Mother Teresa – Sacred Cow

Mother Teresa – Sacred Cow

THE Beeb’s television documentary, Nobel 1979 (shown February 10, 1980), predictably concentrated on the peace prize laureate, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. And the good lady, equally predictably, used the opportunity of her globally reported speech of acceptance in Oslo to spout anti-abortion propaganda.

While she was denouncing abortion as the greatest evil of our time (worse, apparently, than torture, terrorism, warfare, or the proliferation of nuclear weapons), the camera’s eye flitted about the sophisticated, Nordic audience, and not a face among them betrayed any uneasy doubts about this message or the fanaticism with which it was expressed, though statistics indicate that most of those present would in reality disagree with her, and many would themselves have had abortions or would have been involved with abortion.

But in Western countries it is simply not done to criticise Mother Teresa. Nowadays you can get away with open criticism of Jesus Christ, but not of Mother Teresa.

In the West, among people of all religions and none, Mother Teresa has become a sacred cow. In India, however – the land of the literal sacred cow and the chief focus of the holy lady’s most publicised charitable work – open criticism of Mother Teresa and her activities is certainly heard. Of the various radio and television programmes that have featured her in Britain, the only one that contained any word of criticism was one recorded in Calcutta, where people actually said:

We do not want her charity.

No doubt some of the recipients are pathetically grateful to this paternalistic – or, rather, maternalistic – emissary of alien affluence and an alien god, for the chance to postpone death by a few days or to die in less discomfort; while others resent the capriciousness of her help, too little too late –or at least feel ambivalent about it. Some of them may even perceive that their penury lends purpose to her life; some may be aware that she opposes the only possible long-term solution to their intractable problems – birth control.

But it would require a knowledge of modern psychology and of Christian theology to understand the deep masochistic motivation of a woman who, as a lifelong “bride of Christ”, sacrifices herself to a lost cause while eschewing the one chance of making any progress with it; and all for the passionate love and adoration of an all-powerful, invisible, aloof being, who apparently chooses to create this colossal mess faster than she can mop it up, while “calling” her to dedicate her life to this Sisyphean task.

None of the other controversial issues on which I express an opinion from time to time ever provokes such horrified expostulation as does the mildest criticism of Mother Teresa – and this response comes from people of every creed, and even from atheists. “But she does so much good!” they all say. Does she really?

If a fraction of the resources she has deployed in Calcutta alone for the purpose of giving some of the dying paupers a little comfort and dignity in their last few hours had been devoted to providing free contraceptive facilities, the amount of human suffering prevented thereby would have been far greater. This, however, would provide no tear- jerking television scenes for the gratification of sentimentalists in the affluent West.

After showing Mother Teresa receiving her Nobel award and making her anti-abortion speech, BBC2 showed a flashback to a visit made by Malcolm Muggeridge to Mother Teresa in Calcutta, when she showed him, and the television camera, that particular day’s haul of newborn babies picked out of dustbins by her helpers. Most of these babies, she explained, had been bom to desperate adolescent girls, who simply left them in dustbins to die.

It struck me that perhaps some of the adolescent mothers placed their babies tenderly on top of the refuse just before the holy sisters made their known daily round of the bins, rather as desperate mothers in this country a century or more ago used to leave their newborn infants on the doorsteps of orphanages – and, indeed, one hopes this is so.

Those who actually do leave their babies to die in dustbins fill one with horror – but so would similar cruelty to a dog or cat or any other animal. They could at least, one feels, snuff out the tiny infant life first. Indeed, the “crime” of infanticide, carried out instantaneously, would probably be the most rational, humane, and moral solution in these extreme circumstances.

Social reasons alone could hardly qualify as a sufficiently strong argument for infanticide in an affluent country, where adoption is always a feasible alternative; but this is not always the case in poor countries likeIndia – and quick infanticide is surely morally permissible, and even moraly preferable when the only likely alternative is slow starvation – though abortion would, of course, be better than humane infanticide; early abortion better than late; and contraception better than abortion.

But the pious Mother Teresa is uncompromisingly opposed to all these solutions. The only forms of birth control she would sanction are the uncertain rhythm method and the unrealistic counsel of perpetual abstinence.

She, together with many of her fellow Christians, would argue that the newborn baby, the foetus, the embryo, and perhaps even the zygote, have a “right to life”. But apart from the medieval doctrine of “original sin” that puts the “immortal soul” of the potential human being in need of  “salvation”, there is no possible philosophical justification for the alleged right to life in the absence of consciousness, of self-identity, and a desire to continue.

For millions of babies in India, starvation, sooner or later, is the order of the day – and it is beyond human ingenuity to feed them all.

Living as she now does in Calcutta, Mother Teresa sees daily the appalling suffering caused by over-population, yet she refuses to accept the need for population control or the humane preferability of birth control over death control.

This is not to deny her obvious sincerity or her many other positive qualities. No one who saw that BBC film clip with Malcolm Muggeridge and the dustbin babies could fail to respond to the manifest maternal feeling with which she picked up one of these little scraps of human life, and the twinkling delight with which she declared that this one was surely going to live since it had the light of life in its eyes.


She is certainly an amazing woman, a warm human being surging with maternal feeling. The normal outlets for this were thwarted by the contemplative religious life which, for the sake of her supernatural lover, was her chosen straitjacket from girlhood to middle age. Only in middle age – a time of  life at which most childless women, and many other people, face a crisis of vocation – did she feel the “call of God” to break out of the enclosed convent life and to found her own active religious order. Her subsequent career, especially its high degree of emotional involvement with the outside world and its public acclaim, must contrast very strangely with her past memories, while compensating to some extent for what she now probably feels were her wasted years.

So Mother Teresa has, besides the minor virtue of sincerity, the major one of warm human feeling and involvement – but even this can be nullified by ignorance, and Mother Teresa’s ignorance is frightening.

Not only is her mind blocked to reason by orthodox religious superstition, but her long years of convent seclusion inevitably kept her innocent of a wide spectrum of common knowledge and experience. For instance, in the television film she used the give-away, emotive phrase “the cries of unborn babies” – indicating a completely erroneous idea of the size and nature of a human embryo. If only someone were to show her the little tadpole-like thing that it really is, or even the narrow diameter of the suction tube used for early abortions, she would surely stop talking such fanciful nonsense.

What it comes down to is this: well-meaning people need to be guided by knowledge and reason as well as by feeling. The road to counterproductive action is paved with the best intentions.

The very week that the BBC screened the Oslo ceremony and the film of Mother Teresa fondling that appealing little scrap of newborn humanity, fired with motherly zeal for saving the tenuous little life and its supposed immortal soul, the Indian electorate gave Indira Gandhi a decisive mandate to implement a massive birth-control programme that could, in a few decades, begin to solve India’s great problems, while Mother Teresa’s sentimental tinkering with them earns her the Nobel Prize.

Much as I deplored Mrs Gandhi’s excessive repression of civil liberties during her former premiership, I have no doubt which of these two women working in India today is the more deserving of international acclaim for attempting to alleviate the terrible human suffering in that country.

Mrs Gandhi is really doing something to save the Titanic, while Mother Teresa rearranges the deck-chairs.

• Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997 in India. Indira Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984.

This piece first appeared in the February, 1980 issue of the Freethinker

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