Sisters of Mercy


The author examines the differences between the Christian charity of Mother Teresa" and the compassion of Lady Diana.

The women died two years ago just a few days apart, the lovely young princess and the homely old nun. In life few would have thought to compare them. In death, both were canonized, if not (or, in Mother Teresa's case, not yet) by the Church of Rome, then by the still more universal church of journalism. It pronounced them saints of compassion, the one form of sanctity that commands universal respect today.

It was the blend of celebrity, accessibility and vulnerability that rendered Diana morally bewitching. She was the jet-setting princess who "reached out" to ordinary people. Her causes, while numerous, were carefully selected. They were fashionable, and under her patronage became still more so. In particular, her patronage of the campaign to ban land mines helped it to extraordinary successes.

But Diana did not become the "people's princess" solely through her solicitude for the distress of others. Equally endearing was her willingness to let us share her pain. If the nun relieved more suffering than the princess, the princess (at least as most people saw it) endured more than the nun.

As Germaine Greer has written, "her suffering, as a wife disliked and scorned, as a lover betrayed and humiliated, was [every woman's]." Spurned by her uncaring husband, mistreated by his kin, she was prey to bulimia and other unroyal ailments. Her death was both terrible and poignant, the lover with whom she shared it one with whom her happiness could not have endured.

It's easy to be cynical about Diana's celebrity, as about celebrity generally. From the beginning of her public life, she was a creature of the media; Charles seems to have chosen her with them in mind. In the end it was her, not him, who excelled at manipulating the media. Inevitably, her good works were somewhat diminished by the public relations wars that dominated her life. Whatever her solicitude toward AIDs sufferers, she played hardball with her unloving husband; whatever her kindness toward the humble of the Earth, she stopped at nothing to humiliate those royals.

That her death forced Queen Elizabeth to unstiffen her upper lip represented a triumph for Diana. To have compelled her hated in-laws to abandon their cold grey dignity for her compassion: That was impressively cruel. Diana was "with it" as only the young can be. While her death was sad, was it as sad as her growing old would have been? Would her repertory have included dignity in decay? That's something few of our celebrities manage. In any case, destiny spared her this challenge.

Mother Teresa will be remembered longer, Mother Teresa, who followed a much older script. The self-enforced austerities, the reticence, the unwavering fidelity to dogmatic theology and the authority of the Holy See — all seemed to mark her as in our time but not of it. Her effect on worldly people was extraordinary, as if the odours of Calcutta provided a last whiff of a holiness otherwise vanished.

No wonder Christopher Hitchens regarded her life as an affront to his own. Mr. Hitchens, a sometime contributor to the National Post, is a British journalist who lives in the United States and wages class struggle where it hurts the rich the most, in the pages of Vanity Fair.

While he is nothing if not urbane, the appalling spectacle of Mother Teresa reduced him to juvenility. As if The Missionary Position were not a bad enough title for a book, he also collaborated with fellow leftist Tariq Ali on a documentary film called Hell's Angel.

Both titles reflect the sledgehammer subtlety of his critique. According to Mr. Hitchens, Mother Teresa was anything but a saint unwillingly plucked from obscurity. She earned her halo through relentless self-promotion, abetted by various sinister interests. Not a humanitarian but a reactionary, she exploited her reputation as the former to campaign against abortion and contraception. Of those who contributed money to her cause, quite a few were rich, and one or two were tyrants. Nor, despite the wealth so received, did she provide her patients in Calcutta with first-rate medical care. Her Nobel Peace Prize was a travesty, as confirmed by her speech accepting it, which dwelled on the evils of abortion. On close examination everything about her reeked of sectarianism and intolerance.

Mr. Hitchens' Mother Teresa is the heavy in a cosmic struggle between reason and superstition (not to mention Left and Right). She may have been a frail little woman, but she fronted one gigantic conspiracy. Mr. Hitchens is closed to the possibility of Mother Teresa's (or anybody's) genuine spirituality. Yet he clearly grasps what others not bent on character assassination have missed: "Mother," as she became known, was not in fact a saint of compassion. That she became a fashionable cause among secular people (including Princess Diana) was at least partly the result of a misunderstanding.

