What moves a young girl from Skopje to Calcutta, from a perfectly comfortable life to complete submersion in misery? Mother Teresa set out to find the ugliest set of circumstances she could and to install herself in the middle, to find the worst place in the world and make that her home.
Why did she do that?
It may be that the answer cannot quite be understood by those of us who have encountered lepers only as Biblical figures or as monsters (in the true sense of that word, meaning a kind of portent) in medieval literature. Beyond the miracles attributed to Mother Teresa, she certainly was involved in at least one anti-miracle: She inspired Christopher Hitchens to write something very, very stupid, denouncing her as a “fanatic and a fraud.” Fanaticism is a curious thing: One could argue, plausibly, that it was religious fanaticism that drove Mother Teresa and religious fanaticism that drove Osama bin Laden. Indeed, Hitchens made something very like that argument. But fanaticism drove them to very different destinations.
Why did it do that?
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Poverty, contrary to the bedtime stories we like to tell ourselves, is not ennobling. It is a safe bet that many of the people Mother Teresa and her sisters have helped over the years were not especially good people, and that some of them were simply bad people. Perhaps you’ve seen something like this yourself, volunteering at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. For many people, the main problem presented by doing charity work is the sort of people one encounters. We are not supposed to talk about it, but the people helped by food banks and the like have a strange and powerful talent for changing one’s mind about the virtue of helping people at all. That certainly has been my experience, which is one of the many reasons you can pencil in my canonization for never.
We may have our eyes on the next world, but we live in this one. In this world, resources are limited and we must make practical allowances for considerations such as public safety. We make bright-line distinctions between the “deserving poor” (to use the antique phrase) and ordinary bums, and many of us resist the proposition that the instrumental killing of the unborn (who are guiltless) is in a deep and complex way related to the instrumental killing of heinous criminals (who are not guiltless). Some people have it coming, and some don’t. The quick-and-dirty version of ordinary justice is the situation in which everyone gets what he deserves.
Mother Teresa struggled with doubts about her faith, but she remained until the end committed to the belief that a world in which we all get what we deserve isn’t nearly enough.
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If she hadn’t been less than perfect, Mother Teresa would have practiced virtue in the same way that planets orbit stars or that iron oxidizes in the presence of water. She was the same hot human mess as the rest of us, but chose to live as though she weren’t.
Why did she do that?
[T]oo often it seems that attacks on Mother Teresa are ideological — merely a way for people to attack the church’s teachings on sexuality and human life. Most of the accounts note that Teresa was an outspoken proponent of Catholic teachings on contraception, abortion and divorce, which are almost always described as controversial, even within the church.
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But the real scandal is that Teresa’s critics can’t seem to put aside their distaste for Catholicism, not even to recognize the undeniable good that she did for people who had nowhere to turn.