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Michele Somerville Headshot

Mother Teresa's Centenary Birthday Bash: Why I'm Against It

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"Mother Teresa rarely celebrated her birthday herself, and would, we are sure, be appalled to hear that this anniversary of her birth had been used to create such a storm."

This educated guess about how Mother Teresa might feel about the Catholic League's plans for her 100th birthday is included in a letter addressed to Empire State Building owner and operator Anthony Malkin. The letter was written in support of him and signed by thirteen Catholic organizations, some of them large and influential. I'm not sure they're right. Mother Teresa may have wanted exactly the garish extravaganza that the Catholic League is calling a "rally." It is hard to know. Whether she wanted it is beside the point; in any case, this circus is pure irreverence.

It was interesting to be reading the aforementioned letter Sunday morning while listening to the star at the center of the Mother Teresa birthday party, the Catholic League's Bill Donohue, on WABC's Sunday morning radio show, Religion on the Line. You'd never know the amiable-sounding chap promoting the "rally" he's been planning for three months was the same Bill Donohue who blames homosexuals for the church's child rape crisis and brands any Catholic who doesn't toe the party line on contraception or gay marriage as being "pro abortion" or "excommunicated."

It may be the Saint of Calcutta's birthday, but it's going to be Bill Donohue's bash. Throngs of Catholic faithful and other Mother Teresa fans are expected to arrive outside the Empire State Building just as rush hour is getting under way. Why there? Why not outside St. Patrick's Cathedral?

Payback. Bill is mad.

"One wonders what world the elites who run the Empire State Building live in," wrote Donohue on his Catholic League website on May 13th, when Mother Teresa-versus-the-Empire-State-Building began. "If they think they can ride this out, they have no idea what they are dealing with." Threatening the owner and operator of the Empire State Building in Mother's Teresa's name strikes me as both irreverent and emblematic of all that has ever been wrong with the Roman Catholic Church.

I don't blame Anthony Malkin for not wishing to hand over his lunch money.

In a statement posted on his Catholic League website, Donohue boasts of having "the support of people from all over the world, and from all the world's religions." Obviously this is not true.
Later in the same paragraph Donohue claims that if "all the dues-paying members" of the thirteen organizations who signed the (aforementioned here) letter to Malkin "were assembled together in one spot, they would easily fit into a phone booth." That's not true, either. Like all showmen, Donohue makes liberal use of hyperbole.

Were his buffoonery not so bitter, it would amuse. Mother Teresa's party is turning into a circus -- and not the good kind. A meanness moves behind the planning of the centenary fiasco, and there's a message: the Church is wounded but not down for the count. Though punch drunk, it ever reigns. And not just over Catholics.

Why has Anthony Malkin refused to illuminate the building in white and blue tonight? Maybe he's moved by principle. Maybe he just doesn't like being strong-armed in God's -- or Mother Teresa's -- name.

Donohue announced on the radio Sunday morning that rabbi-turned-potty-mouthed-comic Jackie Mason is expected to appear at Mother Teresa's birthday rally, and that when the show at the Empire State Building is over, Donohue will lead the way to the after-party. Noting his Irish heritage, he promised jovially that they won't be "drinking milk shakes."

I have mixed feelings about the Albanian woman born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. She appears to have consecrated her life to God as she knew Him. Despite her well-documented crisis of faith, her belief seems to have run deep and mostly pure. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. She gave comfort to many whom comfort eluded entirely. The Roman Catholic Church does not have a tradition of supporting women who preach, yet the "Saint of Calcutta" was the rare woman the Catholic hierarchy supported in so doing.

About 15 years ago the de facto godmother of punk rock, Patti Smith, waxed prosaic and honorific on Mother Teresa in interviews. I remember being irked by this. I was a big fan of Smith, but I had my doubts about Mother Teresa. Although I hadn't read Christopher Hitchens' The Missionary Position, I'd read enough about Mother Teresa to know that the question of her heroism was not a simple one.

There was something creepy about her photo ops with the Princess of Wales, and, creepier still, about her readiness to serve as a "Christ-like" female frontwoman for the misogynistic Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Most troubling was her commitment to publicly reaffirming the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy's position on contraception at every opportunity. I found it difficult to see as a saint any woman who would advise the mother of a starving child to eschew contraception. Yet Mother Teresa did this. Consistently. And publicly.

It is no secret to anyone in the Church that many Catholic "missionaries" quietly reject the hierarchy's teaching on contraception and AIDS prevention as they focus upon healing and comforting the sick, feeding the hungry and teaching the uneducated to read, write and advocate for themselves. Lay and religious Catholics working in the physical and metaphysical trenches know that the men who make the rules know little about ministering to the poor and infirm and are far better equipped to parse theology or evaluate a Chateauneuf du Pape in the comfortable splendor of their Vatican quarters.

Many -- possibly most -- Catholic activists who devote their lives to working for peace and non-violence learn early to embrace whatever diplomacy they must in order to minister to those in need. Often this is done in the absence of spouting doctrine and tyrannical Catholic policy.

Teresa of Calcutta was no such missionary. It is precisely her willingness to validate the hierarchy's position on "family planning" that renders her the favorite daughter of the hierarchy. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a pawn in this not-so-Holy Roman chess game, not a queen. She is the darling of the hierarchy not because she was brave or devout, but because she was brave, devout and chauvinistic. She complied completely with Vatican rules and regulations. She lent the papacy "street cred." If the woman ministering to babies as they die of starvation can continue to preach against contraception, then...

