Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mother Teresa and money

At some point I'm going to want to argue that Mother Teresa was a bad person. But I'm going to start more modestly. In this post, I'm just going to show how Mother Teresa's use of money invalidates the myth that she was some kinda paragon of moral virtue. I won't argue that this makes her an especially bad person. But I do think it makes her not-a-champion-of-the-sick-and-poor.

Fact: Mother Teresa controlled lots and lots of money.

How much? Well, it's hard to say for certain. Unless I've missed something, the finances of the Missionaries of Charity remain undisclosed and unaudited. But it was (and remains) a lot of money.

Says Susan Shields, former Missionary of Charity:
As a Missionary of Charity, I was assigned to record donations and write the thank-you letters. The money arrived at a frantic rate. The mail carrier often delivered the letters in sacks. We wrote receipts for checks of $50,000 and more on a regular basis. Sometimes a donor would call up and ask if we had received his check, expecting us to remember it readily because it was so large. How could we say that we could not recall it because we had received so many that were even larger?
Shields doesn't suggest how much that might add up to, but Hitchens has it that there were at least $50 million in the New York bank account of the Missionaries of Charity, and figures that, this being but a part of the organization's wealth, there must be several times more all told. So let's place the MoC's wealth in the 9-10 figure range.

Now, it would not be correct to say that all this money belonged to Teresa. I take it that she herself owned next to nothing. I'm just saying that she controlled this money. It didn't belong to her personally, but, if she'd really wanted, she could have used it, on behalf of her organization, to buy all sorts of medicines, pay all sorts of trained medical personnel, and maybe even keep her facilities stocked with clean new needles on a regular basis.

You may be able to guess what's coming up next.

Fact: Mother Teresa used only a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and the poor

Shields continues:
We received touching letters from people, sometimes apparently poor themselves, who were making sacrifices to send us a little money for the starving people in Africa, the flood victims in Bangladesh, or the poor children in India. Most of the money sat in our bank accounts.


The donations rolled in and were deposited in the bank, but they had no effect on our ascetic lives and very little effect on the lives of the poor we were trying to help.
Well, who cares about the lives of the nuns: they got what they signed up for, right? That bit about the poor, though, that's a little worrisome.

Here are some examples of how the MoC failed to spend its money.

Shields gives one: in Haiti, "the sisters reused needles until they became blunt". Out of the MoC's bloated bank accounts, no money could be spared for new needles.

Likewise, in an article in the British Medical Journal (a review of Hitchens' book), Mary Loudon reports visiting the MoC's facilities and seeing "syringes run under cold water and reused, aspirin given to those with terminal cancer, and cold baths given to everyone". No money for oncological care beyond aspirin, no money for hot water, and, again, no money for new syringes, or even proper sterilization for old ones.

And in an article in the Lancet (9/17/94, Issue 8925), Robin Fox reports having visited the Home for the Dying in Kolkata, and describes the medical care there as "haphazard": no trained medical personnel are present unless some happen to drop by to volunteer their time, and the sisters themselves are not given any proper training in medical care. "How about simple algorithms that might help the sisters and volunteers distinguish the curable from the incurable? Again no." Out of the millions or billions, not enough for the salary of a single Kolkata doctor, or any other way of ensuring minimally consistent medical care.

That should do for now.

Ethical claim: If you are a champion of the sick and poor, and you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, you will use more than a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and poor.

Or, equivalently:

Ethical claim: If you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, and you use no more than a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and poor, then you are not a champion of the sick and poor.

This post is already going to be too long, so I'm going to be dogmatic and just assume that that claim is right.

Conclusion: Mother Teresa was no champion of the sick and poor.

It's been a while since I studied logic, but I'm pretty sure that follows.

Now, again, this has not been an argument to the effect that Mother Teresa was evil. The world is full of people who have lots of money, and spend none of it, or next to none of it, improving the lives of the needy. I wouldn't say that means they're particularly evil, but it does mean that they're not particularly good. Similarly, I'm not (in this post) arguing that Mother Teresa was particularly evil, just that she wasn't particularly good, and that she certainly was not the epitome of moral virtue that her mythical image makes her out to be.

