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The Catholic Social Ethic of Mother Teresa

It may seem strange to speak of Mother Teresa having a social ethic. We usually think of social ethics as including, although by no means being limited to, questions of politics, but the recently canonized founder of the Missionaries of Charity throughout her life claimed to have no interest in politics, instead focusing on her own vocation of charitably serving the poor. Of course, in some ways this apolitical stance is disingenuous; Mother Teresa quite vocally opposed abortion, most notably during a speech before the United Nations in 1985, and she was (unwisely) willing to take money from and be seen with shady characters, most notably Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. It remains true, however, that for the most part she showed little interest in the political issues facing India or the world.

In fact, one of the most important criticisms of Mother Teresa was precisely that she refused to consider the “root causes” of the poverty afflicting those she served, to challenge the political and economic structures that created or contributed to poverty. This critique can easily be expressed in the terms of Catholic social teaching’s understanding of the relationship between charity and justice. For example, in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius writes that “no vicarious charity can substitute for justice which is due as an obligation and is wrongfully denied” (#137). And more recently, Pope Benedict XVI explains in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is ‘his’, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice” (#6). Was Mother Teresa’s disinterest in politics a case of giving in charity what was owed in justice? Of course both Pius and Benedict insist that acts of charity like those carried out by Mother Teresa are necessary and good, and neither would have insisted that she give up her work for a life of political activism. But what are we to make of her apparent lack of concern about issues of justice?

It is important to realize first that Mother Teresa put a great deal of thought into her charitable work and had a well-developed philosophy grounded in her spirituality. I want to focus on three aspects of this philosophy in particular. First, Mother Teresa greatly emphasized being able to see the poor, and in particular on seeing Christ in the poor. For most of us, most of the time, we fail to see the poor, whether literally while going about our everyday lives, or figuratively by failing to consider them in our decisions and priorities. For Mother Teresa, opening our hearts to the poor first requires us to open our eyes to the poor. Although many hundreds of volunteers came to work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta over the years, she often insisted that this was unnecessary, that we live among the poor no matter where we are, we simply need to open our eyes to see them, to find Christ among us, and then do something about it.

Closely related to Mother Teresa’s insistence on seeing the poor is her emphasis on being present to the poor. In her mind, the poor are not a problem to be fixed but rather persons in need of love and companionship. Intriguingly, she critiques what she considers a Western mindset that is overly focused on problem-solving and efficiency, instead appealing to an Eastern emphasis on meditativeness and simple presence. She links this with the truth that the human person is not just a material being but also a spiritual being. This had important implications for her work. For example, the destitute sick of Calcutta were not simply in need of physical healing but of spiritual healing; in many cases left as beggars on the streets and refused at the cities’ hospitals, the sense of exclusion and marginalization could be just as crippling as physical illness. The Missionaries of Charity, therefore, put a great deal of their effort into providing a loving presence to the residents at their home for the dying, Nirmal Hriday.

Thirdly, Mother Teresa concluded that to be truly present to the poor, it is necessary to live with the poor, or as we might say, to enter into solidarity with them. To truly love the poor, it is not sufficient to relate to them from a position of superiority; she called this “pity” rather than true charity or love. Rather, one must to the extent possible live with the poor and live like the poor, just as for our sake Christ became poor (2 Cor. 8:9). Her refrain that we should “give until it hurts” is not just a question of our bank accounts but also of status and privilege. Mother Teresa adopted as the Missionaries’ habit a simple sari, and the Missionaries lived a humble lifestyle in many regards like that of the people they served. Mother Teresa’s insistence on solidarity with the poor was also a result of her conscientiousness about not being perceived as a tool of colonialism or a Western do-gooder; although Albanian herself, Mother Teresa was originally a member of the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish-based religious order with houses in several former British colonies, and so it was especially important for her to minimize the alienating effects this position of privilege might have in her relations with the poor she served.

I think that by living with the poor in this way, the Missionaries of Charity in a sense empower them to live as a community of solidarity themselves. What I mean is, the work of the Missionaries awakens the poor to what they are capable of achieving for themselves. This may mean achieving less, by some measures, than what could be achieved by drawing on the full resources of the wealthy and powerful. In some cases, this led Mother Teresa to adopt controversial decisions, such as the refusal to use more sophisticated medical equipment and medicines that may have led to superior health outcomes at the home for the dying, but that also might have contributed to a more instrumentalized view of the patients. Her insight is that in the end the community of solidarity and love the poor can achieve for themselves may be more valuable than what could be achieved using more sophisticated and efficiency-oriented methods. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Shanti Nagar, a community of around 400 patients with Hansen’s disease and their families that Mother Teresa established in 1968 after residents of Calcutta rejected her efforts to construct a clinic within the city. Shanti Nagar consists in a clinic, homes, and shops that provide a livelihood for the patients, all of which the patients themselves played a major role in building. The community also has its own elected government.

These three principles—seeing the poor, being present to the poor, and living with the poor—provide a key to understanding Mother Teresa’s social ethic despite her personal disavowal of politics. I think it is crucial to avoid thinking of charity and politics as two contrasting, even opposing, methods of approaching social problems. Rather, charity, as Mother Teresa understands it, provides a mode of life by which one can approach politics, what Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate calls “the political path of charity” (#7). What does it mean to seek out the “root causes” of poverty without truly seeing the poor, being present to the poor, and living with the poor? This mode of life can only be developed through a face to face encounter with the poor, and politics without charity is ultimately futile in addressing root causes or at best greatly limited in its scope. Politics with charity sees the issues rightly, maintains the proper hierarchy of values, and includes the poor themselves as the primary agents of transformation.

In my view, Mother Teresa’s reticence about politics is best understood not as a dismissal of politics as unworthy of consideration or as a flawed alternative to charity, but rather as a recognition that the primary task, to which she devoted her life, is to create communities of solidarity and love among the poor themselves. These communities then can become the well-springs of a mode of life capable of achieving a true politics of charity.

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.

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