Two very different women on the minds of Roman Catholics right now are Mother Teresa, with her canonization on Sept. 4, and Hillary Clinton, with her name on the presidential ballot in November. Hillary stands as the most influential woman in America. Someone who might have foreseen such prominence for Hillary was Mother Teresa. Perhaps that’s why the bold nun from Kolkata, India, persistently challenged the then-first lady’s push to make abortion more widely available.
Let’s back up to where it all began.
Clinton’s explosion upon the national scene became reality when her husband was inaugurated president in January 1993. That same year, in August, both Clintons would greet Pope John Paul II, who came to America for World Youth Day in Denver. The Holy Father spoke to both Clintons on the imperative of valuing the life of the unborn child.
It didn’t seem to make much of an impact.
The new first lady was already full throttle into her efforts to revolutionize the health-care industry — which, people forget, she was doing very aggressively that first year, only to back off as her efforts hurt her husband politically.
She said in an October 1993 televised forum discussing her new national health-care plan that abortion would be made “widely available.” This prompted anxieties over the prospect of taxpayer-funded abortion, sparking the Coates Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives, which sought to strip abortion funding from the plan. Mrs. Clinton’s intentions sent elected pro-life Democrats (remember those?) like Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey into such anger that Casey considered a run for the presidency to dislodge the Clintons.
Clinton’s words also ignited fears over the availability of the abortion pill, RU-486, under her plan. One of her husband’s first acts in office was to push the pill to market through an expedited FDA approval process that pro-lifers insisted was too quick for the safety of the women who would take the pill.
Not at all ignorant of these advances by the Clintons in the “culture of death” was a nun named Mother Teresa, who in February 1994 made her own visit to America, which included a meeting with the Clintons.
The occasion was the annual National Prayer Breakfast, a huge ecumenical gathering in Washington. As president, Bill Clinton was a high-profile attendee, with Hillary accompanying him. That year, on Feb. 3, 1994, the keynoter was a very special guest, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and saintly figure who had come all the way from the most impoverished area of the planet, the slums of Kolkata.
According to Kathryn Spink’s authorized biography, the reluctant nun was invited by President Clinton himself.
Held at the Washington Hilton, nearly 3,000 people packed the huge room. 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 in typical years, where the keynoter sits among the assembled and waits 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 hunched her way to the microphone. Hillary said in her memoir, Living History, she was struck by how tiny she was, wearing only socks and sandals in the bitter cold.
The title of Mother’s talk was “Whatever You Did Unto One of the Least, You Did Unto Me.” She began by talking about Jesus and John the Baptist in their wombs, about their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, and how the “unborn child” in the womb of Elizabeth — John the Baptist — leapt for joy as he felt the presence of Christ in the room when Mary entered to speak to Elizabeth.
Hillary might have seen what was coming.
She next spoke of love, of selfishness, of a lack of love for the unborn — and a lack of want of the unborn because of one’s selfishness. Jesus, said the sister, 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.”
Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter and a pro-life Catholic, was there. She says that by this point in the talk, attendees began shifting in their seats, as a lot of what the holy lady from Kolkata had to say was striking too close to home.
Then the sister said something that made everyone very uncomfortable: “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 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 nonstop applause, which Noonan says lasted five to six minutes.
Yet some did not clap at all. Hillary Clinton did not, and neither did her husband; nor did Vice President Al Gore and 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.
The tiny, weak, aged lady was only warming up. She had seen and experienced real suffering and couldn’t care less about making momentarily uncomfortable a crowd of a few thousand financially comfortable people who had never known real material deprivation and whose only crisis each morning was traffic or a long line at Starbucks.
She returned to that selfishness point:
“By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. [Abortion is] 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 pro-choicers find unacceptable and might have booed out of the room if not for her moral authority. She kept describing abortion as “killing.”
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.
Throughout the talk’s high points on abortion — the raw nerve — the Clintons and Gores remained in stone silence. One attendee, a pro-life Catholic and high-level appointee in the Reagan administration, later told me: “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.”
To his credit, Bill Clinton realized that his behavior and that of his wife and the others was indeed rude. According to Spink, he apologized to Mother Teresa after the speech.
Hillary responded later that day — sort of. In commenting on Mother Teresa’s remarks, she must have briefly given the nun hope that she, too, would speak on behalf of the unborn when 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.”
