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
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.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.
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.
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.
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.