In the News 2010
Wall Street Journal

Catholics Split Over Idea of Homage to Mother Teresa


Some progressive Catholic groups have termed foolish the campaign to light the Empire State Building in honor of the 100th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s birth, prompting the leader of the effort to dismiss his critics as not being true Catholics.

The groups—including Catholics for Choice and the National Coalition of American Nuns—sent a letter to Anthony Malkin, an owner of the building, alleging that the person leading the charge for the Mother Teresa homage, Catholic League President Bill Donohue, “manufactured a controversy out of nothing.”

“Mother Teresa rarely celebrated her birthday herself, and would, we are sure, be appalled to hear that this anniversary of her birth had been used to create such a storm,” the groups wrote.

“There are many ways to mark the life of Mother Teresa, and true to form Mr. Donohue has chosen the wrong one,” the letter says. “We urge you to stand firm and withstand whatever vitriol that comes your way from the Catholic League.”

In an interview, Mr. Donohue lashed out at his critics, charging that they are not true Catholics. If you put all the dues-paying members of these “very, very fringe” groups into one spot, he said, they’d “fit into a phone booth.”

“They hate me, and, quite frankly, I don’t give a s—,” Mr. Donohue said. “They’re angry that we have muscle, and they have none.”

Mr. Donohue did concede that a “credible case” could be made that Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun remembered around the globe for compassionately ministering to the poor and sick, would be unhappy with this high-profile campaign to light the Empire State Building in blue and white on Thursday to honor her birthday.

“She was clearly a humble woman and would probably, at least, wince at the idea of having this great celebration,” Mr. Donohue said.

He added: “This is an issue which began with Mother Teresa—it now transcends her. What’s at stake is this: We have a committed billionaire, secular humanist, Anthony Malkin, who has decided to, in effect, stick his middle finger into the face of Roman Catholics in the United States.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Malkin did not return repeated requests for comment Friday. In a statement earlier this year, Mr. Malkin said the building celebrates many cultures and causes with its iconic lightings, including the religious holidays of Easter, Eid al Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan), Hanukkah and Christmas.

The building “has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations,” he said.

Sister Jeannine Graamick, an executive coordinator of the board of the National Coalition of American Nuns, called this entire brouhaha “foolish.”

“I love my church and I don’t want my church to look foolish,” she said. “I just don’t believe Mother Teresa would want this type of publicity and sensationalism. She was a very humble person.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, a Catholic group that supports equality for lesbians and gays, said “the proper way to honor Mother Teresa is going out and doing acts of charity.”

Mr. DeBernardo said Mr. Donohue is “always out to find enemies everywhere.” This campaign, he said, “makes us look like we’re hungry for publicity. It’s not what Mother Teresa is about.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Catholic who has been supportive of the idea of lighting the Empire State Building to honor Mother Teresa, said she was disappointed with the building’s decision.

“Mr. Malkin lost an opportunity here to remind New York City about the works of Mother Teresa and remind New York City about the importance of taking care of those who are in need,” Ms. Quinn said.

Instead of protesting the building’s decision, Ms. Quinn said she plans to spend Thursday honoring Mother Theresa in a positive way, doing community service and attending a noon mass led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Ms. Quinn said she will not attend a rally organized by Mr. Donohue to protest the Empire State Building.

While the Empire State Building won’t be honoring Mother Teresa, several iconic New York landmarks will be lighting up their properties in her memory, including the USS Intrepid, Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, the Con Edison headquarters in Manhattan and the Hutchinson Metro Center in the Bronx.

Similar lightings will also take place at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo and St. Peter’s Cathedral in Belfast, Ireland.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Catholics for Choice