It may be that as a medical practitioner Mother Teresa was unprofessional. But a professional medical practitioner she never claimed to be. "We are first of all religious. We are not social workers, not teachers, not nurses or doctors. We are religious sisters. We serve Jesus in the poor. We nurse him, feed him, clothe him, visit him, comfort him in the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the orphans, the dying."

However compassionate Mother may have been, she did not strive primarily to practice compassion. She set her sights much higher, on Christian charity. She loved her fellow human beings because she loved God, and the lowliest among them because He had so instructed: "Inasmuch as ye do this unto one of these the least of My brethren, so do ye it also unto Me." In her understanding, one imitated God by ministering unto his human form: One followed Jesus by treating every patient as Jesus, by treating him with the same love the Christian owes to Jesus. This meant her approach to her patients was not primarily a clinical one, directed to healing their bodies or, failing that, to minimizing their pain.

Mother Teresa was not indifferent to the suffering of her charges; no practitioner of charity could be. For her, however, the relief of suffering was part of a broader project in which suffering had a positive role to play. In this she was indeed at odds with the advocates of secular compassion. For them, suffering is the enemy and its eradication the goal. She saw suffering as necessary to the salvation of sinful human beings. "Suffering in itself is nothing," she once wrote, "but suffering shared with Christ's passion is a wonderful gift. Suffering, if it is accepted together, borne together, is a joy." Her goal was not to put an end to suffering but to help the sufferer find joy in it. The crucial difference has to do with sin. For Mother Teresa, there could be no redemption and therefore no joy without repentance. You had to suffer from and for your sins to gain remission from suffering. According to the gospel of compassion, by contrast, sin doesn't cause suffering; that is just so much mumbo-jumbo. The belief in sin causes it, however, through those preachers of sinfulness who delude us into tormenting ourselves and persecuting others. The abolition of the sense of sinfulness is thus one of the main therapeutic tasks involved in the eradication of suffering.

An important project of the morality of compassion is, therefore, to cure us of being too "judgmental" (that is, too cruel) whether toward others or toward ourselves. The whole "self-esteem" movement can be understood as an implication of the morality of compassion. "Non-judgmentalness" grows from compassion because to pronounce an adverse judgment on someone is not to dispel whatever other distress may afflict him but rather to compound it. It would be insensitive, and the last thing that the morality of compassion can sanction is insensitivity. To this, Princess Di, as a woman of our time, was perfectly attuned. Hence her devotion to the campaign against AIDS and on behalf of its sufferers, the non-judgmental — and anti-judgmental — cause par excellence. Not that the necessity that a Christian make moral judgments is supposed to limit his charity. As God's love for human beings excludes no one, so the commandment to love our neighbour is absolute. Mother Teresa, too, strove on behalf of AIDS sufferers. To "be there" for someone, however, means something different to the Christian than it does on our soap operas and talk shows. It doesn't mean to refrain from all judgment. True, forgiveness must always be extended and final judgment left to God. Still, as charity commands love of neighbour, so it commands hatred of sin (as bad for the neighbour and everybody else) and exertion to free him from it. Whether or not Mother Teresa's homilies against contraception and abortion are blots on her humanitarianism, they do not tarnish her charity. Mother Teresa had a favourite anecdote that starkly clarifies the difference between the two outlooks. "I never forget one day when I met a lady who was dying of cancer and I could see the way she was struggling with that terrible pain. And I said to her, I said, you know this is but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close to Him on the cross that He can kiss you. And she joined her hands together and said, 'Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.' "

Undaunted, Mother Teresa continues. "This is the joy of suffering, the kiss of Jesus. Do not be afraid to share in that joy of suffering with Him because He will never give us more suffering than we are able to bear."

Mother Teresa once retold this anecdote in a commencement address at a Catholic women's college in California. We can only wonder what the Valley Girls in the audience made of it.

Charity, as she understood it, makes extraordinary demands of sufferers — even as it invests extraordinary hopes in suffering. Compassion, by contrast, does neither. From the standpoint of Mother Teresa, compassion is superficial; from that of Princess Di, charity is exacting and cruel.


Clifford Orwin, “Sisters of Mercy,” National Post, (Canada) 1 September, 1999.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Clifford Orwin is professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

Copyright © 1999 Clifford Orwin

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