Now, in light of some common objections, I'd like to close with a few notes about that ethical claim above.

1. Note that the claim goes against more than self-indulgent greed. The claim is not "If you are a champion of the sick and poor, and you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, you will refrain from spending it on luxuries for yourself." It's quite irrelevant that Mother Teresa lived a life of poverty herself. It sure helped her image that she did, but her personal poverty did nothing to improve the lot of other poor people. It's quite irrelevant to the poor that the MoC's millions or billions sat rotting away in bank accounts, rather than providing Mother Teresa and her nuns with habits embroidered with gold threads (or whatever it is that a greedy nun would do with lots of money). Either way, the lives of the needy are not much improved. But improving the lives of the needy is what a champion of the needy would do with lots and lots of money.

2. The problem this makes for Mother Teresa is not just that she could have made better use of the MoC's money. When faced with criticisms of her use of money, Teresa's defenders often respond with something along the lines of: "Well, fine, so she could have used her money better or more efficiently. No one is saying that she was perfect, and certainly not a perfect administrator!" This response misses the point, which is this: The problem with Mother Teresa's use of money isn't just that it imperfectly embodied the ideal of using financial resources to improve the lives of the needy; rather, the problem with Mother Teresa's use of money is that it didn't embody that ideal. Mother Teresa manifested indifference to that ideal. That ideal just wasn't one of Mother Teresa's ideals. (On occasion she said as much in fairly explicit terms. More on which later.)

3. Also note that I'm not saying that being a good person is just a matter of how you spend your money. All I'm saying is that being a good person is in part a matter of how you spend your money. Of course, it is not only that. For example, how you spend your time also matters.

4. On a related note, one might object that a person can be virtuous in one way, not so virtuous in another. So one of Teresa's defenders might grant that Mother Teresa did not use her money in ways that benefited the poor, but still maintain that, say, she did use her time in ways that were genuinely helpful. Indeed, the myth of Mother Teresa leans heavily on an image of how she devoted her time to the poor. Washing lepers by hand doesn't involve much money, but the image of her doing that sure does warm the heart. Well, here are three points about this line of thought. First, she could have spent some of her time figuring out what to do with all that money, or at least telling someone else to do so. At any given point in time, she could have said, "Sister so-and-so, I want you to figure out how to use the millions or billions to help the poor," with plenty of time left over for washing lepers. Second, I think it's bad ethics to give her a pass on how she spent her money, no matter how she spent her time--especially since her money could have helped the needy so much more than her time. If she'd cared for the poor as her mythical image says she did, she would have made better use of that money. Third, I hope to show how Mother Teresa didn't spend her time in a particularly good way, either--so neither her money nor her time was put to good use. But that will have to wait.


Anonymous said...

Christ had the power to alleviate the sufferings of all the impoverished. He had the all the worldly riches at his disposal should he ask for it. Instead he chose to enrich the lives of those suffering through spiritual renewal.

"Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?" James 2:5

Mother Theresa's withholding of riches could have been done in good faith/pure motive. You can worship God or Mammon. If she prayed and worked to cure their spiritual poverty with faith in God instead of money as a cure for physical maladies/poverty, then it can be argued that her motive was pure.

To say that she was "bad" is taking quite a large leap. It is making an indictment of her character when little is known of her the big M, motive.

Good thoughts though.

Toby said...

Again, nothing in that post was supposed to show that she was a bad person. That (and discussion of her motives) will come later.

And as for focusing on people's spiritual needs to the exclusion of their physical needs, this is pretty unambiguous: "Sell your possessions and give to the poor." (Luke 12:33)

Ben said...

So where does this Mother Teresa kick come from anyway?

