The controversy about Mother Teresa’s spiritual struggles has inspired the worst in the late nun’s fiercest critics. Angry atheists who once described the saintly figure as everything from a “phony” to the “moonbat of Calcutta” have used the occasion to renew their attacks. Yet one liberal who will not be joining the howling cynics, and who never questioned Mother Teresa’s sincerity, may come as a surprise: Hillary Clinton. To this day, Hillary Clinton remains steadfast in her highly positive impressions of Mother Teresa, even though the two clashed repeatedly on the moral issue that energized both of them—abortion.
Their relationship was fascinating and revealing. Senator Clinton is on a path to the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. If she should make it to the Oval Office, she will do everything in her power to entrench legalized abortion. Mother Teresa sensed early on that this woman was poised to even greater power than she wielded as first lady in the 1990s.
In February 1994, Hillary Clinton prepared to meet with Mother Teresa, or, perhaps one should say, Mother Teresa prepared to meet with Hillary Clinton. Mother Teresa was anxious about the meeting, fully aware of the disturbing turn of events ushered in by the new White House on the matter of abortion policy.
Notably, prior to the arrival of the Clintons in the White House in January 1993, Mother Teresa had a positive relationship with the prior two Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. With respect to the former, a gripping moment occurred in June 1981, a few weeks after the assassination attempt against Reagan. Mother Teresa shared a private meal with the Reagans. “Mr. President Reagan, do you know that we stayed up for two straight nights praying for you after you were shot?” said Mother Teresa, pointing to a younger sister who was joining them. “We prayed very hard for you to live.” Reagan thanked her. She then looked at the 40th president directly and said dramatically: “You have suffered the passion of the cross and have received grace. There is a purpose to this…. This has happened to you at this time because your country and the world need you.”
Why did Mother Teresa pray so hard for Reagan? One of the central reasons was the issue of unborn human life. This was a strongly pro-life president who, even when he could do little or nothing legislatively—other than beginning the long process of trying to counter the numerous pro abortion judges appointed by President Jimmy Carter—was especially vocal in his defense of unborn children. She knew that Reagan was trulydoing all he could on the issue, and holding steadfast amid criticism all around him from abortion supporters.
Reagan was followed by George H.W. Bush, who, while not as vocal as Reagan on the abortion issue, was at least a somewhat dependable pro lifer. This all changed when the Clintons came to town. On his first day in office, January 20, 1993, in a flurry of unprecedented Oval Office activity, Bill Clinton signed five executive orders dramatically increasing the federal government’s support for and funding of elective abortion.
This thrilled his wife and feminists across the country. But he also made instant enemies. Among them, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore
Romano, which ran a dire editorial four days after the signing of the executive orders, stating that the “renewal” that the man from Hope, Arkansas had promised during his presidential campaign would now come “by way of death” and “by way of violence against innocent human beings.” The stage was set. As papal biographer George Weigel noted, it was the opening salvo in what would become “the most serious confrontation ever” between the US government and the Holy See.
An especially alarming incident took place in October 1993, after Bill Clinton authorized his wife to propose dramatic changes to the American healthcare industry. She said in a televised forum discussing her national healthcare plan that under it abortion services “would be widely available.” This prompted anxieties over the prospect of taxpayerfunded abortions, sparking the Coates Amendment in the US House of Representatives, which sought to strip abortion funding from the plan. Mrs. Clinton’s intentions sent pro-life Democrats like Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey into such a rage that Casey considered a run for the presidency to dislodge the Clintons.
Mrs. Clinton’s words in October also ignited fears among moderate and conservative Christians over the availability of the abortion pill, RU-486, under her healthcare plan. One of her husband’s first acts in office was to push the pill to market through an expedited FDA approval process.
SQUIRMING AT THE NATIONAL PRAYER BREAKFAST
This formed the troubling background to Mother Teresa’s first meeting with the Clintons. The occasion was the annual National Prayer Breakfast, a popular gathering of ecumenical worshippers and official Washington. As president, Bill Clinton attended every one of them, with Hillary usually (if not always) accompanying him. That year, on February 3, 1994, the keynote speaker was Mother Teresa. According to Kathryn Spink’s authorized biography of Mother Teresa, the reluctant nun was invited by President Clinton himself.
The event was held at the DC Hilton, and there were nearly 3,000 packed into the huge room—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, all forms of Protestants, even agnostics and atheists, and the press, including C-SPAN’s cameras. Near the dais were the president and first lady, along with the vice president and his wife, and a select few VIPs, including Supreme Court justices and the highest ranking members of Congress.
