Mother Teresa's timing shows every sign of instinctive genius. She possesses an intuition about the need for her message and about the way in which this message should be delivered. To take a relatively small example: in 1984 the Indian town of Bhopal was the scene of an appalling industrial calamity. The Union Carbide plant, which had been located in the town to take advantage of low labour costs and government tax incentives, exploded and spilled toxic chemicals over a large swathe of the citizenry. Two and a half thousand persons perished almost at once, and many thousands more were choked by lung-searing emissions and had their health permanently impaired. The subsequent investigation revealed a pattern of negligence and showed that previous safety warnings at the plant had been shelved or ignored. Here was no 'Act of God', as the insurance companies like to phrase it in the fine print of their contracts, but a shocking case of callousness on the part of a giant multinational corporation. Mother Teresa was on the next plane to Bhopal. At the airport, greeted by throngs of angry relatives of the victims, she was pressed to give her advice and counsel, and she did so unhesitatingly. I have a videotape of the moment. 'Forgive,'she said. 'Forgive, forgive.'
On the face of it, a strange injunction. How did she know there was anything to forgive? Had anybody asked for forgiveness? What are the duties of the poor to the rich in such a situation? And who is authorized to recommend, or to dispense, forgiveness? In the absence of any answer to these questions, Mother Teresa's flying visit to Bhopal read like a hasty exercise in damage control, the expedient containment of righteous secular indignation.
And now a photograph, or pair of photographs. Mother Teresa is seated in earnest conversation with Ronald Reagan and his chief of staff, Donald Regan. Both men wear expressions of the most determined sincerity. The photo opportunity occurs inside the White House in May 1985. Mother Teresa has been chosen to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her companions for the day are Frank Sinatra, James Stewart and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, among other recipients. At the moment when the shutter falls on this shot, Ronald Reagan has every reason to be careful of Catholic susceptibility. His policy in Central America, which has resulted in his Cabinet officers defending the murders of four American nuns and the Archbishop of San Salvador, is deeply unpopular with the voters. One of his more daring lies—the claim that he had received a personal message from the Pope supporting his policy in the isthmus—has had to be retracted after causing considerable embarrassment. In the basement of the very building where Mother Teresa sits, a Marine Colonel named Oliver North (who foresook the Catholic Church for evangelical Pentecostalism after being vouchsafed a personal vision) is toiling away on an enterprise which will nearly succeed in destroying the Presidency that spawned it.
Stepping on to the portico of the White House, flanked by Ronald and Nancy, Mother Teresa knows just what to say: "I am most unworthy of this generous gift of our President, Mr Reagan, and his wife and you people of the United States. But I accept it for the greater glory of God and in the name of the millions of poor people that this gift, in spirit and in love, will penetratethe hearts of the people."
This kind of modesty—speaking for God and for the poor—is now so standard on her part that nobody even notices it. Then: "I've never realized that you loved the people so tenderly. I had the experience, I was last time here, a sister from Ethiopia found me and said 'Our people are dying. Our Children are dying. Mother, do something.' And the only person that came in my mind while she was talking, it was the President. And immediately I wrote to him, and I said, 'I don't know, but this is what happened to me.' And next day it was that immediately he arranged to bring food to our people....Together, we are doing something beautiful for God."
Here was greater praise than Reagan could possibly have asked or hoped for. Not only was he told that he 'loved the people so tenderly' but he was congratulated for his policy in Ethiopia. That policy, as it happened, was to support the claim of the Ethiopian ruling junta—the Dergue—to the supposed 'territorial integrity' of the Ethiopian empire, which included (then) the insurgent people of Eritrea. General Mengistu Haile Mairam had deliberately used the weapon of starvation not just against Eritrea but also against domestic and regional dissent in other regions of the country. This had not prevented Mother Teresa from dancing attendance upon him and thereby shocking the human rights community, which had sought to isolate his regime. That very isolation, however, had provided opportunities for 'missionary work' to those few prepared to compromise. To invest such temporal and temporizing politics with the faint odour of sanctity, let alone with Mother Teresa's now familiar suggestion of the operations of divine providence ('And next day it was...') is political in the extreme, but the White House press corps, deliberately ignorant of such considerations, duly gave the visit and the presentation its standard uncritical treatment.
Doctor's DilemmaAn account of Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying in Calcutta by a doctor and a volunteer
THOSE prepared to listen to criticism of Mother Teresa's questionable motives and patently confused socio-logical policy are still inclined to believe that her work is essentially humane. Surely, they reason, there is something morally impressive in a life consecrated to charity. If it were not for the testimony of those who have seen the shortcomingsand contradictions of her work firsthand, it might be sufficient argument, on the grounds that Mother Teresa must have some genuine good for the world's suffering people.
Take, as one unremarked example, the visit of Dr Robin Fox to the Mother Teresa operation in Calcutta in 1994. As editor of The Lancet , perhaps the world's leading medical journal, Dr Fox was professionally interested in, and qualified to pronounce upon, the standards of care. The opening paragraphs of his report in the journal's 17 September, 1994, issue also make it clearthat he paid his visit with every expectation of being favourably impressed. Indeed, his tone of slightly raised-eyebrow politeness never deserts him:
"There are doctors who call in from time to time but usually the sisters and volunteers (some of whom have medical knowledge) make decisions as best they can. I saw a young man who had been admitted in poor shape with high fever, and the drugs prescribed had been tetracycline and paracetamol. Later a visiting doctor diagnosed probable malaria and substituted chloroquine. Could not someone have looked at a blood film? Investigations, I was told, are seldom permissible. How about simple algorithms that might help the sisters and volunteers distinguish the curable from the incurable? Again no. Such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home. Mother Teresa prefers providence to planning; her rules are designed to prevent any drift towards materialism : the sisters must remain on equal terms with the poor. ...Finally, how competent are the sisters at managing pain? On a short visit, I could not judge the power of their spiritual approach, but I was disturbed to learn thatthe formulary includes no strong analgesics. Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Teresa's approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer." [Emphasis added.]