Just one thing in response to your post... I'm not sure how useful it is to analyze her as a person. For all but a few people, Mother Teresa was (is) primarily a symbol, represented by the public face of her works (both as presented by her and as presented by others).

Even the person of Mother Teresa had problems living up to the ideal of her own symbol.

The question to ask isn't about the ethics of Mother Teresa as a person, but of Mother Teresa as the symbol that now drives a movement.

Ben said...

One last thought...

Perhaps it could even be said that an efficient use of money or time would have undermined Mother Teresa as symbol, thereby decreasing its effectiveness.

Michael said...

I was curious, because it didn't come up in your post - what DID she spend all her money on? If she had $50 million or whatever, and it wasn't going to her hospices, what was it used for? Or is it still around?

Toby said...


Like I said in the post, I got on the MT kick following that news about her letters and whatnot. As for MT as a symbol, (a) I prefer my symbols to be true and (b) I'm not sure what good MT's symbol is doing anyway.


Apart from the 'hospices' (not that MT's facilities are truly deserving of that term), some of the money was also spent on convents. But probably almost all of it is still sitting around in bank accounts. At least, that seemed to be the most likely possibility last time I really looked into this stuff.

Toby said...

Erm, rather, it was an earlier post in which I explained the reason for the MT kick.

Anonymous said...

As long as we follow people instead of God this is going to happen. She was unaccountable as are many a perverted priest and a greedy, sex addicted pastor. Christians are instructed to "test the spirit" of everything we 'hear' and believe. I think it is common for great people to get so weary of most people meeting their great visions with negative attitudes that they cease to listen which eventually leads to error.

Anonymous said...

Ekkman said: When God became a man in Christ Jesus, he was a man, poor like many of us. He had the power of God at his disposal but he used it sparingly. He gave of what he had continually while he was on planet earth. He commands those who are his people to do the same. I minister to the Roman Catholics, they are in religious bondage and I want to see them set free from it as does Jesus Christ. He won't force us to come to him but he will call us, convict us, and draw us to his side but he will not force us to come to him. Jesus meets the needs of those who look to him but he will not force us to look to him for anything. God sat up certain rules while we are on planet earth, we are to work for what we get, to help when we can, to love as he love and I have to say that Teresa didn't do that. She had tons of money she could have used to help other. From what I read she went to the best hospitals when she was sick but not the ones that she was taking "care" of and I ask why.

Danny said...

Ekkman said: I need to say this too. Jesus Christ did heal everyone who came to him for healing, everyone. He met the needs of all who came to him, ALL.

The World said...

Way to go. Can you post a picture. I work for Time magazine and I want you on the cover. You have finally called out that fraud of a woman for what she was. Love and compassion? Show me the money! Sleep well my friend.

Anonymous said...

Mother Teresa is not a saint but a crooked religious fanatic with no concern to human pain. She is ignorant. All things about MT goodness is totally media and vatican propaganda. She did nothing to India specially tarnished the image of Kolkata.

Anonymous said...

money is the root of all evil... you cannot use evil for good... I do see your point though, but somehow, I think it was leading by example (that is, by not using money).

good read

Anonymous said...

The BBC report issued shortly after Mother Teresa's death estimated she had raised over $500 million in the course of her lifetime. An overwhelming amount of that went directly to the Vatican, the world's wealthiest private corporation. Where it went after that who knows? To support their art collection; the most valuable in the world? After her death Mother Teresa's private letters were published (against her posthumous wishes) stating that throughout her life she felt an emptiness and lack of response from God or Jesus to her requests for guidance. She died a borderline agnostic. Maybe God saw through the whole thing?

eveellen said...

Hmmm...I'm just about to leave my ruminations on Facebook about the unrelenting stream of ridicule and criticism of Sarah Palin. For whatever reasons, M. Teresa chose not to involve herself in the politics and finances of what undoubtedly became a large monastic organization in the wake of her charitable efforts. Likewise with Palin, I think we need to criticize the hardcore opposition towards intellect in American culture that is to blame for much of her following. I don't like the blame game much myself where the odor of misogyny predominates.

