the medical community — complete with second-hand needles, expired antibiotics and negligent staff — she was known to support stripping women of their legal reproductive rights, refusing to endorse abortion or contraception even when medically advisable.

There seem to be two main objections to Mother’s legacy.  The first is that the quality of care provided to the dying was inadequate, and the second was her pro-life stance, despite living amongst many women who could not afford to feed themselves, let alone their children.

In relation to the quality of the care provided in the Calcutta hospices, I do not really know what to make of this.  There are conflicting reports about the level of medical care available there.  But  I think the criticism stems from a confusion about what the Missionaries of Charity are doing in these areas.  They are not pretending to be medical professionals, providing care which is supposed to be on par with the care available in best practice hospitals.  Instead, they use whatever means they have to provide the care they can to those who seek their assistance, and those who are dying.

A recent article in Forbes provided some key insights into India’s healthcare system. 

The World Health Organisation has ranked India 112 out of 190 countries in terms of health care.  It spends only 4.2% of its national GDP towards healthcare.  Comparatively, the United States (whose healthcare system also has problems) spends 18% of GDP on health.  The healthcare system requires patients to pay 70% of costs up front, meaning that many cannot afford even basic healthcare.  Adding to the access problem, 70% of the population lives in rural areas with little or no access to hospitals and clinics. 

So the people who are cared for by the Sisters do not have the choice to go elsewhere, nor do the Sisters have access to the infrastructure necessary to provide world class care.

They have two options.  They can either allow the inability to do things perfectly to prevent them from doing them at all, or they can persevere through the frustration about not being able to cater for all of the needs of all of the people and through the criticism from those who prefer to sit comfortably on the sidelines and provide the help they can.  It is obvious that Mother Teresa and her Sisters have chosen the latter. 

It is a good lesson to all of us who might fear that we will not succeed in our efforts.  As the oft-cited quote from Saint Teresa goes, God is not asking us to be successful, but faithful.

Now onto the second criticism...  The only reason, I believe, that Saint Teresa could care for the dying for so long is because she had adopted a pro-life ethic which was consistent throughout her ministry.  In order for her to see and affirm the humanity of the dying, she would have had to see the humanity of each and every person, including the unborn.  If she allowed herself to consider any single life as “disposable,” then her ministry would not have been as fruitful and she would not have been able to inspire thousands of women in more than 100 countries to join her in serving the poor and discarded. 

So many, too many, people want the Catholic Church to continue to care for the sick but to stop our advocacy for the unborn.  What they fail to realise is that if we were to ever abandon our commitment to the life of the unborn child, we would have no logical reason to retain our commitment to the sick.  If we declare one life to be disposable, then we consequently declare all life to be so.

Monica Doumit, catholicTalk contributor


Thursday, 15 September 2016 10:05 Written by 


Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.