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The Prism


Letters—November 1997


Yes, we got lots of letters this month...almost all about the Mother Teresa lead article from the October issue. Here we print these letters and Mark Cook's reply.

A Maryknoll missionary feels her order was misused

To the editor,

I have been away from Barqui[simeto, Venezuela] for a couple of weeks, but I'd like to put in two cents: It hurts me to see an article that is critical of any sincere effort at mission open with: "Maryknoll missioner says 'vile woman'" ... read that opening sentence again ... were they watching Mother Teresa in Central America or is this someone who has left mission and is watching in a post-mission life? Ni modo. My point is that Maryknoll has impressed me with our openness to models of mission.

In my formation I was never told that how we do things is right and how others do things is wrong ... others being other Catholic groups and missioners and believers from other traditions. As a yankee working in Latin America most of my criticism has come from friends at home asking why I need to work in Latin America while there is so much need in the US. My response is that I am doing my best to listen to God's call in a place where I feel a life-giving, fulfilling vocation. And if the environment has space, I challenge those who are challenging me to work in some volunteer / mission capacity in the US. If I had the clout that Mother Teresa had, I would probably expend it differently. We all must choose our battles. I feel the name of Maryknoll, which carries some clout of its own and has been abused and misrepresented in Mark Cook's article.

P.S. In the 1980s, the Vatican did not support the work of some Maryknollers in Central America as those missionaries wished. Nevertheless, one gets closer to the truth by heeding the church's teachings on social justice rather than judging the church by its political hierarchy.

Josie McNeil
Misioneros de Maryknoll
Barquisimeto, Venezuela

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Comparing Calcutta to Sandinista Nicaragua

To the editor,

Mother Teresa's "Home for the Dying" is neither hospice nor hospital.

Mother Teresa's Calcutta "Home for the Dying" is what its name claims; a place to die.

The "Home" insures that people will not die—untouched—in offal-clogged gutters.

It is hard for first-worlders to contemplate Calcutta without projecting the prejudices of wealth onto Third World street-people.

Calcutta's "Home for the Dying" is the mirror image of a catastrophe triage station. Instead of determining who might survive—while letting the mortally wounded die unattended—Mother Teresa's sisters gather the broken bodies of the moribund and take them "Home."

I have never known any supporter of Mother Teresa's work who mistook the Calcutta "Home" as a hospice or medical facility.... two fairly widespread misconceptions among people who rely on the secular press. At times, some of the people taken "Home" do suffer from treatable diseases that remain undiagnosed. For some observers—always observers who live outside India—this oversight inspires bitter recrimination.

In the global scheme of human suffering, I marvel that we "northerners" routinely spend $150,000 to beat back lymphoma with marrow transplants and laminar flow isolation rooms even though this same sum could be used to inoculate entire countries against polio. Just 200 cases of "heroic" cancer treatment consume the equivalent of Mother Teresa's world-wide operating budget.

Where are the voices of recrimination when needed most?

When I moved to Sandinista Nicaragua to teach at the Managua Medical School, I advocated vehemently on behalf of simple sterile procedures in municipal hospitals. However, as I grew accustomed to water shortages, electrical blackouts and broken windows allowing flies to swarm in torrid operating rooms, I settled for a plain plastic swatter as the most appropriate means of discouraging "Beelzebub's minions" from settling on "cracked" chests and prolapsed uteruses.

On one occasion I visited the National Leprosarium to document a case of blastomycosis. Doņa Mirjinda, a Miskito Indian woman, was so badly infected that her leg had become mesmerizing in its repulsiveness. It took me a full year—and "string pulling" on two continents—to get someone to donate a course of the appropriate fungicide. The drug "only" cost $300, but I was living on $100 per month.

Tell me: was the life-saving medicine "cheap," or "prohibitively expensive"?

Christopher Hitchens has led the attack on Mother Teresa. He highlights an episode in which the missionary nun refused to accept the donation of a New York City building because municipal codes required installation of an elevator. Hitchens implies that by refusing to install the elevator—or even to let the City install it at municipal expense—Mother Teresa behaved mean-spiritedly toward the handicapped.

Hitchens' first-world interpretation fits the facts well. However, from Mother Teresa's vantage, any "inconvenience to the handicapped" paled in comparison to the waste of a hundred thousand dollars that could have been spent on bread.