Unlike other years, where the keynoter sat among the assembled and waited for others to finish before his or her turn, Mother Teresa emerged from a curtain behind the platform only when she was called, and then slowly walked hunched over to the microphone. Hillary Clinton would later remark that she was struck by Mother’s tiny size, wearing only socks and sandals in the bitter cold.
The title of her talk was “Whatever You Did Unto One of the Least, You Did Unto Me.” She began by talking about Jesus and John the Baptist, about their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, and about how the “unborn child” in the womb of Elizabeth leapt with joy as he felt the presence of Christ in the room when Mary entered.
Hillary Clinton might have seen what was coming. She herself might well have employed the same imagery at one of her United Methodist Church venues. In her case, however, the same story would have been employed to make a “social justice” comment about hiking up the minimum wage or ending housing discrimination against homosexuals or about how Jesus championed government- subsidized daycare. But that was not the direction in which Mother Teresa was taking her talk.
She next spoke of selfishness, of a lack of love for the unborn. Jesus, who brought joy while still in the womb of Mary, had died on the cross “because that is what it took for him to do good to us—to save us from our selfishness in sin,” she said. Mrs. Clinton could relate to this, having spent the 1980s decrying the alleged “selfish greed” of the Reagan administration. Yet to Hillary’s chagrin, Mother Teresa said that the act of abortion was the ultimate manifestation of selfishness— done solely out of consideration for the self, and not for the living human being whose existence is a product of the actions of that same self.
Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, was there. She says that by this point in the talk, the pro-abortion attendees began shifting in their seats, as Mother Teresa’s words began to strike a little too close to home. The discomfort level rose as Mother continued: “But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because Jesus said, ‘If you receive a little child, you receive me.’ So every abortion is the denial of receiving Jesus, the neglect of receiving Jesus.”
Here, Noonan described a “cool deep silence” that enveloped the room, but only for a very brief moment, and then applause started on the right side of the room, and then spread throughout the crowd, as people began clapping and standing; the ballroom was swept up in non-stop applause that Noonan says lasted for five to six minutes.
But some did not clap at all. Hillary Clinton did not, and neither did her husband, nor Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper Gore. They sat there, in the glare of the hot lights, all eyes in the crowd fixed upon them as they tried not to move or be noticed, conspicuous in their lack of response, clearly uncomfortable as the applause raged on.
Their lack of approval was puzzling at one level: the Clintons and the Gores had claimed many times that they considered abortion regrettable, a terrible choice, and wished it were “rare.”
But the tiny, weak, aged lady was only warming up. She had seen and experienced real suffering and could care less about offending a crowd of a few thousand financially comfortable people who had never known real material deprivation, and whose biggest crisis that morning had been traffic or a long line at Starbucks.
She returned to her point about selfishness: “By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems.” Abortion was “really a war against the child, and I hate the killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that the mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?…Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love one another but to use violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
The little nun was doing what liberals find unacceptable, and might have been booed out of the room if not for her moral authority. She concluded by asking for prayers for her ministry, by asking for the blessing of God’s love, and by telling the 3,000 that she would pray for them and their families: “God bless you all.” She then parted as she came, through the curtain behind the platform.
The Clintons and Gores remained in stony silence. Said one attendee, a prolife Catholic and high-level appointee in the Reagan administration, who asked not to be named: “It was an outrage, an abomination, very rude. Mrs. Clinton in particular just sat there. I will never forget that moment. It told me all I needed to know about her.”
Bill Clinton realized that the behavior of him, his wife, and the others was impolite. According to Kathryn Spink, he apologized to Mother Teresa after the speech.
Hillary responded later that day— sort of. In commenting on Mother Teresa’s remarks, she began, “I have always believed that Christ wanted us to be joyous, to look at the face of Creation and to know that there was more joy than any of us could imagine.” She then quickly applied the thought to economics, not unborn life: “Or as Mother Teresa told us this morning, to see the joy on the face of a homeless beggar, who is picked up off the street and brought in to die, says joyously, ‘Thank you.’”
Ten years later, Hillary was still thinking about that morning. “She [Mother Teresa] had just delivered a speech against abortion,” she wrote, noting that minutes after the talk the nun persisted in making her point. “Mother Teresa was unerringly direct. She disagreed with my views on a woman’s right to choose and told me so.”
HOW MOTHER TERESA GOT HER SHELTER IN DC
Yet out of the malevolence of this misguided moment by Hillary came an opportunity. Ever the astute politician, she identified a crucial component of the speech that she did not need to take out of context to find common ground with Mother Teresa. She seized upon the passage: “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Give me the child. I’m willing to accept any child who would be aborted and to give that child to a married couple who will love the child and be loved by the child…We are fighting abortion by adoption.”
