An Interview with Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa

By Cherry, Matt | Free Inquiry, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

An Interview with Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa


Cherry, Matt, Free Inquiry


Below, Matt Cherry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, interviews Christopher Hitchens about his book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso, 1995) and his television program, which strongly criticized Mother Teresa. The interview recapitulates the most devastating critiques of Mother Teresa ever made. It also gives a very telling account by a leading journalist into the U.S. media's great reluctance to criticize religion and religious leaders.

As FREE INQUIRY was going to press, we heard that Mother Teresa was suffering from heart trouble and malaria and there was concern about her chances of survival. It was, therefore, suggested to the editors that it would be inappropriate to print an interview that contains criticism of Mother Teresa's work and influence. However, in view of the media's general failure to investigate the work of Mother Teresa or to publish critical comments about her, the editors felt it important to proceed with the publication of this revealing interview.

Christopher Hitchens is "Critic at Large" for Vanity Fair, writes the Minority Report column for The Nation, and is a frequent guest on current affairs and commentary television programs. He has written numerous books on international current affairs, including Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies.

- EDS.

FREE INQUIRY: According to polls, Mother Teresa is the most respected woman in the world. Her name is a byword for selfless dedication in the service of humanity. So why are you picking on this sainted old woman?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Partly because that impression is so widespread. But also because the sheer fact that this is considered unquestionable is a sign of what we are up against, namely the problem of credulity. One of the most salient examples of people's willingness to believe anything if it is garbed in the appearance of holiness is the uncritical acceptance of the idea of Mother Teresa as a saint by people who would normally be thinking - however lazily - in a secular or rational manner. In other words, in every sense it is an unexamined claim.

It's unexamined journalistically - no one really takes a look at what she does. And it is unexamined as to why it should be she who is spotlighted as opposed to many very selfless people who devote their lives to the relief of suffering in what we used to call the "Third World." Why is it never mentioned that her stated motive for the work is that of proselytization for religious fundamentalism, for the most extreme interpretation of Catholic doctrine? If you ask most people if they agree with the pope's views on population, for example, they say they think they are rather extreme. Well here's someone whose life's work is the propagation of the most extreme version of that.

That's the first motive. The second was a sort of journalistic curiosity as to why it was that no one had asked any serious questions about Mother Teresa's theory or practice. Regarding her practice, I couldn't help but notice that she had rallied to the side of the Duvalier family in Haiti, for instance, that she had taken money - over a million dollars - from Charles Keating, the Lincoln Savings and Loans swindler, even though it had been shown to her that the money was stolen; that she has been an ally of the most reactionary forces in India and in many other countries; that she has campaigned recently to prevent Ireland from ceasing to be the only country in Europe with a constitutional ban on divorce, that her interventions are always timed to assist the most conservative and obscurantist forces.

FI: Do you think this is because she is a shrewd political operator or that she is just naive and used as a tool by others?

HITCHENS: I've often been asked that. And I couldn't say from real acquaintance with her which view is correct, because I've only met her once. But from observing her I don't think that she's naive. …

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