The nitty-gritty exigencies of Calcutta distill to this stark choice: either the destitute and dying are sheltered, cleansed and fed, or, they die on the streets.

Before we harden in poses of self-satisfied outrage, I would ask if occasional oversight of treatable diseases at Mother Teresa's "triage stations" isn't of less moral weight than the routine practice of high-tech "medicide" in the northern latitudes? "Medicide" is the ghoulish compulsion to protract "life" at any cost. Patients subjected to medicide are so tormented by associated procedures that traditional peoples view their treatment as torture.

What ideological arabesques impel us to lambaste Mother Teresa's version of "deathwatch" when Westerners construe death as a demon to be vanquished, even at the expense of reducing life to mere metabolism and artificially prolonged misery?

Tibetan Buddhist "rinpoches"—in union with Christian monks and Hindu sanyassin—observe that fear-of-death is intimately linked to human aggression. No sooner does Mother Teresa create a "Home for the Dying"—a place in which death is not feared—than Western analysts beat the drums of witch-hunt. A curious coincidence indeed...

Catholic moral teaching holds that there is no need to take any extraordinary measure to prolong life. This seemingly cavalier attitude may shock some, but what is the alternative?—a consuming fear that Life has "made" a horrible mistake, and that we mortals must repress death at any cost?

However, I am not without misgiving.

I wish Mother Teresa had launched jeremiads against the wealthy. I wish her Nobel acceptance speech were laced with incendiary condemnation of the mighty. Having said that, it is also true that Mother Teresa inhabited the choking miasma of irremediable poverty—not a propitious circumstance to strategize "draining the swamp."

I am also appalled by Mother Teresa's indiscriminate acceptance of money from thugs. However, if unable to provide for the basic needs of my loved ones, I too would accept charity from Papa Doc.

In the end, Mark Cook's savage treatment of Mother Teresa recalls a recent comment by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh: "Let me tell you about our profession. We are the meanest, nastiest bunch of jealous, petty people who ever lived. You think I wouldn't sell my mother for My Lai?"

Like all of us, Mother Teresa was a flawed individual. She also dedicated her life to an extraordinarily difficult rescue mission, a mission so fraught with frustration, desperation, futility and burn-out that the world ignored this weeping wound for millennia.

To create the impression that Mother Teresa murdered people with malice aforethought is, to say the least, self-serving.

Alan Archibald

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From our Art Critic...

To the editor,

I read the new Prism every time it appears at the library.

This is a follow up of the Mother Teresa story.

I am an inventor and innovator. If you are dissatisfied with the church in some ways you need to recruit an artist.

Have your artist draw a cross eyed picture of Mother Teresa and the Mona Lisa.

That should do the trick.


Your friend,

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Mother Teresa's running of her order

[The following letter responds to several articles on Mother Teresa and are not aimed at answering Mark Cook's article in particular. Mary Wilbur teaches at an elementary school which she co-founded.]

...As for Mother Teresa, it's a complex issue.

Yes, she has done much to capture the world's attention with regard to the poor. The main objection I've had to the two Newsweek articles is that they are so black and white—Greer and Greeley. Neither says much about the reality.

Where I fault Mother Teresa is in how she has run her order, especially in the West. Because she disregarded Vatican II and basic understanding of psychology and political theory (out of ignorance, or bad advice from the very conservative element of the Church), her order suffers greatly.

The media have built her and what she has done into an idol. Instead of the order trying to follow Christ, the sisters are taught to follow Mother Teresa. There are cult-like tendencies as a result which are not healthy. She failed to see that beliefs, even religious ones, risk idolatry.

The social customs of the order have been institutionalized to such an extent that the practice of Charity has taken a back seat. Perhaps it was not so in the early years, but in the 80's and 90's it became more and more obvious. To a great extent, Fitzpatrick hits the nail on the head. Mother Teresa's world inside was exclusive, not inclusive at the end of her life. It may not have always been that way but that's how it became in the latter years.

