Posted by Oakes Spalding on 9/4/16
Some Catholics have criticized Mother Theresa’s canonization (or at least the rapidity of it) partly on the grounds that she may have voiced quasi-indifferentist views.
For example, she is alleged to have said:
I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic.
However, there’s a sort of opposite story that has also been told – that Mother Teresa and her Sisters gave dying Muslim and Hindu patients “secret baptisms.”
In “The Shadow Saint,” a favorable review of Christopher Hitchens’ infamous The Missionary Position, a 1996 book-length attack on Mother Teresa, Murray Kempton quotes a source mentioned by Hitchens:
In the homes for the dying, Mother taught the sisters how to secretly baptize those who were dying. Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a “ticket to heaven.” An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend that she was just cooling the patient’s head with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptizing him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptizing Hindus and Moslems.
Kempton then adds some of his own righteous snark:
Some of those thus surreptitiously snatched from the burning had to be so far in moribundity as to be incapable of informed consent; and this glimpse of her style with conversions licenses us to add to the catalog of this woman’s heresies the extraordinary notion that the gate of Heaven, instead of being as strait as she was taught as a novice, gapes instead so wide as to accept tickets of admission contrived in stealth and sealed with a fraudulent stamp.
Two months later, NYRB printed two letters in her defense. The first was written by, of all people, a younger Fr. James Martin at America Magazine who begins his letter by stating, “So Mother Teresa isn’t perfect.” He then cites a conspiracy book by John Corwell, criticizes the selfishness of the West and finally defends (admittedly in a gentlemanly way) the Sister’s commitment to helping the poor.
The second letter was written by “Simon Leys”, the pseudonym of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian-Australian art historian, literary critic, translator and sinologist.
The Catholic Ryckmans, who died in 2014 was a fascinating character, and I urge you to look up some of his diverse selection of books. Among other things, he was one of the most prominent critics of Mao and the Chinese Communists during an era when such thoughts could doom ones academic career in the West, hence the “Simon Leys” pseudonym.
While Martin gently scolded Kempton for being “not a little unfair,” Leys strongly gave back to Kempton and Hitchens what they so richly deserved:
Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do. Besides, it appears that the attacks which are being directed at Mother Teresa all boil down to one single crime: she endeavors to be a Christian, in the most literal sense of the word—which is (and always was, and will always remain) a most improper and unacceptable undertaking in this world . . .
She secretly baptizes the dying. The material act of baptism consists in shedding a few drops of water on the head of a person, while mumbling a dozen simple ritual words. Either you believe in the supernatural effect of this gesture—and then you should dearly wish for it. Or you do not believe in it, and the gesture is as innocent and well-meaningly innocuous as chasing a fly away with a wave of the hand. If a cannibal who happens to love you presents you with his most cherished possession—a magic crocodile tooth that should protect you forever—will you indignantly reject his gift for being primitive and superstitious, or would you gratefully accept it as a generous mark of sincere concern and affection?
Jesus was spat upon—but not by journalists, as there were none in His time. It is now Mother Teresa’s privilege to experience this particular updating of her Master’s predicament.
You don’t have to be a Catholic to get the point.
A magical crocodile tooth that will protect you forever.
[Sancta Teresa, ora pro nobis.] Requiescat in pace, Monsieur Ryckmans.