Calcutta

No doubt about it, St. Teresa of Calcutta was (love her or hate her) a media superstar

No doubt about it, St. Teresa of Calcutta was (love her or hate her) a media superstar

Today seems like a strange time to defend St. Teresa of Calcutta, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Actually, my goal in a post earlier this week -- then in our "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) -- was not to defend the tiny Albanian nun who dedicated most of her life to serving poor people who were dying in a dark corner of Calcutta. There are plenty of articulate, qualified people who have spent decades studying the fine details of her life and work who can defend her.

Yes, there are also critics who have spent decades developing detailed arguments for criticizing her, especially when it comes to the messy medical details of life and death inside the Home for the Dying. Both sides of that debate are worth attention.

Of course, there are Catholics who totally embraced Mother Teresa's defense of church doctrines on subjects such as contraception, abortion and the authority of church leaders -- including herself in her role as founder of the Missionaries of Charity. But there are Catholics on the left who believe she abused that power and that she should have used her clout to fight for social change in India and around the world.

Many doctrinal conservatives were upset that Mother Teresa and her sisters didn't strive to convert Hindus and Muslims to the Christian faith. There are others on the left who are just as upset that, when people whose lives she touched wanted to know about Christianity, she was more than willing to help them convert.

So what's the bottom line here? In the earlier post and the podcast, I stressed that it is totally appropriate to cover the controversies that surrounded Mother Teresa's life, as well as covering her fame as a living saint -- in the eyes of millions -- who served the poorest of the poor. What I questioned is media coverage that discusses the facts raised by her critics, without turning to authoritative voices on the other side to offer their side of this debate.

Take that CNN piece about her critics.

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New York Times offers update on criticisms of 'Hell's Angel' (as in Mother Teresa)

New York Times offers update on criticisms of 'Hell's Angel' (as in Mother Teresa)

Back in my Denver days, I covered a massive interfaith prayer event in which the featured speaker was Mother Teresa. I also had the chance to interview her, briefly, but that's a complicated story.

During her remarks, the tiny nun -- who was already being hailed as a living saint -- strongly defended Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life, from conception to the grave. This was not a surprise, but it was a key theme in what she said and, thus, I included it in my story for The Rocky Mountain News. I also called the local Planned Parenthood office seeking a response to Mother Teresa's words.

The spokeswoman was, truth be told, quite gracious and on point. She had praise for Mother Teresa's work, but also was very specific in her criticisms of the tiny nun's beliefs on abortion, artificial contraception, etc. I quoted her at length and, days later, she called to thank me for quoting her positive words as well as her negative comments. After all, she said, no one wants to be seen as someone who "beats up on Mother Teresa."

Unless, of course, you were atheist Christopher Hitchens or, apparently, Dr. Aroup Chatterjee of India.

In preparation for the Vatican rites in which Mother Teresa will officially become St. Teresa of Calcutta, The New York Times has run a perfectly valid story focusing on the views of one of her strongest critics (and there are plenty of them). However, note the headline on this story:

A Critic’s Lonely Quest: Revealing the Whole Truth About Mother Teresa

Apparently, the "whole truth" about Mother Teresa is a rather simplistic, one-sided story.

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Yo, journalists: Mother Teresa would be quick to explain that she cannot perform miracles

Yo, journalists: Mother Teresa would be quick to explain that she cannot perform miracles

Now it's on the calendar. The "saint of the gutters" will, on Sept. 4 -- the eve of the anniversary of her death in 1997 -- become a Catholic saint. The tiny nun who millions hailed as "a living saint" will officially become St. Mother Teresa.

Obviously, this announcement by the pope required journalists to describe the somewhat complicated process that led to this moment. Thus, this assignment -- trigger warning! -- required descriptions of complicated doctrinal concepts such as "prayers" and "miracles."

The key word you are looking for, as you scan the mainstream media coverage, is "intercede."

However, if you want to see a perfect example of HOW NOT to describe this process, note this passage from USA Today:

She was beatified in 2003 by Pope John Paul II after being attributed to a first miracle, answering an Indian woman's prayers to cure her brain tumor, according to the Vatican. One miracle is needed for beatification -- described by the Catholic Church as recognition of a person's entrance into heaven -- while sainthood requires two.
Francis officially cleared Mother Teresa for sainthood on Dec. 17, 2015, recognizing her "miraculous healing" of a Brazilian man with multiple brain abscesses, the Vatican said.

Note that we are dealing with paraphrased quotes. Did an official at the Vatican actually say that Mother Teresa, on her own, "healed" these two people? Or did the Vatican say that they were healed by God after believers asked Mother Teresa to pray for them, to "intercede" with God on their behalf?

Here is the key doctrinal fact that journalists need to grasp in order to get this story right: Saints pray. God heals.

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