May 27, 2021

In Defense Of Mother Teresa: Why She Is A Saint, Not A 'Cult Leader'

Clemente Lisi
Religion Unplugged
May 23, 2021

Religion Unplugged believes in a diversity of well-reasoned and well-researched opinions. This piece reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent those of Religion Unplugged, its staff and contributors.

(OPINION) Historical figures are going through a reckoning. They have been for some time. Some with good reason.

Christopher Columbus? Understandable given what was unleashed by his arrival from Europe.

Thomas Jefferson? A paradox that’s worth examining given his ability to pen the Declaration of Independence and also own slaves. In some cases, he fathered children with them.

Other figures haven’t been so obvious. Following the tragic murder of George Floyd last May, many statues were toppled or removed across the United States, including those of 18th century Spanish priest Junipero Serra, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. These weren’t so obvious to explain. I’m not sure those who damaged them knew either.

This takes me to the latest reckoning: Mother Teresa, now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

Yes, that Mother Teresa. The diminutive woman who dedicated her life to helping “the poorest of the poor” in India. And the same one who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and Pope Francis canonized a saint in 2016. Turns out she was a cult leader.

Michelle Goldberg penned an opinion piece in The New York Times, which ran Saturday on its website, under the headline: “Was Mother Teresa a cult leader?”

With a headline like that, is it possible the thesis will be that she wasn’t? Here’s how she opened the piece:

During the Trump years, there was a small boom in documentaries about cults. At least two TV series and a podcast were made about Nxivm, an organization that was half multilevel marketing scheme, half sex abuse cabal. “Wild Wild Country,” a six-part series about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s compound in Oregon, was released on Netflix. Heaven’s Gate was the subject of a four-part series on HBO Max and a 10-part podcast. Indeed, there have been so many recent podcasts about cults that sites like Oprah Daily have published listicles about the best ones.

In many ways the compelling new podcast “The Turning: The Sisters Who Left,” which debuted on Tuesday, unfolds like one of these shows. It opens with a woman, Mary Johnson, hoping to escape the religious order in which she lives. “We always went out two by two. We were never allowed just to walk out and do something,” she explains. “So I wouldn’t have been able to go, you know, more than five or six paces before somebody ran up to me and said, ‘Where are you going?’”

Johnson sees an opportunity in escorting another woman to the hospital, where there’s a room full of old clothes that patients have left behind. She makes a plan to shed her religious uniform for civilian garb and flee, though she doesn’t go through with it.

It is what she wants to flee that makes “The Turning” so fascinating. Johnson spent 20 years in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity before leaving through official channels in 1997. “The Turning” portrays the order of the sainted nun — Mother Teresa was canonized in 2016 — as a hive of psychological abuse and coercion. It raises the question of whether the difference between a strict monastic community and a cult lies simply in the social acceptability of the operative faith.

Indeed, the pandemic has led to the creation of many documentaries — both in video form and as podcasts — to fill the time for many of us stuck in our homes. In this piece, Goldberg recycles old accusations that Mother Teresa “fetishized suffering rather than sought to alleviate it.”

One of Mother Teresa’s most outspoken critics, Goldberg points out, was English journalist Christopher Hitchens, host of the 1994 documentary Hell’s Angel that aired on Britain’s Channel 4 and author of the essay “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” a year later. In a 2003 Slate piece, he made this observation:

This returns us to the medieval corruption of the church, which sold indulgences to the rich while preaching hellfire and continence to the poor. She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

Here’s more from Goldberg’s piece regarding the new podcast:

What makes “The Turning” unique is its focus on the internal life of the Missionaries of Charity. The former sisters describe an obsession with chastity so intense that any physical human contact or friendship was prohibited; according to Johnson, Mother Teresa even told them not to touch the babies they cared for more than necessary. They were expected to flog themselves regularly — a practice called “the discipline” — and were allowed to leave to visit their families only once every 10 years.

As any religion reporter knows — and reporters in general should also — is that the word cult shouldn’t be thrown about so cavalierly. What some of the sisters describe isn’t so unusual for religious orders, especially ones in the Roman Catholic church. The importance of suffering often mimics that of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus embraced human suffering, making it redemptive. In the process, He conquered evil with good. This isn’t something you need a theologian to explain. Any Catholic who ever attended Mass on Easter Sunday can point this out. But the essay makes no effort to explain any of the theology behind Mother Teresa’s charitable works.

