A program of the Center for Inquiry
With the requisite two “miracles” approved, Mother Teresa's canonization took place on Sunday, September 4, 2016. But was Mother Teresa of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) transformed into a saint—that is, a holy person imbued by God with miraculous powers—or was she only a pretend saint, created by popular demand?
Around the world, the Catholic faithful clamor for their beloved late priest, nun, or other personage to be added to the roster of saints. Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) heard them and lowered the requirement from three verified miracles to two (one for beatification, another for canonization), creating numerous saints and beatifying over 1,300 others—more than had all his predecessors together. Following complaints that the church was operating a “saint factory,” in 2008 somewhat stricter procedures were introduced, but then John Paul II too was canonized (Nickell 2015).
The name of Mother Teresa (1910–1997) is known worldwide. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia, she became a nun, taught at a girls’ school in India, and in time founded a new congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, which spread internationally. Her work—ostensibly to benefit the poor—won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
The nun’s critics—most notably the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, who once paid her a visit—found that, rather than wishing to end poverty, she encouraged the poor to endure pain while continuing to suffer. Hitchens (1995, 31) provided quotations from her, like this:
There is always the danger that we may become only social workers or just do the work for the sake of the work. . . . It is a danger; if we forget to whom we are doing it. Our works are only an expression of our love for Christ. Our hearts need to be full of love for him, and since we have to express that love in action, naturally then the poorest of the poor are the means of expressing our love for God.
Hitchens cited a distinguished physician who visited her center in 1994. He was appalled that “Mother Teresa prefers providence to planning” (Fox 1994). Hitchens himself (1995, 41) criticized her decision not to use her considerable global income to “outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal” but “to run instead a haphazard and cranky institution”—the purpose being “not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection” (1995, 41). He also faulted her for cozying up to disreputable characters in search of funds, for spending money on frivolities, and for opposing abortion and contraception.
With Mother Teresa in mind, Hitchens recalled Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason (1794):
Upon the whole, mystery, miracle and prophecy are appendages that belong to fabulous and not to true religion. They are the means by which so many Lo heres! And Lo theres! Have been spread about the world, and religion been made into a trade. The success of one impostor gave encouragement to another, and the quieting salvo of doing some good by keeping up a pious fraud, protected them from remorse.
In fact, Hitchens’s concerns about Mother Teresa led to his actually becoming a “Devil’s Advocate” in the cause of Mother Teresa’s sainthood. In 2001, he gave opposing testimony to the body of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., that was considering her canonization. Two years later, her beatification showed that his criticisms had fallen on deaf ears.
For the beatification, the case of an Indian tribal woman was selected. Monica Basra claimed to have been cured in 1998 of stomach cancer, in the form of a tubercular tumor, after she placed a locket with a picture of Mother Teresa on her abdomen.
However, the doctors who treated the then-thirty-year-old woman stated that she had a cyst rather than a tumor and that she hadactually been cured with nine months of anti-tubercular medication (Gowen 2016). Reporting to the West Bengal government, the doctors insisted that Mrs. Besra had continued to receive medical treatment long after the death of Mother Teresa (Mukherjee 2003). Besra’s husband, Seiku Murmu, agrees: “It is much ado about nothing. My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle.” He adds: “My wife did feel less pain one night when she used the locket, but her pain had been coming and going. Then she went to the doctors, and they cured her.”
For her part, Mrs. Besra said she still believed in the miracle, while admitting she was treated by doctors at the state-operated Balurghat Hospital. “I took the medicines they gave me, but the locket gave me complete relief from the pain.” In fact, the power of suggestion can indeed remove pain, but it was obviously the scientific treatment that cured the tumor (“What’s” 2002).
Members of the Science and Rationalists’ Association of India attempted to stop the false miracle claim which they labeled “propaganda,” urging the police to “take action” against Sister Nirmala, the current head of the order founded by Mother Teresa. Protesting in Kolkata, the rationalists held up placards with messages such as “Mother don’t bargain for sainthood,” “Is good work not enough?” and “Why resort to fraud?” Prabir Ghosh, head of the science group, stated that Sister Nirmala had “turned this sainthood thing into a business” (Murkherjee 2003).
The second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa was cloaked in secrecy. Reportedly, a Brazilian man’s life was saved after his priest prayed for Mother Teresa to intervene with God. However, the man’s identity was not disclosed at the time, in order “to maintain the discretion needed for the investigation,” reported the Catholic News Agency (“Pope” 2015).
Sources gave different accounts of the reputed miracle. Religion News Service reported that the Brazilian man “Suddenly woke from a coma caused by a viral brain infection” and “fully recovered following his wife’s prayers” (which were apparently addressed to Mother Teresa) (Gibson and Scammell 2015). Another source, The National Catholic Register, said the infection had instead been “bacterial” and had led to multiple abscesses of the brain” (Pronechen 2016). The Catholic News Service reported that the “viral brain infection” had “resulted in multiple brain abscesses. . . . Treatments given were ineffective and the man went into a coma” (Glatz 2015).
It seems the unspecified treatments may well have been effective after all, and that the coma therefore abated. The term miracle is not a scientific one, and indeed the panel of medical experts and theologians who examined the case simply concluded “that there was no medical explanation for the apparent cure” (Gibson and Scammell 2015).
In both cases “miracle” was defined as it always is in such matters as “medically inexplicable.” The evidence is therefore not positive but negative, resulting in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam “an argument from ignorance”—that is, a lack of knowledge. One cannot draw a conclusion from “we don’t know”—least of all that a miracle (supposedly a supernatural occurrence) was involved (Nickell 2015).
In fact, there may be explanations of which reviewers are unaware: spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis, prior medical treatment, the body’s own natural healing mechanisms, and other factors. Recognizing this, the international panel of physicians appointed by the Catholic Church to identify “miracles” at the French healing shrine, Lourdes, announced in 2008 that it was ending the practice. Henceforth, the panel would only indicate that some cases are “remarkable” and so avoid the faulty logic (Nickell 2013). The Congregation for the Causes of Saints should follow suit.
The Church’s approach is obviously an attempt to trump science—downplaying its role in many actual cures and choosing remarkable cases so as to emphasize their “medically inexplicable” nature. Doctors—including Catholic doctors—should refuse to play the miracles game. If the Church wishes to honor a doctrinaire nun, let it do so without an affront to science and reason.
Joe Nickell, PhD, is CSI’s senior research fellow. He is author of numerous books, including The Science of Miracles (2013).