As the “Champion of Calcutta” held her breath, however, she was disappointed, as Mrs. Clinton did what she has long done — applied the thought very selectively, restricted it solely to her understanding of economics, not unborn life, as she followed: “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.’”
Hillary’s remarks were an extraordinary example of psychological-ideological compartmentalization, a surreal mastery of ignoring the obvious, of hearing only what one wants to hear.
Mother Teresa had come to give a major moral statement on abortion and did so in a way that shocked the entire crowd. And then Clinton flatly ignored the entire message in her follow-up remarks, carefully lifting a smaller item from the nun’s address, one with which she agreed, then placed it fully out of its context and used it for an entirely separate political purpose with which she was politically satisfied. Her reaction was inexpressibly strange, but no surprise.
And it was not like Clinton did not get the point.
“She [Mother Teresa] had just delivered a speech against abortion,” explained Clinton in assessing the keynote address in her memoirs, almost 10 years later. In the minutes after the talk, said Hillary, the nun persisted, taking the abortion issue directly to Hillary’s face: “[S]he wanted to talk to me,” said the first lady. “Mother Teresa was unerringly direct. She disagreed with my views on a woman’s right to choose and told me so.”
In other words, there was no mistaking the message that day, nor that Hillary got it unerringly.
On the other hand, Hillary later, perhaps upon further reflection with the help of an aide, identified a crucial component of the speech that she did not need to take out of context to find common ground: Mother Teresa had said: “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.” Echoing the Malcolm Muggeridge phrase that introduced her to the West, Mother Teresa said, “I will tell you something beautiful. We are fighting abortion by adoption.”
Now that was something that Hillary could applaud. Babies outside the womb, by her reckoning, merit her and society’s protection.
In the course of one of their subsequent conversations, Clinton made clear to Mother Teresa that while she supported legalized abortion, she also wanted to see more adoptions, presumably 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 daughter Chelsea did just that, visiting one of the Missionary of Charity homes in New Delhi, a facility that, said Hillary, “would not have passed inspection in the U.S.” because there were too many cribs crowded together.
Mother Teresa informed the first lady of her goal of establishing a home in Washington, where mothers could take care of their babies until they found adoptive or foster homes. In turn, Hillary went to bat 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 create a home for infant children near Chevy Chase Circle, just over the Washington, D.C., 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.
Regardless, Hillary Clinton apparently helped quite a bit.
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, the Mother Teresa Home for Infant Children. 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, which Hillary has always looked back upon with fondness. In the short time she had left on earth, Mother Teresa continued to try to change Clinton’s view on abortion. According to Hillary, “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 Hillary, adding that she had “the greatest respect for her opposition to abortion.” Mother Teresa saw in Hillary a potentially huge convert to the pro-life cause, and never gave up, but to no avail.
Two years after their tour through the foster home in Chevy Chase, on a Friday, Sept. 5, 1997, Mother Teresa’s frail heart beat its last. The funeral Mass was held at St. Thomas Church in Middleton Row, Kolkata. And behold, Hillary Clinton was there.
After the memorial service, Clinton unexpectedly found herself invited to a private meeting at the motherhouse, the headquarters of the order founded by Mother Teresa. As the nuns formed a circle around the coffin, where they stood in silent meditation, one of them, Sister Nirmala, mother’s successor, asked the first lady if she would offer a prayer. Later confessing to feeling inadequate to do so, Hillary hesitated and then bowed her head and thanked God for “the privilege” of having known this “tiny, forceful, saintly woman.”
It was a complex, intriguing, touching, but also frustrating relationship. What to make of all of this today?
Well, tragically, Hillary Clinton has become far more fanatical for “abortion rights” (and for redefining marriage and the ever-expanding “LGBTQ” agenda) — and at the expense of religious liberty — than Mother Teresa could have foreseen. Or maybe she did foresee it. Maybe the little nun saw it coming. Maybe she perceived that Hillary Clinton was poised to one day have an even greater impact. Perhaps something spoke to her. And perhaps a sign of her genuine saintliness was her vigorous attempt to reach out to Hillary Clinton and try to salvage, if not improve, the road ahead.
With her canonization, Catholics might look to Mother Teresa now for some formal intercession, as Mrs. Clinton’s trajectory increasingly foreshadows a dark future for the unborn and for religious liberty in America.
Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and
executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
This article is adapted from his 2007 book God and Hillary Clinton (HarperCollins).