Trashing Mother Teresa

Christopher Hitchens, the Washington-based British journalist, has made a career of being a bad boy. But in attacking Mother Teresa of Calcutta-in The Nation and Vanity Fair, in the British documentary "Hell's Angel" and now in The Missionary Position (98 pages. Verso. $12.95)--he's found the muckraker's holy grail: the story to offend everyone. "Who would be so base," Hitchens writes in his foreword, "as to pick on a wizened, shrivelled old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and the destitute?" Three guesses. But he's got his reasons.

Hitchens's Mother Teresa is an antiabortion "demagogue" and a "servant of earthly powers," cozying up to such slime as S&L swindler Charles Keating, on whose behalf she wrote to Judge Lance Ito during his 1992 trial. In a well-reasoned reply, a deputy D.A. explained to her how Keating stole the money he'd donated and suggested she return it to "its rightful owners"; she never answered. The editor of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet was "disturbed" by haphazard procedures and inadequate management of pain at Mother Teresa's apparently well-financed Calcutta clinic. "I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor," Mother Teresa has said. Yet, Hitchens notes, she herself has "checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West." She does charitable work, he argues, "not for its own sake but . . . so that she may one day be counted as the beatific founder of a new order and discipline within the Church itself."

Disquieting as his specifics are, Hitchens hasn't done the extensive investigative work to justify his scorched-earth condemnation. He quotes one disaffected member of Mother Teresa's order who claims some $50 million accumulated in a single checking account in the Bronx and that the vast sums taken in never reached the poor. But Hitchens has no idea how much the order takes in or what it costs to run its far-flung operations. And his flippant tone--why the title's sophomoric double-entendre?--and refusal to take into account Roman Catholic dogma make us distrust his objectivity.

After reading Hitchens it's humbling to pick up Mother Teresa: A Simple Path (202 pages. Ballantine. $20), a compilation of her words and volunteers' stories. One, an ex-beautician, tells of arriving in Calcutta: "When one of the sisters asked me to wash this woman I just thought, There's no way . . . She picked up this little bundle of bones . . . One minute I was saying 'I can't' and the next I realized, of course, I could . . . When I was leaving Calcutta, I said to Mother Teresa, I'll come back.' She answered, 'You won't come back--there's a lot to do where you live'." Even if this book is propaganda, and Mother Teresa the cat's-paw of Vatican fundamentalists, there's something here beyond the muckraker's ken. Whatever we call this capacity to touch a fellow human, it's part of the story too.