Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Saint Teresa: The Good and the Questionable

Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was given that name at the time of her birth on August 26, 1910. Most people around the world, however, have for decades known her as Mother Teresa.
On September 4, this coming Sunday, during a canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Pope Francis will declare Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
By many people, though, Mother Teresa has been thought of as a saint for a long time. Back in 1975 the cover story of the December 29 issue of Time magazine was titled “Living Saints.” Mother Teresa’s picture was on the cover of that issue.
As a Protestant, it is not hard to understand the meaning of “saint” in the popular sense, such as that term was used in the Time article. But people being saints in the Catholic sense is a little more difficult—especially when it involves their veneration, which we Protestants sometimes incorrectly think is the worship of saints.
Recently, though, in commenting on the legacy of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson wrote, “The canonization of Kolbe makes me think that the Church’s singling out of certain saints has real value in challenging the rest of us to live our faith.
Or, as it is sometimes said, saints are special people who by their lives help us to understand God better. Accordingly, by looking at Saint Teresa’s loving service to the “poorest of the poor” in Calcutta we should be able to understand God’s love better.  

When she was 40 years old, Mother Teresa was given permission by the Pope to begin a congregation called Missionaries of Charity. From their small beginning in 1950, that group grew into a large worldwide organization.
Because of their meritorious work, starting in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and then expanding to many countries, Mother Teresa became known around the world. As one indication of how esteemed she became for what had done through the years, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
There are some questionable aspects of Mother Teresa’s life and work, however. For example, I have serious misgivings about some things she has said—such as her extreme words opposing abortion. In her Nobel Lecture she declared that “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.”
In that speech Mother Teresa went on to assert that abortion “is a direct war, a direct killing—direct murder by the mother herself.”
Highly questionable statements!
Mother Teresa’s greatest strength was the loving service she provided for the sick and the dying who were living in poverty. Perhaps her greatest weakness was lack of action—or even talk—regarding the causes of poverty. She did a marvelous job of taking care of victims; she did little in seeking to reduce the number of victims.
To her credit, in her Nobel Lecture Mother Teresa reported that she and her co-workers were teaching “natural family planning” to “our beggars, our leprosy patients, our slum dwellers.” Elsewhere she claimed that such teaching given to three thousand families was “95 percent effective” (No Greater Love, pp. 127-8).
Still, how many more unwanted pregnancies might she have prevented if she had been willing to teach and provide the means for “artificial birth control”? She could not do that, of course, as a Catholic.
But no one, not even a saint, is perfect, and Mother Teresa did demonstrate great Christian love throughout her lifetime. So please rejoice with me this weekend as Mother Teresa is canonized, publically acknowledged as a saint.


  1. Mother Teresa was certainly a devout Catholic and follower of Christ, humble in service and in leadership, with a notable and earned pulpit to the world. Like you, not being Catholic, I have some issues with the concept of venerated Saints chosen by people who themselves are creatures, and with other Catholic dogmas. (But I am working through those and other variances of belief as I become more orthodox in my sojourn.) Mother Theresa certainly was very Catholic in her beliefs including her view of abortion, if one reads the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the Magisterium writing, Humanae Vitae. One outside the Catholic church may disregard the teaching or dogmas or practice of the Catholic Church - a common practice among protestants in various ways and views - but within, there is the real threat of excommunication. Theresa was faithful not only in service, but in belief, and has been found worthy by Popes for Catholic Sainthood.

    1. Mother Teresa was certainly faithful to the teachings of the RCC. In 1992 the popular Pope John Paul II continued to make that position clear by declaring, "Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.”

      But in a March 2013 Pew Research Center survey, more than 3/4 of USAmerican Catholics thought that the RCC should permit birth control--and other surveys indicate that an even larger percentage of USAmerican Catholic women actually have used contraceptives.

    2. Saints can be looked at, as part of historical treasure or as historical baggage.
      In one sense, the lives of these extraordinary persons, for one reason or another, have been singled out as witnesses to the power of Jesus Christ and Christianity to motivate persons to extraordinary action of one type or another. They include desert hermits, kings and queens, founders of religious communities, visionaries, mystics, ordinary persons who were martyred for their faith.
      In another sense, they relate to the pre-reformation Christian church of east and west. The act of “canonizing” persons as saints in the western Roman Catholic has been limited to the pope since the 13th century, although popular opinion has had a lot to do with it in many instances—witness Popes John XXIII and John Paul II and Mother Teresa. Officially, it means the church’s recognition that the person has gone to heaven.
      Now going to heaven, and not to hell, and being connected to causing miracles and being a model of
      Christian life, all raise a mountain of questions and wide differences of theology and practice in the contemporary scene, Tlike those in your blog and dozens more.
      Mother Teresa was a dyed in the wool “conservative” or “traditionalist” theologically and morally. I’m not sure she would be a model in a U.S. university school of social work.
      But most of these saints, and certainly Mother Teresa have our attention and move us in some way by the magnitude of their service or the scope of their influence, connected to the depth of their Christian faith. The R. C. canonization process has to relate this to R.C. theological and doctrinal standards. There was an issue in Mother Teresa’s case, not because of her position on birth control, but because of letters she sent to her spiritual advisor which attested to long periods (50 years) of religious doubt and dryness. Just google “Mother Teresa” or the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (2007), the movie “The Letters” (2015), back articles of the NY Times, Time, Christian Century, or the latest issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

    3. Thanks, Larry, for your helpful comments about Mother Teresa and the significance of saints.

      I was aware of the problem of her "religious doubt" as indicated by the 2007 book, but decided not to make reference to that. Since others have mentioned this also, I will make a further comment about that matter below.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Clif, for sharing this article. I had read several articles critical of Mother Teresa, but not this one.

