For the historical record, it must be said why, despite her good work, Mother Teresa had critics

A GOOD BOOK WITH TROUBLING VERSES

September 14, 1997|By JOSEPH GALLAGHER

Mother Teresa once joked that if you want to give God a laugh, tell him your plans. Her plans, fulfilled and unfulfilled, would surely make any deity smile.

Although Jesus warned his followers that they would be "hated by all for my name's sake," the woman born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was one disciple who evoked global smiles and enjoyed almost universal acclaim - the Nobel Peace Prize, countless laudatory stories in journals everywhere, honorary U.S. citizenship. It had been reported that Pope John Paul II was thinking of making her a cardinal. There is no doctrinal reason why he might not have done so.

Much more likely is a speedy canonization by the pope, as the top cardinal in the Vatican said a few days ago.

Mother Teresa named herself after Therese of Lisieux, a French saint devoted to prayer and sacrifice for the missions. Just weeks ago, the pope said that next month that he would name "the Little Flower" a doctor of the church - only the third woman to be so honored. It will probably not be mentioned that she believed women should be ordained priests.

Worldwide praise has rightfully been accorded to Mother Teresa's memory. Nevertheless, the historical record requires some explanation of why she had her critics.

For a number of years, medical observers have felt reservations about her style of care of the needy. Her hospices seemed too monastic in their rules for patients, and too much geared to holy dying rather than to pain relief and healing.

She coined a magnificent phrase when she said a person with acquired immune deficiency syndrome is Jesus in his most effective disguise, but many stories have been told of AIDS patients begging friends to rescue them from the stringencies of her hospices.

Mother Teresa held absolutist opinions on various moral matters. In a rare instance of flexibility, she was rather elitist: She said that she should preach family unity and love, but it was good that one marriage was over - that of her friend, the late Princess Diana.

I personally found her judgment on women who have had an abortion oddly unforgiving. She said she would never allow such a woman to adopt a child under her care. Whatever became of the chance to make up for the past?

She boasted of having rescued about 5,000 children. That's admirable, of course. But in India alone, a million children are born each month, and on the planet, 5,000 children younger than 5 die every day from disease and hunger.

If you are over 40, you belong to the first group in history that has lived through a doubling of the human race's population, mostly in the poorest parts of the globe. By 2010, there will be another billion of us.

Yet, Mother Teresa was adamantly opposed to contraception. She is reported to have said that there can never be too many human beings. She presumably believed that God is glorified by the sheer number of those praising him and attaining heaven, no matter how wretched their earthly lives.

This kind of piety rightly scandalized atheists and agnostics, not to mention sensitive believers whose grasp of the tragic facts forbids them to assume simplistically that God will provide.

Faith can be a way of seeing, but at times it can be a form of blindness.

Mother Teresa described as "all this useless talk" a 1968 meeting of 600 Roman Catholic religious figures in India seeking to implement the Second Vatican Council. "Prayer and simple action" were all she felt was needed. Several popes and most of the bishops in her church have thought otherwise.

Saintly folks sometimes have rather odd ideas. Back in the 1960s, a Baltimore priest tried to get some Franciscan nuns to join a civil rights protest. When their superior said no because she thought that such a public protest was inappropriate for nuns, the priest recalled that St. Francis had once stripped himself in public. "Yes, father," she replied, "but you must remember that our holy founder was an extremist."

One can admire saintly people without denying that some of their actions and ideas are extremist, unrealistic and/or naive. Or all too refreshingly human.

The last time St. Teresa of Avila talked with her adviser, St. John of the Cross, they had a heated, unresolved argument in 1582 over her plans to found another convent. During the Great Schism of 1378-1417, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Vincent Ferrer took opposite sides on the question of who was the valid pope.

Mother Teresa's best-known and latter-day critic is Englishman Christopher Hitchens, a writer for the Nation and Vanity Fair. In 1994, he wrote a 30-minute documentary film on her, scurrilously titled "Hell's Angel." In 1995, he published a 96-page book titled "The Missionary Position," which elaborated on themes in the film.

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