On September 4 of this year, Mother Teresa will become Saint Teresa. This is unsurprising; she was beatified in 2003, which is sort of a one-way road to canonization. But it’s the last thing we need. She was no saint.
To canonize Mother Teresa would be to seal the lid on her problematic legacy, which includes forced conversion, questionable relations with dictators, gross mismanagement, and actually, pretty bad medical care. Worst of all, she was the quintessential white person expending her charity on the third world — the entire reason for her public image, and the source of immeasurable scarring to the postcolonial psyche of India and its diaspora.
A 2013 study from the University of Ottawa dispelled the “myth of altruism and generosity” surrounding Mother Teresa, concluding that her hallowed image did not stand up to the facts, and was basically the result of a forceful media campaign from an ailing Catholic Church.
Although she had 517 missions in 100 countries at the time of her death, the study found that hardly anyone who came seeking medical care found it there. Doctors observed unhygienic, “even unfit,” conditions, inadequate food, and no painkillers — not for lack of funding, in which Mother Theresa’s world-famous order was swimming, but what the study authors call her “particular conception of suffering and death.”
“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,” Mother Teresa once told the unamused Christopher Hitchens.
Even within the bounds of Christian notions of blessed meekness, what kind of perverse logic underlies such thinking?
The answer, unsurprisingly, given the locale of her work, is racist colonialism. Despite the 100 countries’ missions, and her Albanian birthplace, Mother Teresa is of India and India begat Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. And there, she became what the historian Vijay Prashad dubbed “the quintessential image of the white woman in the colonies, working to save the dark bodies from their own temptations and failures. “
Her image is entirely circumscribed by colonial logic: that of the white savior shining a light on the world’s poorest brown people.
Mother Teresa was a martyr — not for India’s and the global South’s poor — but for white, bourgeois guilt. (As Prashad says, it functioned as this instead of, not on top of, a “genuine challenge to those forces that produce and maintain poverty.”)
And how did she even help said brown people? Dubiously if at all. She had a persistent “ulterior motive” to convert some of India’s most vulnerable and sick to Christianity, as the chief of a Hindu nationalist NGO said last year. There are even a number of accounts that she and her nuns tried to baptize the dying.
The cross-examination of the nun’s legacy would seem petty were it not for the Church’s breathless campaign to make her into something more.
This campaign started during her own life, when the anti-abortion British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge made Mother Teresa’s public image his singular cross to bear, first through a hagiographic 1969 documentary and then with a 1971 book. He set into motion a public resolve to situate her in the “realm of myth” rather than of history.
Her posthumous beatification was undertaken with the ardency of someone who doesn’t want to get caught. Pope John Paul II waived the normal five-year waiting period after her death for her beatification process to begin and launched it just a year after she died.
You would think that a woman who called for such extraordinary measures was singularly reproachless. Yet Mother Teresa hobnobbed, during her lifetime, with notorious despots like Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier (from whom she accepted the Legion d’Honneur in 1981) and Albania’s Enver Hoxha.
But Mother Teresa’s imminent sainthood is freshly infuriating. We make god in our image and we see holiness in those who resemble us. In this, Mother Teresa’s image is a relic of white, Western supremacy. Her glorification comes at the expense of the Indian psyche . And of a billion Indians and diaspora who were force-fed the notion that it’s different, and better, when white people help us. Who learned that forced conversion is no big deal. Who grew up learning the egregious fact that one of the five five “Indian” Nobel laureates was a woman who let sick people die. Poverty is not beautiful, it’s terrible. Mother Teresa will be the patron saint of white people on gap years, but not of any actual brown person.