Mother Teresa was only human, too

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"Why do you call me good?" Jesus said. "No one is good except God alone."

-- Mark 10:18


Canadians who have long chafed under their reputation for terminal niceness are about to lose it big time. Researchers at the University of Montreal have compiled a critical study about the life and ministry of the late Mother Teresa.

After combing through public records, speeches and reports about the millions raised by her foundation over the decades that has gone unspent on those who came to her for healing, the researchers can barely disguise the fact that they're a little creeped out by the woman the world knew as "the saint of Calcutta."

The researchers concluded that the narrative that Mother Teresa was an enemy of human suffering is contrary to the reality. In fact, the researchers believe she was something of a pain junky whose selfless image "does not stand up to the analysis of the facts, was constructed, and that her beatification was orchestrated by an effective media campaign."

The Vatican is faulted in the study for ignoring "her rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding ... abortion, contraception and divorce."

Mother Teresa's views on social issues were well within the mainstream of conservative Catholic thought, but the Canadian researchers appear genuinely scandalized by the unhygienic conditions the sick, the poor and the dying were subject to under her care.

While giving Mother Teresa enormous credit for filling her 517 "homes for the dying" with society's most helpless and despised, the researchers echo the late Christopher Hitchens' complaint that she had the financial and political resources to alleviate more pain and suffering than she did, but chose not to because she believed it was "beautiful" to see the poor suffer.

Anyone who gives even a cursory glance at newspaper headlines knows that the pool of universally acknowledged saints, plaster or otherwise, is shrinking rapidly. Far from being an expression of cynicism or "creeping secularism" to be decried, it should be seen for what it is -- an expression of our growing cultural and spiritual maturity. The need for religious superheroes is fading. Thank God for that.

We're beginning to age out of our infantile belief that there are people among us who deserve to be mounted on pedestals and adored simply for treating their fellow humans with respect.

So what if Mother Teresa comforted lepers, held hands with those suffering from tuberculosis and embraced people dying from AIDS? Aren't we all supposed to do that, regardless of our faith or whether we believe in God or not? Isn't there an intrinsic understanding encoded in our DNA that reminds us constantly that we're not entitled to be selfish pigs about everything and that we should strive for the ideal: to love our neighbor?

And what about those of us who have the temerity to subscribe to a particularly slippery manifestation of religious big talk known as Christianity? What is the justification for elevating a fellow human being to some exalted status they're inevitably doomed to fall from simply because they took Jesus' mandate seriously in one area while totally ignoring it at every other opportunity?

I have no doubt that the people we uncharitably designate as "saints" are aware of their own shortcomings but tolerate it because it is expected of them.

Whether Mother Teresa was a pain junky or not, she held enough dying people in her arms and mopped enough fevered brows to present a tangible example to the rest of us of how to make a difference in a world full of suffering. She wasn't better than the average human by any means. She merely had a different set of priorities based on her understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.

Having said that, Mother Teresa's willingness to consort with dictators and take their blood money without confronting them about the evil they perpetuated every day was appalling. Her critics are on to something when they point out obvious deviations from decency like her religious order hoarding millions of dollars in banks where it compounds interest daily without helping anyone except the bottom line of bankers and trust managers.

Why not invest in building hospitals for the indigent with so much cash on hand? To many, I'm sure this sounds like Judas whining about Mary anointing Jesus' feet with perfume instead of selling it to support the ministry. Perhaps, but Mother Teresa's motives are mixed, too, and not above criticism.

Here's a newsflash: Mother Teresa was only human, and maybe not even an especially good one, despite the hype. The last time I checked, we were all in the same boat.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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