Mary Wilbur
former Missionary of Charity postulant
Taylorsville, CA

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Selfless individual with limitations

To the editor,

Imagine yourself starving and sick in the street. Would you prefer to stray there so people would daily be aware of inequities or would you prefer to be taken where you could get food and shelter from dust and mud and receive that help from some kind, spiritually-based religious? Mark Cook, if your work is to describe people in need, do that. But personally I see no reason to criticize harshly a selfless individual who did much for many and like the rest of us, could not do everything for everyone. Those missionaries who face death squads trying to change the situations that cause poverty need to be praised for their substantial efforts in their fields. Yes, there is work yet to be completed and some may still choose to work at the time of crisis while others choose long-term reformational projects.

Cathy Milner Markatos

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The Prism should air local views

To the editor,

I admire the grassroots and critical approach of The Prism, so I am doubly disappointed with your latest issue. I don't know which is worse, the mean-spirited headline and intellectually dishonest article about Mother Teresa or the fact that nearly a quarter of this local grassroots monthly is turned over to a writer based 500 miles away in New York. Since The Prism calls itself a "forum for grassroots approaches" why didn't you print local takes on Mother Teresa? Why no counter position? Was it because there was no space because the same New-York-based writer was given an additional 50 inches on New York union issues? (That's not to mention an entire page to New York City police brutality issues.) There are so many local issues to grapple with, and good local perspectives on larger issues, your printing of Cook's article raises questions about your motivations.

As a Catholic progressive activist, Mother Teresa is one of the last people whose actions I'd defend. But if you're going to criticize her, show context and stay away from generalizations. Cook misleads readers by referring to Franciscans and Maryknoll missionaries as being so negative against Mother Teresa. I've worked with both and know generalizations won't work about them. Unless he can show survey data his conjectures ring hollow. He sets up a straw-man argument with the Nazi soldier example. Cook also displays a typically elitist American, just-fix-it naivete when he decries the refusal of antibiotics at Mother Teresa's homes. In the Fourth World, antibiotics aren't the priority. The rest of the piece on Mother Teresa is basically an advertisement for Christopher Hitchen's book, whose views on Mother Teresa any Nation reader heard long ago.

I will say this for Mother Teresa, she reached out to America's condemned, much more so than most on the left in North Carolina have. I know this because she helped a friend of mine who had been on Georgia's death row for two decades, Billy Neal Moore. Billy was just one of several men awaiting execution about whom Mother Teresa spoke with states' governors and boards of pardon and parole at the request of US activists whom she did not know. Mother Teresa quickly acted to save Billy's life and the lives of condemned men on the other side of the world from her. It helped. Billy has been married and living peacefully in Michigan for years.

Stephen Dear, Director
People of Faith Against the Death Penalty
Chapel Hill

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Mark Cook responds:

The writers do not challenge any of the claims that I made in the article—indeed, they confirm them: Mother Teresa's institution in Calcutta is "neither hospice nor hospital." It is a place where destitute people are taken to die, whether terminally ill or not. Medical diagnoses are not attempted, antibiotics are denied the patients. Alan Archibald concedes that "at times, some of the people taken 'Home' do suffer from treatable diseases that remain undiagnosed."

Nobody argues with the article's point that patients are refused anything stronger than aspirin and ibuprofen, even when suffering the last stages of cancer. Steven Dear acknowledges the "refusal of antibiotics at Mother Teresa's homes," but explains that "In the Fourth World, antibiotics aren't the priority."

How's that again? How does he propose to treat tuberculosis, venereal disease and other communicable ailments, if not with antibiotics? And if the "Fourth World" is to be denied everything, up to and including even antibiotics, what is left? And how do you propose to defend the rest of the world's population (assuming that the "Fourth World" is simply to be written off in this ghastly fashion) if communicable diseases are allowed to spread?

Morality aside, until recently, even the most voracious international currency speculators could understand that communicable diseases do not respect international borders any more than the speculators themselves do. Now, apparently, their newfound belief that the "Fourth World" should receive nothing, not even antibiotics or adequate analgesics, has spread into the general society, and even (through Mother Teresa) to some progressives.

And whatever the Fourth World is, since when is Calcutta part of it? Calcutta annually produces a superabundance of export-quality medical talent, which is immediately posted overseas to such needy locales as the U.K., Canada and the United States.