Religion scholar Megan Goodwin once defined the term cult, when it is used by a layperson, as often being shorthand for a “religion I don't like.” Case in point: The new PBS documentary on preacher Billy Graham, a respected religious leader and spiritual adviser to U.S. presidents of both political parties. In an opinion piece on MSNBC, Graham got similar coverage to what we now see with Mother Teresa under the headline: “How Billy Graham weaponized white evangelical Christian power in America.”

Documentaries and podcasts aren’t necessarily objective journalism. They don’t have to offer up both sides on an issue. They don’t have the same burdens newsrooms have traditionally had during the newsgathering process. It is therefore quite easy for The New York Times to run an opinion piece on these allegations rather than put the resources to report the story out, if there even is a legitimate story here. Goldberg, however, refers to both the podcast and Hitchens’ past work as journalism.

Goldberg’s essay, on the other hand, uses a few quotes to back the story that Mother Teresa was a mean, out-of-touch person, then Times editors put a controversial headline on it to get you to click on it. The piece also fails to acknowledge that Mother Theresa, who died in 1997 at the age of 87, never sought the limelight as she helped lepers, orphans and the very poor in Calcutta starting in the 1950s. She had founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity in 1948 and continues to help the poor around the world.

Mother Teresa was made a media star not by her own doing. It was Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1971 book, Something Beautiful for God, that catapulted the nun into the international limelight after he’d interviewed her two years earlier for the BBC. In the process, the the Missionaries of Charity have done a lot of good around the world.

What this essay also leaves out is that in order to be made a saint, the church has a very strict process that can last years. At least two miracles must be attributed to the person who’s up for canonization. Two miracles have been attributed to her — one in which Mother Teresa cured a woman with a lump growing in her abdomen; the other a man who suffered from brain abscesses. No mention of that in Goldberg’s essay.

Under church rules, the first miracle attributed to a candidate for sainthood means beatification can be conferred. If a second miracle follows, canonization — and entry into sainthood — can take place. Furthermore, Catholics venerate saints and look to them as examples on how to live a good life. Many find comfort knowing that even saints once shared in their same sins and hardships.

One of Mother Teresa’s biggest champions, and another large Catholic figure from the 1980s, was Saint Pope John Paul II. Made a saint by Francis in 2014, JPII’s legacy was tarnished when the mainstream press’ biggest takeaway from the McCarrick Report was that the former pontiff (as well as his successor Benedict XVI) had enabled the now-disgraced former cardinal by not believing reports that he’d sexually abused seminarians and other young men.

This revived opposition to Mother Teresa and John Paul II (whom Hitchens called “a fundamentalist”) could very well be because both promoted Catholic moral teachings on abortion and contraception — something secularists dislike about the church. The abortion fight, as we all know, rages on in the United States and remains a key talking point across the political spectrum.

In 1988, this is what Mother Teresa had to say regarding abortion:

Abortion has become the greatest destroyer of peace, because it destroys two lives, the life of the child and the conscience of the mother. … Let us thank our parents for wanting us, for loving us, for giving us the joy of living. … You are priceless to God himself.”

Could this have something to do with the eagerness of some to revisit and question Mother Teresa’s work? It’s definitely a question that journalists should ask. Instead, Goldberg cherry-picks a few quotes attributed to Mother Teresa and comes up with this conclusion:

Viewed through a contemporary, secular lens, a community built around a charismatic founder and dedicated to the lionization of suffering and the annihilation of female selfhood doesn’t seem blessed and ethereal. It seems sinister.

It should also be noted that also true that these figures ran large organizations — Mother Teresa an international order and charity and John Paul II the entire church. There will always be some mistakes made. They made decisions not everyone agreed with. They were, after all, human. It seems convenient now, years after their deaths, to go after Mother Teresa and John Paul II when they can’t defend their records.

But the church has found them to be more than human. They have been made saints. Catholics pray to God seeking their intercession. They are not immune to criticism, I’m not arguing that, but they do deserve to be judged by the whole of their work — and that’s something worth defending.

Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.

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