Alan Gannaway said...

MT collected money she didn't need or use because it apparently made her feel appreciated in a way that religion couldn't. Her stated reasons for collecting it were wildly irrational.
She was sociopathically unconcerned by others pain and hypocritical in her acceptance of luxury treatment for her own ailments.
She consorted with dictators.
She was a "Major Tool".
As is Sarah Palin- an idiot not because she's a woman or a republican but because she is pretty damn stupid and a hypocrite besides.
Please don't play the mysigony card every time someone ctiticises a bad person who also happens to be female.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately no statement is really true unless backed by a reference.

In your future posts, I suggest you link conclusions to documents holding facts you're drawing conclusions from.

Otherwise, honestly, it's just a lot of hot air and wasted time!

Anonymous said...

What is the writer doing for the poor?

Everyone missed the point of her work.

Anonymous said...

She was the poster child for missionaries and the church just like the pope. She was evil and while she flew first class people in her clinics where dieing. alot of what this guy is saying is true. It's not the fact that she didnt try to help. but its like going door to door collecting money for cancer then keeping 90% because you did the work. Plus alot of the times the only way they would even look at you was if you accepted god into your life. So between bullshit spending on donated money and forcing people into other religions is sick and wrong. She also claimed that god would heal the terminally ill, which as we can all see didnt work to weel

Texasjo said...

I've heard about Mother Teresa for over sixty years. I was so happy there was a saint living while I was. I went to a convent school and learned about many saints. Even though she hasn't been titled "saint," yet. I know she started teaching and her mother said "you said you wished to help the poor, so do it." She went to help the poorest of the poor, in fact, she decided to help those dying in the filthy streets. That was her mission, to give them some dignity at the end of their lives. Now, I can't believe what that monster Hitchens said about her. And, one of her former nuns is writing books against her. They say MT didn't use the money properly. I heard it was used to open up more missions. MT didn't take one bit of comfort for herself or her nuns. Perhaps she should have bought new needles, who knows, but to say she is an "evil" person is downright evil. Only we, the older people remember the good she did. I'm sure if there is a Satan he filled up the heart of HItchens and those who would slander a saint.

Anonymous said...

The Holy Spirit teaches that no person deserves “kudos” except “the man” Jesus Christ. God calls for Mother Teresa (MT), me, you, and every other member of mankind to seek not our own personal glory, but to work for the honor of the one who sends us. Jesus is the one who sends us (followers of Jesus), and, according to the written testimony of The Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ is presently in heaven (seated at God’s right hand). So, if MT or any other member of mankind answers God’s call to work for the honor the one sending that person, then the treasures that we store are in heaven, and not on the earth.

God calls MT and all people to live God-like in our human bodies, and as we answer God’s call, we become “models” of God-like living in human form. MT as well as other members of mankind are model imitations of the way to God-like living in human form, while the genuine Way is “the man” Jesus Christ (among us by The Holy Spirit). At the appropriate time, God wants His people to leave immaturity to become mature in the faith by ceasing from following model imitations and turn to following God’s genuine Way of God-like living in human form. “The man” Jesus Christ is God’s genuine Way for humans to live God-like in human form, and even though the physical man Jesus is in heaven, God promises that Jesus is among us in the person of The Holy Spirit that God sends in the name of Jesus.

Therefore, we learn to follow the testimony of The Holy Spirit in order to answer God’s call to live like God in human form. As we are following the testimony of The Holy Spirit, we learn that our faith is in Jesus, who communicates with us by The Holy Spirit. God is also satisfied with us when he sees us answering his call by His genuine Way, because he cannot be pleased when he sees us answering his call any other way (Hebrews 11:6 of The Holy Bible). Observing to follow the way of God-like living set by MT and other so-called “good people” is the model way, while God’s genuine Way of God-like living in human form is by observing to follow “the man” Jesus Christ (among us by The Holy Spirit).

- Anonymous

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