The Mother Teresa story would not have had its worldwide media impact if she had not been able to play off the international image of Calcutta that has been peddled in the imperial media for decades. The "Black Hole of Calcutta" was a 19th Century imperial propaganda slogan devised to inflame British public opinion about a building where members of the British military garrison suffocated during the 1856-57 uprising. It has been so widely used, however, that most Americans automatically associate "Calcutta" with "black hole." The image is of a city that is simply a mass of beggars clogging the streets-the world's greatest urban disaster area.

The reality? Calcutta has India's national library, one of South Asia's highest literacy rates, and has the country's only serious theater life. It is one of the world's best cities for music and has more bookstores than Paris, London, Moscow, New York or Mexico City-or several of them together. All of India's internationally respected films come from Calcutta. It has a progressive government: general conditions have improved considerably under the Communist administration of the past twenty-five years. Pollution has been somewhat alleviated. Power outages, once commonplace, are no longer a problem, unlike New Delhi. Surface transit has improved with the building of the subway, one of the finest in the world. It is a safe city for its inhabitants, unlike Bombay, and has been spared the deadly communal rioting that has plagued Bombay and New Delhi.

This is not to deny the reality of urban squalor, or even to try to balance the horrific picture most Americans have. It is to point out that Calcutta has a medical, scientific and technical population ready and able to provide health and education for all. What is lacking is the financing-which depends on the will of India's and the world's ruling elite.

And even if Calcutta could be called "Fourth World," would the same apply to all the other 107 countries where Mother Teresa's order has been working, including this one?

Alan Archibald finds grim conditions as well in Sandinista Nicaragua. That was his experience. Mine, as a health reporter, medical cooperation worker, and patient in Nicaragua's hospitals while suffering from dengue fever and other tropical diseases, was far more positive. Since my salary working with the Jesuits was only a third of Alan's, I was grateful that the excellent treatment I received cost me nothing.

But let's play in Alan's ball park.

Imagine if the Sandinista government in Nicaragua ran a "home for the dying" for people too poor to afford medical care. (This is hypothetical: in Sandinista Nicaragua, hospital care was free to all.) Imagine if they made no effort to find out if these people were terminally ill or not, but simply treated them as if they were. Imagine if they denied basic antibiotics to a 15-year-old boy suffering from a mild kidney ailment, thereby allowing the kidneys to become so infected that an operation was necessary, then refused to allow the patient to go to a hospital for the operation and instead left the patient to die. Imagine if they denied any analgesics stronger than aspirin and ibuprofen to people suffering from terminal cancer.

Imagine if, at the same time, Sandinista leaders traveled abroad to receive treatment in expensive medical centers in North America and Europe (as Mother Teresa did when suffering from heart disease and old age in her last years, despite Archibald's "Catholic moral teaching" that "there is no need to take any extraordinary measure to prolong life").

It is not hard to visualize the treatment the Sandinistas would receive in foreign media.

Josie McNeil notes that "in the 1980's, the Vatican did not support the work of some Maryknollers in Central America as those missionaries wished."

That's certainly a polite (or tolerant, if you like) way of saying that the Vatican stood by and said little or nothing as Maryknollers, Jesuits and other religious workers were savagely tortured and murdered with impunity by death squads recruited and trained by US authorities. And said nothing when a witness to the murder of the Jesuit priests and their assistants in El Salvador was handed over to the FBI, which abused her and her husband while they held them incommunicado, using horrific threats to try to force her to recant.

I can understand how a serving Maryknoller is reluctant to speak publicly against the current political hierarchy in the Vatican in anything except the most polite and elliptical terms. That, after all, is what journalists are about.

It's fine to be tolerant, toward things that are tolerable. But what if somebody views as intolerable Mother Teresa's "plantation religion" and her policy of allowing people who are not terminally ill to die in extreme and completely unnecessary pain for want of accessible and inexpensive antibiotics and analgesics? Mother Teresa could certainly obtain them for nothing from pharmaceutical companies eager to gain a tax writeoff by donating supplies that are nine months from the expiration date printed on the bottle. By the way, antibiotics are easily available in Calcutta; the complaint, as here, is that if anything they are used too freely without sufficient medical supervision.

Josie McNeil is a tolerant person. Mother Teresa was not. She spoke out, emphatically and loudly, against things she considered to be wrong, even at the cost of diminishing her base of support. It is in that spirit that I wrote the article.


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