Christopher Hitchens held many controversial stances during his life, but among the most controversial was his vitriolic campaign against the beloved Mother Teresa. Why did he have such a problem with a Nobel Peace Prize winner who devoted much of her life to helping the poor?
Pitting Hitchens against Mother Teresa seems like an unfair fight. The heavy-drinking, Oxford-educated writer who attacked politicians with his pen versus the frail, pious nun who helped the poor with her hands appears too absurd to even watch. But Mother Teresa's image as an innocent do-gooder was false, Hitchens said, and he attacked it hard during his career.
Quoting Mark Twain, Hitchens said about the saint from Calcutta: “Give a man the reputation for being an early riser and that man can sleep until noon.”
Hitchens insisted that Mother Teresa was anything but the apolitical savior of the poor that she was known to be. Rather, he blasted the nun for being a willing political tool for the Vatican, a validator of corrupt, right-wing political leaders, and even more surprisingly, a suppressor, rather than savior, of the poor. Mother Teresa was incorrectly adored by the media, he insisted.
In "Hell's Angel", a documentary Hitchens made about Mother Teresa, the author reveals that what irked the most about Mother Teresa was claim to being apolitical, despite evidence he believed disproved her claim.
During her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1979, Mother Teresa said that abortion was the greatest threat to world peace.
“The greatest destroyer of peace today is the crime of the innocent unborn child,” she said. “If a mother can murder her own child in her own womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?”
During the speech, Mother Teresa also argued strongly against contraceptives.
Hitchens, who also had anti-abortion sentiments, said, “Tenderness about the unborn is an emotion that I share myself. But tenderness about the unborn also becomes an overtly political matter when it's preached by a presumable virgin who also campaigns against birth control.”
He added that Mother Teresa's family-planning policies were especially disturbing since she worked in India, a country with hundreds of millions of people living in dire poverty.
Hitchens hypothesized in the documentary that Mother Teresa's use of her international fame to argue for anti-abortion policies was the result of her being a political tool for the Vatican, and she is said to have urged political leaders around the world to pass anti-abortion legislation in their countries, an ever-important issue for the Catholic Church.
Being so closely aligned with political leaders was another issue that bothered Hitchens. Mother Teresa accepted awards from and then praised controversial political figures, including Haiti's Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whom human rights groups claim killed tens of thousands of Haitians during his rule, and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whose policies in Central America contributed to civil wars in the region.
“The very hand that bestowed the medal of freedom on Mother Teresa, armed and paid the death squads of Central America,” Hitchens said. He then quoted Mother Teresa as saying to Reagan after accepting the award: 'I never realized that you loved people so tenderly.' I must say, I hadn't noticed that either.”
Hitchens added: “Reagan's proxies murdered, among many others, four Central American nuns and the Catholic archbishop of San Salvador at the very moment he was celebrating mass. But, visiting the slaughterhouse states of that region during that period, Mother Teresa found nothing untoward. 'Everything was peaceful in the parts of the country we visited,' she claimed, after touring the killing fields of Guatemala, adding for good measure, 'I do not get involved in such politics.' ”
Hitchens also accused Mother Teresa of having a perverse view of how to help the world's poor, saying that she did not try to empower them to make their lives better, but rather subscribed to the belief that it was impossible to do much for them on Earth, so her job was to prepare their souls for heaven.
As an example of this, Hitchens referred to a chemical oil spill in India during the 1980s that resulted in thousands of poor people being killed and thousands more injured. Instead of using her influence to help the families get compensation, Hitchens suggested that the only thing Mother Teresa told the families to do was “Forgive. Forgive.”
“Like most people who claim to be apolitical, Mother Teresa is, in practice and in theory, an ally of the status quo, and when the status quo is threatened, a trusted ally of the conservative forces. This places her in bold contrast to those, even among the religious, who have rejected the fatalistic and simplistic conditions about poverty that are promulgated by Catholic traditionalists like her.”
Mother Teresa was born in what is now Albania, in 1910. She became a nun at the age of 18, devoting her life to helping the poor. One of her most famous projects was a home in Calcutta, India, that took in the dying and destitute, in order to give them comfort in their last days.
She died in Calcutta in 1997, a the age of 87. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003.
Despite Hitchens' vicious attacks on Mother Teresa over the years, the saint's order in India, Missionaries of Charity, said that it would offer prayers for the renowned atheist upon hearing of his passing late Thursday night at the age of 62, after a battle with cancer.
“We will pray for him and for his family,” spokeswoman for the order Sister Christie told Agence France-Presse.