In the course of one of their subsequent conversations, Mrs. Clinton made clear that while she supported legalized abortion, she also wanted to see more adoptions as an alternative. The nun told the first lady she had placed more than 3,000 orphaned babies into adoptive homes in India. Hillary said she would like to visit the orphanage in New Delhi. A year later, she and her daughter Chelsea did just that, visiting one of the Missionaries of Charity homes in New Delhi, a facility, said Hillary, an attorney by trade, that “would not have passed inspection in the US” because there were too many cribs crowded together.
Mother Teresa informed the first lady of her goal of establishing a home in Washington, DC, where mothers could take care of their babies until they found adoptive or foster homes. In turn, Hillary went to work for her, rounding up pro bono lawyers to do legal work, fighting through the bureaucracy of the District of Columbia, and doing what she could to lend a hand to what became the Mother Teresa Home for Infant Children near Chevy Chase Circle, just over the Washington, DC line.
She telephoned community leaders and pastors from nearby Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches, calling them to the White House to see where and how they could help. Moving the bureaucracy, said Hillary, turned out to be harder than she had imagined. Mother Teresa was equally relentless on her end. When she felt the project was lagging, she sent a letter to the first lady checking on the progress. “She sent emissaries to spur me on,” recalled Hillary. “She called me from Vietnam, she called me from India, always with the same message: When do I get my center for babies?”
On June 19, 1995, the shelter for children opened. This led to a photo-op of Hillary and Mother Teresa clasping hands in the newly decorated nursery and smiling at one another. A reporter could not resist asking the uncomfortable question: Yes, conceded the first lady, of course they had discussed their “philosophical differences” over abortion. Mother Teresa, ever the peacemaker, stepped in to underscore where the focus should be at that particular moment, namely, on where they agreed: “We want to save the children,” she said. The nun, slow and frail, held Hillary’s arm as they toured the facility, examining the freshly painted nursery and rows of bassinets awaiting infants.
This was not the end of the relationship. In the short time she had left on earth, Mother Teresa continued to try to change Mrs. Clinton’s view on abortion. According to Hillary Clinton, “she sent me dozens of notes and messages with the same gentle entreaty.” She dealt with the first lady with patience and kindness, but firm conviction: “Mother Teresa never lectured or scolded me; her admonitions were always loving and heartfelt,” wrote Clinton. Mother Teresa saw in her a potentially huge convert to the pro-life cause, and never gave up, but to no avail.
Hillary would later attend Mother Teresa’s funeral Mass at St. Thomas Church in Middleton Row, Calcutta, in September 1997. In what must have been an especially striking visual, one of the nuns, Sister Nirmala, Mother’s successor, asked the first lady if she would offer a prayer, and Hillary bowed her head and did so.
EXPLOITING THE FRIENDSHIP
Apparently, some of these visuals remain, and are sought by Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign— to the strong disapproval of Mother Teresa’s supporters.
Last May, the pro-life Catholic group Fidelis discovered that the Hillary ‘08 headquarters was using a photo of the first lady and Mother Teresa in a campaign video narrated by Bill Clinton. The group understandably saw the photo as an affront to Mother’s crusade for the sanctity and dignity of unborn human life, a contrast to Hillary’s crusade to fight for a global right for abortion at UN gatherings.
The president of Fidelis, Joseph Cella, contacted Sister Nirmala requesting that she look into whether this use of the picture was unauthorized, and, if that were the case, to call upon the campaign to cease using it. Apparently, the campaign did indeed stop. Fidelis appears to have won the day.
This seemingly small moral victory may actually go a long way in preempting Hillary’s campaign from capitalizing on the relationship in the final run-up to November 2008. Hillary may not be able to tap Mother Teresa as a running mate when she is invited to expound upon economic justice at liberal Catholic colleges.
That brings us to today: What should we make of this unlikely relationship, especially as it relates to the politics of the 2008 presidential race? Without trying to read too much into Mother’s heart and actions, this much seems clear: Mother Teresa clearly realized the power that Hillary Clinton wielded on the abortion front, and her intransigence on the issue. She must have sensed that Hillary was likely to have very far-reaching, potentially catastrophic influence in that regard. So, she approached Hillary in the way that Mother so excelled: gentle but uncompromising on the issue of truth and life.
And she must have sensed some kind of further political future for Hillary. She knew that Hillary Clinton represented a larger movement that needed to be stopped. Regrettably, however, that train travels full steam ahead. Today, Hillary remains the most dogged and fierce advocate of abortion in probably the entire US Congress. She receives a perfect 100 percent rating from NARAL and a zero percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee.
As a senator, she has tragically vindicated Mother Teresa’s concerns. If she is caught up in her own “dark night of the soul,” it is not that of the mystic but one, unlike Mother Teresa’s, without nobility.
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