Newsweek, MSNBC Rely on Atheist Critic to Discuss Mother Teresa's Spiritual Troubles

Upon learning that one of the world's most renowned Christians, Mother Teresa, suffered a crisis of faith for much of her life, who is the “expert” Chris Matthews and Newsweek turn to for comment?   

Who else but a self-avowed atheist, Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens, the uniquely vituperative critic of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun?

In his 1995 book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Hitchens suggested that she didn't really care for the ill and the downtrodden, but used them to advance her personal and political (read pro-life) ambitions.   Hitchens criticized the nun for maintaining ties to questionable political leaders, and raised questions about the quality of the medical care provided by her order. Hitchens even testified at the Vatican against her beatification and canonization. 

Did the media consult Hitchens because he would help readers understand Mother Teresa, or because he could be trusted to represent their anti-religious prejudice?

Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, brought Hitchens on the show August 28 to debate Catholic League president William Donohue about a book that sent shock waves throughout the Western world. The book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, reveals through Mother Teresa's letters to her confessors and superiors that for many years she did not feel the presence of God. 

During the debate Hitchens accused the Catholic Church of “fraud and exploitation,” saying “Mother Teresa was encouraged by cynical old men to carry on doing [her work] because she was a great marketing tool for her church.”  Donohue, a sociology professor, attacked Hitchens' “98-page, not a single endnote, not a single footnote, not a single citation” book for its failure to document any of the charges against Mother Teresa.  In a remarkable illustration of bias, Matthews framed every question throughout the debate in Hitchens's favor, and concluded by telling Hitchens “your writings are brilliant.” 

At least Matthews presented a semblance of balance.  Newsweek didn't bother to report on the Mother Teresa book, and published only a single commentary about the book, in its September 10 issue -- by Hitchens, whom the magazine identifies as “the nun's leading critic.”


In his Newsweek article, Hitchens comments snidely “that all the things that made [her] famous – the endless hard toil, the bitter austerity, the ostentatious religious orthodoxy – were only part of an effort to still the misery within.”

Hitchens not only smeared Mother Teresa's legacy, but also seized the opportunity to attack the Catholic Church.  According to Hitchens, the church is to blame for the nun's crisis of faith. 

Echoing arguments he made on Hardball, Hitchens claimed in Newsweek that Mother Teresa's doubts are the “inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.”  He accused the church of “deploying, as an icon of favorable publicity, a confused old lady whom it knew had for all practical purposes ceased to believe.”

In contrast to MSNBC and Newsweek, TIME magazine's September 3 cover story interviewed expert sources who could offer worthwhile insight into Mother Teresa's spiritual condition.  Reporter David Van Biema did quote Hitchens briefly, but also quoted extensively from the book itself.  Van Biema wisely relied on the book's editor, Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, and others with whom Mother Teresa had communicated, as sources. 

What a novel concept – not turning a discussion of faith into a diatribe against religion.  Maybe MSNBC and Newsweek should take a page from TIME.    

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.