Recently, popular libertarian haberdasher Austin Petersen implicitly authorized the release of an article in his online magazine, The Libertarian Republic, demonizing a long respected and immensely popular servant of the poor — Mother Teresa. The timing of the release was no coincidence; as the lady in question was recently canonized as a saint. Pope Francis, who holds the highest office within the Catholic Church (an international religious organization with over a billion constituents), had this to say of Teresa at the ceremony ushering her into the venerated assemblage of one the world’s oldest continuous institutions:
“Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded … She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity. She made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created … mercy was the salt which gave flavor to her work, it was the light which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.”
The aforementioned article, titled “Top Ten Reasons Mother Teresa Was a Fraud,” while ill-advised and distasteful, is not representative of an entirely new phenomenon. Within a relatively recent time-span (mid-to-late 20th century) libertarianism has become a de facto “safe space” for atheist thinkers whose skepticism extends to government. While it is true that currently most atheists are liberal, the rise of the Libertarian Party, and its relative obscurity even today, has made it easy for a minority atheist population to carve out a powerful institutional niche for itself in many of the party’s ancillary grassroots organizations. Take a look at a relatively recent poll facilitated by the party leadership on religious affiliation. It shows that 39% of Libertarian party respondents selected “None (including agnostic and atheist)” as their preferred silo. This is a stark contrast (more than double) to the approximate number of Americans identifying as having no religion (15%) — of which only 1.6% explicitly describe themselves as atheist (0.7%) or agnostic (0.9%).
Petersen himself identifies with this group — the disproportionate representation of which is important for understanding particular sociological phenomenon emanating from greater libertarian culture. A notably virulent form of atheism, which seeks to annihilate religious thought, presence, institutions, etc. in society, has in recent decades crept into what might be referred to as “mainstream atheist culture.” This has most usually been materialized and marketed in the form of books and articles written by men who have sometimes been popularly labeled “the new atheists.” The late Christopher Hitchens was one of the foremost among them. His book and subsequent documentary attacking Mother Teresa, combined with his celebrity within atheist culture, are almost certainly the sources of these “aftershock” attacks on the venerable lady. But do they have merit? In 2013, the Institute on Religion and Public Life (a non-partisan, religiously pluralistic, non-profit organization) examined Hitchens’ claims concerning the venerated mother. Here is an excerpt from that piece:
[Hitchens] purports to defend the poor against Mother Teresa’s supposed exploitation of them, while never actually interviewing any on screen. Not a single person cared for by the Missionaries speaks on camera. Was this because they had a far higher opinion of Blessed Teresa than Hitchens would permit in his film? Avoiding the people at the heart of Teresa’s ministry, Hitchens posed for the camera and let roll a series of ad hominem attacks and unsubstantiated accusations, as uninformed as they were cruel. He called Muggeridge—one of the most acclaimed journalists of the twentieth century—an “old fraud and mountebank,” mocked his belief in the supernatural, and even referred to Mother Teresa as a “presumable virgin. Hitchens expressed shock that Teresa encouraged victims to forgive those who harmed them, causing many to wonder whether he was aware of the basic tenets of Christianity. The height of absurdity came when Hitchens assailed Mother Teresa for allegedly giving her heart to greater Albania, “a cause that was once smiled upon by Pope Pius IX and his friend Benito Mussolini.” It would have been hard for Pius IX to have been friends with Benito Mussolini, given that Pius died in 1878, and Mussolini was not born until 1883, but why should Hitchens be concerned about historical facts, when he was having such fun making them up?
Anyone who is familiar with Hitchens (and is remotely objective) knows that the man was fueled by an intense hatred of religion. Hatred is not the best catalyst for objectivity and truth telling. Several individuals, however, took the accusations seriously and launched investigations — including Fr. Peter Gumbel (an official at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints). He had this to say:
“There are mistakes made in even the most modern medical facilities, but whenever a correction was needed, Mother [Teresa] and the Missionaries showed themselves alert and open to constructive change and improvement. What many do not understand is the desperate conditions Mother Teresa constantly faced, and that her special charisma was not to found or run hospitals—the Church has many who do that—but to rescue those who were given no chance of surviving, and otherwise would have died on the street.” It is “absolutely false,” he stressed, to claim that she rejected or neglected available medical care for those still treatable, or good palliative care for the terminally ill. “Beware of anecdotal stories circulating from disgruntled people or those with an anti-Catholic agenda,” he warned.
Journalist and historian William Doino, Jr., while investigating his article for the Institute, contacted the head of the research team employed by Hitchens for the hit-piece on Teresa. His recollection of that conversation was quite revealing.
After hearing from these supporters, I requested interviews with the researchers, and finally obtained one with Dr. Chenard. Her answers to my series of questions were both astonishing and revealing: She confirmed for me that her academic team did not speak to a single patient, medical analyst, associate, or worker of Mother Teresa’s before writing their paper against her; nor did they examine how all her finances were spent; nor did they speak with anyone at the Vatican involved with her sainthood cause, or consult the Vatican’s medical board which certified the miracle attributed to Blessed Teresa. The researchers had not even traveled to Calcutta, whereas even Hitchens, misguided as he was, at least did that. As it turned out, this “research paper” was nothing but a “review of literature,” a repacking of what others had already written, with the academics putting their own negative spin on it. In other words, an indictment based upon no original research, and the author most frequently cited? Christopher Hitchens. Yet these “findings” made international headlines, and were repeated by many without objection.
Petersen seems to have learned quite a bit from Hitchens and his ilk — reporting to Facebook with his signature witticism and snark in order to face off with the legions of critics who rightly took issue with this hit-piece. Observe.
Austin is potentially a very bright light for the libertarian party. His principled stances on a variety of liberty oriented issues are some of the best, most well-thought out positions held by anyone in the party. But, as he himself said, “neither are we infallible.” He must not continue to let marginal, hate-based rhetoric blindly direct his opinion into folly — like slandering a woman who has done great work and made intense personal sacrifices that only a very, very few human beings will ever voluntarily share. She should be remembered for the work that she did; for the people she cared for; for the sacrifices she made; so that people who had nothing and no one could experience the care and affection of another human being at least once in their lives. Susan Conroy, a woman who worked with Teresa in Calcutta for over a decade, remembers her this way:
I kept thinking back to my personal experiences there . . . . I know how tenderly and carefully we tended to each of the destitute patients there—how we bathed them, and washed their beds, and fed them and gave them medicine. I know how the entire shelter was thoroughly and regularly cleaned from top to bottom, and each patient was bathed as often as necessary, even if it was multiple times a day . . . . They were considered “untouchables” of society, and yet there we were touching and caring for them as if they were royalty. We truly felt honored to serve them as best we could. Mother Teresa had taught us to care for each one with all the humility, respect, tenderness and love with which we would touch and serve Jesus Christ Himself—reminding us that “whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers,” we do unto Him.