Teresa of Calcutta no longer lives -- in any earthly sense -- but Roman Catholic missionaries still carry her anti-birth-control message in countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland, where 20 percent of the populations are infected with HIV or AIDS. In these nations many Catholic workers continue, as Mother Teresa did, to discourage women from using condoms and other forms of contraception. In many of these regions, the anti-viral drugs that protect those who have contracted HIV -- as well as the infants born to them -- from developing full-blown AIDS are unavailable or unaffordable. Still, Catholic women, even those married to HIV-positive men, are warned by the Catholic hierarchy not to use condoms, under the threat of eternal damnation and exclusion from the sacraments.

Twenty-seven of the 33 million people in the world who have AIDS live in African nations, and many live in countries where Catholicism is on the rise. The hierarchy is stepping up its efforts to recruit priests in such areas. Catholic presence is strong in some of the African nations hardest hit by AIDS. Women are particularly vulnerable, for the combination of Catholic teaching and cultural norms that place high value on the number of children a man is able to father is especially dangerous for women. In some of these societies, women enjoy few or no legal (or human) rights, and marital rape is not viewed as a criminal act. Current Catholic teaching forbids even Catholic women who know their spouses are HIV-positive from using condoms. The Church, furthermore, demands that women remain open to all pregnancies that result from these unions, even in situations wherein medications and food are scarce or unobtainable.

In the first five years of the 21st century, any priest I talked to on the subject seemed certain that Vatican approval of the use of condoms by married Catholics for the prevention of AIDS was a fait accompli. But Joseph Ratzinger shut the conversation down and compounded this transgression by informing the world that condoms were ineffective in preventing the spread of AIDS. He even found a Harvard scientist to back up some of his claims, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the world's AIDS experts and many Catholic workers (bishops and cardinals among them) in countries ravaged by this disease unequivocally agree that distribution of condoms is the best way to arrest and prevent the spread of AIDS.

I can see how someone in Anthony Malkin's position might regard as distasteful the act of paying tribute (pun eerily appropriate) to a woman who urged people suffering from malnutrition, illness, extreme poverty and high incidence of infant mortality to breed as energetically as possible. I can see why he might think twice about caving in to a demand that he honor her or any Roman Catholic missionary.

It surprises me that I, who often think of real-estate development itself as a kind of spiritual leprosy, should find myself rooting for the real-estate developer against the woman who ministered to lepers. It surprises me that I am defending a mogul in spite of being a Catholic who does some work with the poor. It surprises me that as a feminist woman in a church led by misogynists, I should fail to be in favor of the celebration of a Roman Catholic Church "mother." Most of all, it surprises me as a mother that any woman could ever urge the mother of a starving child to eschew contraception.

Having recently accompanied a loved one through the dying process, it surprises me to be seeing Mother Teresa in a light in which I was not able to see her a decade ago. I now know that accompanying the terminally ill toward death is a kind of midwifery, and that people brave enough to devote their lives to transmitting hope in the face of death are indeed miraculous. If she did that with all the fullness and grace such work demands, she has indeed worked miracles.

Although I remain uncertain where to stand on Mother Teresa, this much is very clear to me, today, on the 100th anniversary of her birth: There is nothing reverent about a mob gathered in defiance and in punitive spirit at the foot of tallest edifice in New York City.

Though I support the legal right of these Catholics to assemble on 34th Street, I am embarrassed, as a Catholic, by their hostile choice to come from far and wide to jam up the streets of my town just as August-hot weekday rush hour gets underway so as to mount this petulant cross between a crusade and a tirade. Noise, litter, traffic jams and increased police presence will be their birthday homage to "the Saint of Calcutta." (What, pray tell, will these pilgrims do about restrooms?)

I wish Catholics would stay home today. If they wish to celebrate Mother Teresa's life in a reverent way -- one of which she might possibly (though not certainly) have approved -- let them attend mass. Let them meditate and pray. Let them donate the costs of this vulgar and faintly punitive birthday celebration to an agency like Frances House in Brooklyn, which offers young, single, poor women transitional housing and support while pregnant and learning to care for their newborns.

How many people could be fed with the money the rallying Catholics will spend on gas alone? Or with the costs of that after-party lager tab?

At first, I didn't understand why the Catholic League's Bill Donohue was, as he described it, "digging in his heels on this one." But it occurred to me at the start of his campaign that events like this "rally" have a way of pushing real Catholic news of the front pages. A story like this can keep the Pope and other alleged accessories to child rape out of headlines for weeks.

Back in May I did a keyword internet search on Anthony Malkin. The only personal thing I turned up was a wedding announcement in The New York Times. Malkin was married in a Jewish temple. Uh-oh, I thought. Christian rabble led by "righteous" homophobe bully versus the filthy rich, saint-hating Jew who obstinately refuses to divulge exactly why he declines to honor a Catholic (future) saint. I confess that I feared the worst; I thank God that the worst is not, thus far, in evidence. I guess it's a good thing that Donohue's got Jackie Mason in his Mother Teresa birthday bash lineup. Let's just pray that Mason, in Mother Teresa's honor, leaves his schvartzer jokes at home tonight.

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