What Can We Learn From the Controversial Sainthood of Mother Teresa?

On September 4, Mother Teresa officially became a saint. Not in a “bless your heart you’re a saint” kind of way, but in the real, Pope approved, miracles verified, legitimate kind of way.

If you’re not an expert on Catholicism or India’s economy (hello, most of the world), Mother Teresa is probably a vaguely mythological creature. She’s known for her tireless work serving the poor, winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and the many, many inspirational quotes attributed to her.

But she is not without controversy.

Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, a physician who works in England, has spent years criticizing Mother Teresa for her coercive conversion tactics and accused her of providing subpar medical care to those she served. He also objects to the image she popularized of Kolkata as an overwhelmingly destitute and impoverished city.

For the most part his criticism of the most beloved woman to have ever lived was met with silence or contempt. This has only intensified Chatterjee’s attempts to shed light on what she actually did. One of his most well known attempts to shed some light on the work Mother Teresa actually did is the documentary, Hell’s Angel, which he worked on in the 1990s with Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens wrote scathingly about Mother Teresa, criticizing her frugality (it could be excessive), her condemnation of abortion and contraceptives (she was Catholic), and her fetishization of poverty.

“I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ,” Hitchens quotes Mother Teresa as saying. “I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

It was this glorification of the destitute that led Hitchens to conclude:

“She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.”

Hitchens and Chatterjee both believe people should be more skeptical of the media image they have been fed of Mother Teresa. Krithika Varagur of The Huffington Post agrees, arguing her reputation was “basically the result of a forceful media campaign from an ailing Catholic Church.”

Whatever the cause of her angelic reputation, on September 4 it was permanently immortalized.

During her lifetime and even more so after her death, Mother Teresa has existed to most of us not as a person, but as a figure of speech. The official canonization of Mother Teresa does officially what most of us have done unofficially for years. It makes her something other than human.

There’s no doubt Mother Teresa was an enigma. She felt like God told her to quit her job and serve the poorest of the poor and so she did. Then she didn’t hear from God for forty years. She took money from sketchy donors and refused to disclose what happened to the millions of dollars she received. She claimed to treat everyone like Jesus and criticized the luxuries that insulate people from suffering.

She was, like all humans, contradictory, infuriating, alive. Now, she is no longer a person and we can boil down the narrative of her life to one word: Saint.

Calling her a saint allows us to distance ourselves from the magnitude of her life. Quitting your job to serve the poor, shunning common luxuries—these are not things normal people do, they are what saints do. We should reject this idea entirely. The uncomfortable truth of her failures existing alongside the otherworldly perfection she exhibited proves a saint is the perfect category for Mother Teresa. She earned it not because she was perfect, but because she was perfectly human.

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