It should be underlined that the state of affairs described by Dr Fox was not that obtaining in some amateur, impoverished clinic in a disaster zone. Mother Teresa has been working in Calcutta for four and a half decades, and for nearly three of them she has been favoured with immense quantities of money and material. Her 'Home for theDying', which was the part of her dominion visited by Dr Fox, is in no straitened condition. It is as he described it because that is how Mother Teresa wishes it to be. The neglect of what is commonly understood as proper medicine or care is not a superficial contradiction. It is the essence of the endeavour, the same essence that is evident in a cheerful sign which has beem filmed on the wall of Mother Teresa's morgue. It reads 'I am going to heaven today.'
According to many other former volunteers, Dr Fox may have paid his visit on an unusually good day, or may have been unusually well looked after. Mary London, a volunteer in Calcutta who has since written extensively about the lives of nuns and religious women, has this testimony to offer about the Home for the Dying:
"My initial impression was of all the photographs and footage I've ever seen of Belsen and places like that, because all the patients had shaved heads. No chairs anywhere, there were just these stretcher beds. They're like First World War stretcher beds.
There's no garden, no yard even. No nothing. And I thought what is this? This is two rooms with fifty to sixty men in one, fifty to sixty women in another. They're dying. They're not being given a great deal of medical care, They're not being given painkillers really beyond aspirin and maybe if you're lucky some Brufen or something, for the sort of pain that goes with terminal cancer and the things they were dying of....
"They didn't have enough drips. The needles they used and re-used over and over and over and you would see some of the nuns rinsing needles under the cold water tap. And I asked one of them why she was doing it and she said: 'Well to clean it.' And I said, 'Yes, but why are you not sterilising it; why are you not boilingwater and sterilizing your needles?' She said: 'There's no point. There's no time.'
"The first day I was there when I'd fin-ished working in the women's ward I went and waited on the edge of the men's ward for my boyfriend, who was looking after a boy of fifteen who was dying, and an American doctor told me that she had been trying to treat this boy. And that he had a really relatively simple kidney complaint that had simply got worse because he hadn't had antibiotics. And he actually needed an operation. I don't recall what the problem was, but she did tell me. And she was so angry, but also very resigned which so many people become in that situation. And she said, 'Well, they won't take him to hospital.' And I said: 'Why? All you have to do is get a cab. Take him to thenearest hospital, demand that he has treatment. Get him an operation.' She said: 'They don't do it. They won't do it. If they do it for one, they do it for everybody.' And I thought—but this kid is fifteen."
Bear in mind that Mother Teresa's global income is more than enough to outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal. The decision not to do so, and indeed to run instead a haphazard and cranky institution which would expose itself to litigation and protest were it run by any branch of the medical profession, is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.
Taking Lessons from Dictators
ON my table as I write is an old copy of L'Assaut ( The Attack ). It is, or more properly it was, a propaganda organ for the personal despotism of Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti. As the helplessly fat and jowly and stupid son of a very gaunt and ruthless and intelligent father (Jean-Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier), the portly Dauphin was known to all, and to his evident embarrassment, as 'Baby doc'. In an attempt to salvage some dignity and to establish an identity separate from that of the parental, L'Assaut carried the subtitle 'Organe de Jean-Claudisme'.
On the inside, next to a long and adoring account of the wedding anniversary of Haiti's bulbous First Citizen and his celebrated bride, Michele Duvalier, is a large photograph. It shows Michele, poised and cool and elegant in her capacity as leader of Haiti's white and Creole elite. Her ban-gled arms are being held in a loving clasp by another woman, who is offering up a gaze filled with respect and deference. Next to the picture is a quotation from this other woman, who clearly feels that her sycophantic gestures are not enough and that words must be offered as well: 'Madame la Presidente, c'est une personne qui sent, qui sait, qui veut prouver son amour non seulement par des mots, mais aussi par des actions concretes et tangibles.' The neighbouring Society page takes up the cry, with the headline: 'Mme to Presidente, le pays resonne de votre aeuvre.'
The eye rests on the picture. The woman proposing these lavish compliments is the woman known to millions as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A number of questions obtrude themselves at once. First, is thepicture by any chance a setup? Have the deft editors of
L'Assaut made an exploited visitor out of an unsuspecting stranger, placed words in her mouth, put her in a vulnerable position? The answer appears to be in the negative, because the date ofthis issue is January 1981, and there exists film footage of Mother Teresa visiting Haiti that year. The footage, which was shown on the CBS documentary programme Sixty Minutes, has Mother Teresa smiling into the camera and saying, of Michele Duva-lier, that while she had met kings and presidents aplenty in her time, she had 'never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were withher. It was a beautiful lesson for me.' In return for these and other favours, Mother Teresa was awarded the Haitian Legion d'honneur. And her simple testimony, in warm encomium of the ruling couple, was shown on state-run television every night for at least a week. No protest against this footage is known to have been registeredby Mother Teresa (who has ways of making her views widely available) between the time of the award and the time when the Haitian people became so 'familiar' with Jean-Claude and Michele that the couple had barely enough time to stuff their luggage with the National Treasury before fleeing for ever to the French Riviera