Sunday, August 9, 2015

Christopher Hitchens' "The Missionary Position": Book Review

Reading this on my Kindle, I was surprised it ended so suddenly. I wanted more. Subsequent events since this appeared in 1995 show that Mother Teresa is on the fast track to canonization after her 1997 death led to her 2003 beatification. In retrospect, the furor over Christopher Hitchens' little book reveals a more-carefully considered study of her media impact and the finagling of her financial empire behind a sort of calculated willful ignorance. He starts each section with apt and clever quotations from earlier skeptics and in tying the Albanian woman to cronies as far-flung and as dreadfully connected to filthy lucre such as Duvaliers in Haiti, Hitchens makes the case with wit but also sorrow that so many of us fell for this.

The money amassed by the millions, the donations to her by Charles Keating of some of the $250+ million he gained by fraud and deceit, and the destitution in which both the Sisters of her Missionaries of Charity and those whom they care for are skillfully narrated and analyzed by Hitchens. As in much of his journalism, he can show signs of too brisk or showy a dash over territory that requires slow navigation. The Albanian context examined late on saps the momentum of his earlier chapters, although his interest in the Balkans surely contributed to his decision to cover this.

His moral is simple. “The rich world likes and wishes to believe that someone, somewhere, is doing something for the Third World. For this reason, it does not inquire too closely into the motives or practices of anyone who fulfills, however vicariously, this mandate.” We shift a guilty conscience to the admittedly devoted Missionaries of her Order, he suggests, and we let them and its idolized founder act in the name of an apostolate that, however well intended, manipulates the poor to score points against contraception and abortion but neglects any critique of overpopulation. Poverty rather than fought against is embraced. While the Sisters may accept this, their patients, Hitchens reasons, may not.

After all, as a noted atheist, Hitchens has the advantage of standing apart from such as Malcolm Muggeridge, a journalist predecessor who was taken in by her glow, attributing a miracle not to Kodak film stock but to Mother Teresa's intervention while she was alive to illuminate an interior. Against such shenanigans. a rationalist like Hitchens offers a counter-argument, lest the credulous trust too much in clerical leaders like her.

“It is often said, inside the Church and out of it, that there is something grotesque about lectures on the sexual life when delivered by those who have shunned it. Given the way that the Church forbids women to preach, this point is usually made about men. But given how much this Church allows the fanatical Mother Teresa to preach, it might be added that the call to go forth and multiply, and to take no thought for the morrow, sounds grotesque when uttered by an elderly virgin whose chief claim to reverence is that she ministers to the inevitable losers in this very lottery.”

While some of this spirited polemic rushes by too rapidly, Hitchens provides a look at what is necessary. Believers in this mission may cringe or carp. But a service, however cattily aimed at generating controversy from the title on, is rendered. The faithful need to heed views of such skeptics. (8-7-15 to Amazon US.) P.S. After her planned canonization, in 2016, see Eamonn McCann in The Irish Times, and in Salon, George Gillett.

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