Mother Teresa canonized amid controversy

A giant picture of Mother Teresa is seen inside the Mother House, the Missionaries of Charity headquarters, in Kolkata, India, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. Francis has declared Mother Teresa a saint, honoring the tiny nun who cared for the world's most destitute as an icon for a Catholic Church that goes to the peripheries to find poor, wounded souls. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Last Sunday, the late Mother Teresa was officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in Saint Peters Square to much fanfare and celebration, according to coverage from the Wall Street Journal. She became the first person bestowed the title of Saint in the modern era of the Church, preceding many other venerable figures including the late Pope John Paul II. However, in what should have been a day to celebrate and honor the late missionary of the Church, questions still linger about the ethics of Mother Teresa almost twenty years after her death—questions that call into question whether she was in fact a Saint at all.

Mother Teresa, according to her official biography, was born into a family of Albanian descent in modern-day Macedonia on Aug. 27, 1910. Upon her completion of seminary school, she founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 with just 12 loyal followers. From then onward, Teresa became immensely involved in her Kolkata community.

Opening hospice care centers and homeless shelters and offering many other spiritual and societal services for the sick and poor of India, “Mother Teresa” as she is now known became a vestige and symbol of Catholic pride and service worldwide. Teresa further solidified her legacy in this vain, as she opened up her services and care to those suffering from HIV/AIDS, leprosy, tuberculosis and other (then) taboo diseases that many others simply brushed aside, leaving the afflicted behind. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her commitment to “bringing help to suffering humanity,” Mother Teresa’s commitment to service and self-sacrifice remained with her until her passing in 1997.  

This legacy left by Mother Teresa, in regards to the Roman Catholic Church, is infallible. Speaking on the day of Teresa’s canonization, Pope Francis I remarked “[she was] committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable” including that “[Teresa attacked the] powers of this world…[with] their guilt for the crime of poverty they created.”

However, not everyone shares this view of the new Saint. For years, as she was carrying out her mission in Kolkata, questions about the ethical aspects of Teresa’s work ignited heated debate. Teresa and her followers relied on spiritual healing and the actual medical care offered by her mission was considered ‘haphazard’ at best. Such an attitude concerning medical treatment has left some in India angry over her new title. Mohan Bhagwat of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh put it plainly in saying, “It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa’s work had ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity.” 

For years it has been suggested Teresa used her charitable works as a front towards Catholic conversion. Of course, such accusations could hold some weight if that were the only motive behind her work. Bhagwat continued “[Teresa helped] Kolkata's poorest of the poor, yet it was undercut by persistent allegations of misuse of funds, poor medical treatments and religious evangelism in the institutions she founded.” 

One of the most significant claims against Mother Teresa is that she used her influence and the predominance of the Church to collect vast amounts of funds that were supposedly used not in the best interest of her patients and those suffering in Kolkata, but for the benefit of herself as well as that of the Church. Furthermore, her dealings with less than reputable personalities, such as Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and financier Charles Keating put at odds her lifetime commitment of helping the needy against working with such albeit ‘sinful’ men. These character attacks against Mother Teresa made by Bhagwat, a noted radical as well as religious fundamentalist, carry little weight coming from a radical nationalist, regardless of religious affiliation.

Whether you agree with the declaration of sainthood or not, one thing is unmistakable; Mother Teresa was one of the most polarizing figures of the late twentieth century and had an immensely profound impact on both the religious and the socially conscious world. Her efforts to make known the plight of those suffering under poverty, crippling disease and the social implications of helping those who suffer, instead of hiding them from view, is something to be remembered and respected.


Nick Guarna is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at nick.guarna@uconn.edu