Over the weekend, The New York Times posed one heck of a question, “Was Mother Teresa a Cult Leader?”
The bombshell headline turned out to be exactly that — a shell of a bomb. The hit-piece examined the story of Mary Johnson, a former nun in Saint Teresa’s religious order, the Missionaries of Charity. After 20 years as a nun, Johnson left the order and described a seemingly hellish ordeal.
To put it charitably, it is a problematic piece, but let us start from the beginning.
The Life of St. Teresa of Calcutta
In the first authorized biography “Mother Teresa,” author Navin Chawla described how Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 in Calcutta, India. Born in 1910 in present-day North Macedonia, she entered the convent for the Loreto sisters and took her solemn vows in 1937.
While teaching in India, she became increasingly disturbed at the abject poverty she witnessed and while taking a train ride, Teresa heard an inner voice — what she described as a “call within a call” — that revealed how she could best serve the poor by living alongside them.
She left her comparably comfortable life of the Loreto sisters and embraced a new one among the poorest inhabitants of Calcutta. She began opening orphanages, hospitals, AIDS nursing homes, dining rooms and many houses for her growing number of sisters.
Teresa did not seek out fame or notoriety. In “Religion Unplugged,” Clemente Lisi noted that “it was Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1971 book, ‘Something Beautiful for God,’ that catapulted the nun into the international limelight.”
By the time of her canonization, the Missionaries of Charity had more than 5,000 sisters serving in 758 houses in 139 countries. Teresa, herself, won countless Indian and international awards for her life of service, culminating in a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
“In the eyes of the Norwegian Nobel Committee,” the media release read, “constructive efforts to do away with hunger and poverty, and to ensure for mankind safer and better world community in which to develop, should be inspired by the spirit of Mother Teresa, by respect for the worth and dignity of the individual human being.”
Teresa passed away in 1997 and, following two miracles approved by the Vatican, she was canonized a saint by Pope Francis in 2016.
Viewing Religious Life Through a Secular Lens
Johnson’s 20 years with St. Teresa’s order is breathlessly described as two decades filled with abuse. However, her actual testimony does not live up to the hysteria the columnist is trying to drum up.
“We always went out two by two. We were never allowed just to walk out and do something,” Johnson said. “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?’”
She seems surprised, after 20 years, what living a cloistered life is like.
The column goes on to unhelpfully cite militant atheist Christopher Hitchens’ description of the saint as a “demagogue” in his 1995 book, “The Missionary Position.” The Times author then piles on opinions of other critics who “argued that Mother Teresa fetishized suffering rather than sought to alleviate it.”
One could just as easily say that Lenten observations of fasting and penance likewise fetishize suffering.
Additional rancor is raised about the injustice and oppression of religious life.
“A former Missionaries of Charity nun named Colette Livermore recalled being denied permission to visit her brother in the hospital, even though he was thought to be dying,” Johnson wrote.
“It’s just strange how completely cut off you are from your family.”
As a former Catholic seminarian who spent three years in religious formation as I studied for the priesthood, my main reaction to this article was, “Is that it?” As someone familiar with Catholic religious life, I was surprised at how flimsy the accusations were.
They seemed to have come from a place of ignorance, more than anything.
Intellectually Dishonest Attacks
Religious life — especially a cloistered one — is not for everyone. St. Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism, wrote the golden rule for monks living communally to be ‘Ora et Labora’ — pray and work. Benedictine monks spend their day devoting eight hours to prayer, eight hours to sleep and eight hours to manual work, sacred reading or charitable works.
For those who wish to live a life of continual communion with God, this formula seems to work. There is an understanding that a novice leaves their family when they join a community, which becomes their new family.
The community is not a prison. Nuns, brothers, priests and monks freely choose to live this life, which takes several years before they are formally accepted to ensure they have a true vocation.
That is not to say that there are not legitimate criticisms of St. Teresa’s order. There are. The Times pointed out they allowed “practices like the reuse of hypodermic needles and tolerating primitive facilities that required patients to defecate in front of one another.”
However, after seeing India’s tragic health care collapse under the crushing weight of the coronavirus, it seems clear that the Missionaries of Charity were doing the best they could in deplorably crude conditions.
People who order their lives to grow in holiness can make secular folks uncomfortable, as we compare ourselves to them and see our own failings. It is a lot easier to find faults in others, than examine the log in our own eye, so to speak.
The New York Times’ attack — more than anything — reveals a judgmental, secular heart that has no desire to understand religious life and casts aspersions on those trying to live a life of holiness.
It refuses to honestly examine the heart of a saint who brought light and hope to millions — that might make the author uncomfortable.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.