It took two years of research, writing and peer review before three Canadian academics came up with their scathing paper, ‘Les cotes tenebreux de Mere Teresa’ (The Dark Side of Mother Teresa), which has triggered a fresh appraisal of the lady known as the Saint of the Gutters. The study—authored by Professors Serge Larivee and Genevieve Chenard of the University of Montreal along with Carole Senechal of the University of Ottawa—was published in the March edition of the academic journal, Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses. In a telephonic interview with Anirudh Bhattacharyya, one of the authors—Genevieve Chenard, a professor at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psycho Education—discusses the findings:
Where did the idea for this particular study originate? After all, Mother Teresa has been dead for over 15 years.
It was in an ethics class. We were reading for special work. We were discussing altruism and Mother Teresa came up because she was an example. So, we started working on this.
In your research, you argue that Mother Teresa was “anything but a saint”. However, till 1969, her work had received virtually no publicity. What changed?
We think it started with a movie shoot (which became the documentary Something Beautiful For God), led by Mr (Malcolm) Muggeridge. He went to Calcutta to see Mother Teresa and her work there. He wanted to film in the house of the dying and then there was little light there. So, the cameraman, Mr (Ken) McMillan, he used a new kind of Kodak film. When they saw the film, the shots were bright and when Mr Muggeridge saw it, he claimed it was a miracle. This is why she became popular in the media after that time.
So, based on your research, your contention is that she was a media creation?
We found 287 books and articles on Mother Teresa (of which) 153—a little more than 50 per cent—were hagiography. We think Mother Teresa was doing what she thought was good. We are not claiming she was pretending. I think people like her because it made them feel better. I think that’s why the media focused on her work.
Did her work actually merit this larger-than-life aura?
I don’t think that was real. I think the media helped with everything; it may have done more for her work than what was real. Without that journalistic work, we may not have had this.
You have also criticised what you describe as her dogmatic Catholic values....
She won the Nobel Prize for Peace. When she got that, she said abortion was the worst thing against peace. I don’t understand how abortion in the case of a woman who was raped could work against peace. There are many other contradictions. Like she was against divorce, but in the case of Lady Diana she agreed with the divorce. These are questions that should have been asked before she got the Nobel.
You’ve also questioned some of her financial dealings.
She took money, for example, from Haiti, from ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. She took the money to help the poorest of the poor around the world. But the money she got at that time was already stolen from a very poor population. Those things, it seems to us, are like contradictions, because you don’t steal from someone to give to another.
You also believe that the beatification process was hurried through by the Vatican.
I cannot speak for the Vatican. John Paul II wanted to make a lot of saints or people who were beatified. Mother Teresa was just one of them. What we know is that they went through the process faster for her than for many others. What we know is that they never questioned the contradictions. Maybe it was to regain popularity or because the Catholic Church needed a figure to be proud of. Obviously, she was already considered a saint during her lifetime. It was kind of logical for them to propose her for sainthood once she was dead.
You also question the treatment at centres run by the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta....
There was a lack of medication and ways to treat people. Many doctors went there and saw that conditions were very poor. A lot of pills, medications were missing, people were living in a poor condition. They didn’t really treat the sick people. She was just having them over there, because, for her, suffering makes you feel like Jesus was feeling on the cross. So suffering was a good thing in her thoughts. That’s what she was offering to people, being very near to Jesus by suffering and dying this way. They had a lot of money. She could have built the most technologically modern hospital of India at that time. But suffering was a good thing for her.
So there was underutilisation of funds?
What we learned is that there was about $5 million in all the accounts. She raised almost $100 million before 1980. What happened is that around 5 to 7 per cent went to the charity for medicines, things like that. The other money went to build some houses for the missionaries. Just five per cent went to the cause.
Do you believe she deserved the Nobel or the other accolades she won, like India’s Bharat Ratna?
Good question. I don’t think she deserved the Nobel Prize at that time. I think for giving the Nobel, there should have been much more research into what she did. I don’t understand why this was a prize for peace. We really think she inspired a lot of people to do good for others. We just think a lot of questions should be asked before she is declared a saint. If you were to tell me she would be made a saint because she gave a lot to the Church and the Catholic religion, that’s probably true. She did a lot for the Catholic Church. We’re just saying that making her a saint because she treated sick people is maybe not as real as it seems.
Would you say the net effect of her life is positive?
I suppose it is. But before that, we must evaluate the effect of all those charity missions around the world. The intention is good but we don’t know anything about the effect. Everybody in the world can help someone, but maybe the effect after that is negative.
What feedback have you received on this work?
It’s balanced, many positive and many negative. But what is interesting is the positive feedback talks a lot about the article and what it contains. The negative does not attack the article at all. It just attacks the authors, ad hominem attacks—that we should read the Bible, exorcise ourselves.
Your research was based on published documentation. Did you do field work in Calcutta at all?
No. But I’d like to go to Calcutta.
How long did the research take you?
Just the research and writing the article took more than a year. But it was very long because we had to send the text to many people for peer review and then we had to correct the text. It took two years to complete the article.
Apropos Saint or Spinner? (Mar 18), Mother Teresa is more the former, to answer the question posed on your cover. No one is born a saint: your thoughts, words, deeds make you one. The dreaded robber Ratnakar became the venerable Valmiki.
S. Raghunatha Prabhu, Alapuzha
There’s too much armchair research here (and pedestrian at that) from these Canadian academicians. A few weeks at any of Mother Teresa’s institutions, caring for the abandoned child, embracing the leper and helping the destitute would have been time better spent.
Fr Cedric Prakash S.J., Ahmedabad
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
These three Canadian academics are entitled to their viewpoint. In any case, they constitute neither the selection committee for the Nobel Prize nor for the Bharat Ratna. The name they have chosen for their work "The Dark Side of ...." seems to imply a rather high level of sanctimony on their part and may well have been chosen to gain some publicity - in which they seem to have succeeded to some extent.
Read the interview and see the undelying theme. The people in the mother's houses did not have modern medicines and poor nutrition! It proves the point that for instant fame and publicity, nothing is better or easier than scandalize any good done by a soft targets like mother Theresa (or Gandhi for that matter). These so called "academics" whom nobody knew have become media celebrities now. The mindset behind this kind of thinking and work is the inability to understand that there are some people (maybe only a few) who are motivated not by greed and selfishness, but by a higher force to help fellow humans, as the breed exemplified by these writers do not have, and can not understand how some others could be motivated by a genuine desire to help fellow humans.
>> Please read 'doffoculties' as 'difficulties' in the previous post. The error is deeply regretted.
Errata : Please read 'doffoculties' above as 'dofficulties'. :)
@Arun : No need to be so apologetic. Readers take such doffos,doffis,diffis in their stride. There's an inbuilt mechanism that automatically corrrects these, unless it is likely to lead to ambiguity.
Please read 'doffoculties' as 'difficulties' in the previous post. The error is deeply regretted.
Mother Teresa explained that she and her sisters were not social workers. They were doing their work for Christ. Surely, of all people, it is the Indians who, with their wonderful reputation, can help Genevieve Chenard with her theological dofficulties?
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