Film has Catholics ready to picket Documentary attacks Mother Teresa for political associations

June 06, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Don't mess with Mother Teresa.

That's the word to those putting on a film series on religious fundamentalism, which is being sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University.

One of the movies scheduled to be shown next week at the Baltimore Museum of Art has triggered an angry reaction among local Roman Catholics. It's an attack on the diminutive 85-year-old Albanian nun who has spent the last 45 years tending the poor and dying in the squalor of Calcutta. Already people are lining up to defend Mother Teresa, who just visited Baltimore last week to watch 35 members of her order renew their vows at the Basilica of the Assumption.

"Picketing," said Robert M. Forrest, president of the local Catholic League, "is always an option."

The film is titled "Hell's Angel: Mother Teresa of Calcutta." It argues, according to its publicity blurb, "that that seeming model of Christian charity has in fact promoted an especially reactionary strain of her religion, and has thereby served the world's least savory characters."

It tries to connect her to dictators like Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier of Haiti and Enver Hoxha of Albania and accuses her of accepting favors from the American savings and loan felon, Charles Keating. She also is depicted as the key implementer of Pope John Paul II's strategy against abortion, as a publicity hound and a quasi-imperialist because she has opened Missionaries of Charity clinics and hospices in 120 countries, including a Baltimore AIDS hospice.

The film was written and narrated by an English tabloid journalist named Christopher Hitchens. In this country he writes for the Nation and Vanity Fair magazines. He is known in Britain as TC supporter of left-wing causes and regimes. He has also written a thin book about the Nobel Prize-winning nun titled "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice."

Hitchens' personal antipathy toward Mother Teresa comes through more strongly in person than in his movie. He went on WJHU-FM's Marc Steiner Show yesterday and called her "a ghoul.

"Her cult," he said, "is that of death."

Mark Crispin Miller, a Hopkins English professor and one of the organizers of the film series, said he chose "Hell's Angel" because it had been "suppressed" in this country. Hitchens said it has been screened on a few campuses, but not on any mainstream television outlets.

"No one in America would show it," he said. "I tried everyone."

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has complained to WJHU, the Hopkins-owned radio station, about the film and about having Hitchens on the air twice: last Sunday and yesterday on the Marc Steiner show.

Roger Sorkin, producer of the Steiner show, said he invited Cardinal William H. Keeler onto the show with Hitchens but was turned down.

Hitchens "represents a spectrum of journalism that I would say operates on the very fringes of responsibility," said Bill Blaul, the cardinal's spokesman. "In looking looking over his writings and what he says, it is broader than anti-Catholic. It is anti-religious. To put a bigot on the air is highly questionable judgment."

Hitchens says he hates all religion, without discrimination.

If "Hell's Angel" is screened as scheduled next Wednesday, pickets could appear outside the museum. That is one possibility being considered by the local chapter of the Catholic League, a large lay organization.

Forrest, the head of the league's Baltimore branch, has sent a letter of protest to Hopkins' acting president, Daniel Nathans. He said the league is also calling Hopkins trustees and political leaders in Annapolis.

"I find it, as a taxpayer, offensive that a university that receives such a large subsidy from the State of Maryland should turn around and offend the taxpayers that are giving them that subsidy," said Forrest.

Hopkins will receive more than $12 million in state grants this year, according to the Legislative Reference Office.

Many of the league's 2,000 Maryland members are also being informed about the film.

"I've been faxing and telephoning people," said Richard Montalto, a Catholic deacon. "If they are contributors to the radio station, or members of the Baltimore Museum, they will take action. We're not telling anybody what to do. Just making them aware what is going on."

As of yesterday afternoon only two people had telephoned the BMA to express reservations about the Mother Teresa movie, said a museum spokesperson.

The organizers of the film series have been surprised at the uproar. Miller, who also does media criticism for WJHU, said there was no possibility the film would be canceled. In fact it will be shown again, and introduced by Mr. Hitchens, on June 28.

A university spokesman, Dennis O'Shea, also said there would be no attempt to change the film series.

Miller said he had expected objections to other films in the series, like the one on Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, and "Brother Minister" (scheduled as a double feature with the Mother Teresa movie), "which may anger members of the Nation of Islam."

"I don't think the church has anything to fear from this movie," Miller said. "It's about her and about her myth. I don't think any mortal person is exempt from all critical discussion."

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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