The Missionary Position
Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 01/08/2008 by Tim Challies.

Recommended. Thought-provoking but poorly referenced.

Christopher Hitchens has gained notoriety as a member of the so-called “new atheism” with his recently published book God Is Not Great. Alongside Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, he has become a leader amongst “fundamentalist atheism.” But God is Not Great is not Hitchens’ first published work. Among his numerous publications, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice sticks out as a provocative and cheeky exposé of one of history’s beloved charity-workers.

The title’s double entendre gives one an idea of the book’s tone, as it is a forthright and sometimes discourteous analysis of the famous missionary to Calcutta. In fact, the New York Press blurb on the back of the book states it well, “If there is a hell, Hitchens is going there for this book.” The author’s intended purpose is to cast a shadow on the integrity of Mother Teresa’s character and mission. In a sense, Hitchens has provided readers a service, albeit a service that makes one wince while reading.

Mother Teresa, who recently died and is on the fast track to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, has been well covered in the media. Unfortunately most biographies of her are mere hagiography; the critical gaze seems not to fall on her path. Hitchens notes this himself, listing off a number of books dedicated to his subject. “Yet if you review the above titles out loud – Mother Teresa, helper of the poor, protector of the sick, servant to the suffering, friend of the friendless – you are in fact mimicking an invocation of the Virgin and improvising your own ‘Ave Maria’ or ‘Hail Mary’” (12). There is a certain truth to this and Hitchens does much to remedy the problem.

The author’s main rub is the inadequacy of the Mother’s mission to the poor and the hypocrisy of her character. In the first, tales of archaic methods of caring for the sick leaves one almost breathless: poor working conditions, reused needles, untrained staff, abject suffering and agony (37-50). In the second, readers learn that in spite of her Missionaries of Charity’s stance on not receiving money or helping the rich, Mother Teresa had received millions of dollars and had in fact provided much support to the rich, famous and infamous alike (60-71). With all of the money she received, why was her mission in such shambles?

The strong points of this book are the cases of documented shenanigans. For instance, when then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited India she made a trip to visit Mother Teresa. She was greeted with “babies who normally wear nothing but thin cotton diapers that do little but promote rashes and exacerbate the reek of urine [who] had been outfitted for the morning in American Pampers and newly-stitched floral pinafores” (9).

Mother Teresa’s support for shysters like the cultish “John-Roger” or the felon Charles Keating as well as for despots like Michèle Duvalier and Indira Ghandi proves almost too hard to digest.

Another strong point is Hitchens’ ability to write with tremendous wit and insight. In particular, his comparison between Mother Teresa and televangelist hucksters is great. “Is it going too far to liken Mother Teresa to some of our infamous televangelists, turning their audiences on to what is in God’s heart and mind while encouraging and accepting all donations?” (49). Such a style of writing keeps one entertained.

Hitchens is at his weakest, however, when he presumes to criticize or offer moral judgment on Mother Teresa’s actions or beliefs. What, one may ask, is Hitchens’ moral point of reference to which he appeals when he offers his stinging criticism? Maybe he could ask Doug Wilson, whom he debated on the Christianity Today website, to repeat his explanation of why the word ought cannot be in the atheist’s vocabulary. A world of mindless chance cannot account for ethical standards. If we are all here by random, evolutionary chance, then why should anyone care about the weak of the world? Who cares if Mother Teresa ripped them off? It’s all natural selection anyway.

Another weak area for Hitchens is historical. For instance, when commenting on Queen Elizabeth 11’s relationship with Mother Teresa, he notes the irony that the “‘Defender of the Faith’ against all the works of Rome” would have anything to do with the Roman Catholic nun (62). The problem is that Pope Leo X bestowed the title Fidei Defensor upon Henry VIII in 1521 for the king’s treatise against Martin Luther. The title is actually Roman Catholic in origin.

Hitchens makes a similar, though more theologically oriented mistake when he claims that the Roman Catholic Church received its teaching on celibacy from St. Paul. He says, “Its official dogmas, derived in the main from St Paul but elaborated down the centuries, forbid clergy from being married and prohibit women from being clergy” (51). While it may be true that Paul restricted the office of elder to men, surely Paul’s understanding of marriage is here misrepresented. Celibacy may have been an ideal lifestyle in Paul’s view but it was not necessary. In fact, Paul urged his readers to marry if they had sexual desires and said nothing of sex for procreation’s sake only.

The chapter on Mother Teresa’s view of abortion and the sanctity of life is likely Hitchens’ weakest. In an attempt to make her look like one who cares little for population growth Hitchens puts his faulty understanding of world population and the proper means of maintaining it on display. Abortion is not the best answer to regulating population and Hitchens comes out the other end of this chapter looking like the hardened atheist he is. The pro-life movement is, in this reviewers view, here bolstered and vindicated unwittingly by Hitchens.

With these critiques in mind, The Missionary Position is recommended if only for the fact that the darker side of Mother Teresa is exposed. For those who will venerate her as a saint, this book should be an important eye-opener. It falsifies the claim by Malcolm Muggeridge that she performed a miracle (21-32), a feat required for beatification, and it shows that she was flawed beyond her merely “having doubts” as has been recently reported. It is also a useful book for the thoughtful reader who will note some of the inconsistencies on Hitchens’ part. His is a brilliant writer who so transparently allows his atheism shape his thought that he provides great fodder for apologetics on the bare pages of this book. There are many in the world today who look to the memory of Mother Teresa with uncritical eyes. A healthy dose of realism would do them good, and Hitchens is the man who (inconsistently) offers just the right amount.