      While I think there is some truth to what is said in that article, I think it is probably a bit too critical. And I am not sure Christopher Hitchens is qualified to give a "fair and balanced" evaluation of St. Teresa.

    2. Here is the link to an Indian physician who has long been critical of Mother Teresa. I am not sure he is completely unbiased either, but perhaps he is more credible than Hitchens.


  3. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, whom I quoted in the article, sent the following comments about Mother Teresa:

    "Very good blog, Leroy. In lauding her canonization I think you rightly recognize that saints aren’t perfect; they are just people who let the love of God irradiate their lives.

    "I had the privilege of hearing Mother Teresa and meeting her personally when she received the Bellarmine Medal in 1983. Love was her theme. 'People are dying from lack of love,' she said. She and her Sisters of Charity put love into action."

  4. In response to the recent blog on Paul Tillich, I responded by quoting from the first paragraph of his Systematic Theology. Mother Teresa is a classic example of what he was talking about. The section i quoted ended with "In this respect fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it make them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware."

    After her death some of her personal writings became public, and in them she confessed to a profound and last spiritual darkness. The light that had filled her early career was gone, never to return. In the shell of what had been her living faith she soldiered on. She ended up with critics complaining that she loved poverty itself more than the poor. For a review of her inner darkness, see this review of the book "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light" at this link: http://time.com/4126238/mother-teresas-crisis-of-faith/

  5. In response to Larry, Craig, and others who have made reference to Mother Teresa's "religious doubt" or "inner darkness," I share the following brief comments:

    Since soon after the publication "Come Be My Light," I have been aware of it and its general content. But I have not read the book and am not inclined to do so now. Since these were private writings, I think they should have stayed that way.

    I think Mother Teresa's life of loving service speaks for itself, and I don't see that she is in any way a hypocrite because she was not having happy spiritual experiences during the last decades of her life.

    I thinks the following words, attributed to a Jewish prisoner during World War II, may well have been true in Mother Teresa's situation also:

    I believe in the sun
    even when it is not shining
    And I believe in love,
    even when there’s no one there.
    And I believe in God,
    even when he is silent.

    1. Actually, I do not "think Mother Teresa's life of loving service speaks for itself." Hers is a double darkness. One is the darkness of her personal pilgrimage. I respect that, and I accept that. There is, however, a second darkness, the darkness in that "loving service" as reported by those who have studied her career. She reportedly relished the suffering of her patients, and kept them in spartan conditions with substandard care. Most scandalously, she reportedly did not submit to the same regimen when she needed care herself. Her fierce position against abortion was just the tip of an iceberg of intolerant ideology. Her patients came looking for a loaf of mercy, and too often were given a theological stone instead.

      Now I realize that much of what I am saying addresses her underlying Catholicism, not just her personal interpretation of it. Well, for five hundred years there has been a movement of Christians that has protested the medieval mindset of the Catholic Church, and has called it to reform. As Jesus himself said, "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?" (Matthew 7:9) Pity the poor child that asks for birth control, or emergency treatment for a failing pregnancy. Pity the poor child who is born gay, lesbian or transgendered. Pity the poor child who is terminally ill, and wants to die quickly and peacefully. The Catholic Church has so many theological stones to give.

      There was almost a new Catholic Church born under Pope John XXIII. However, Pope Paul VI ushered in a new counter-reformation that has yet to run its course. In a world where the population bomb is exploding, and global warming is threatening humanity with destruction, and possibly even extinction, the Catholic Church continues to find plenty of theological stones to hand out. I suppose in that way Mother Teresa is the perfect new Catholic saint. Pope Francis can criticize neoliberal economics all he wants, but if the Catholic Church continues to make it easier for these hyper-capitalists to destroy the world, what is the point?

    2. Thanks for your comments, Craig. I always take very seriously what you write--and usually agree (at least mostly) with what you write. But I think you are too hard on Mother Teresa.

      I, too, have problems with her unbending stance on contraception (as well as on abortion), and I have problems with the Roman Catholic Church because of those issues (as well as their stance on LGBTQ people).

      It is mainly your first paragraph I disagree with, though.There is much I would like to say in that regard, but let me just refer to an article I read a few minutes ago. Here is a South Asian person writing from personal, although second-hand, contact with Mother Teresa and firsthand contact with other Missionaries of Charity. (The author is a research professor at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.) Here is the link to that article, which I hope you will take time to read: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2016/september/angel-of-mercy.html

  6. Some medieval saint spoke of "The Dark Night of the Soul." Those who experience the bright light of the love of Jesus are going to be very aware of the dark night. Those who have not experienced the dark night of the soul are much more prone to criticize those who acknowledge it. Been there. Still there from time to time. Charles Kiker

    1. Thanks for your comments, Charles. The saint you mentioned was St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic who lived from 1542 to 1591.

      Here is a bit more about the subject from Wikipedia:

      "The term 'dark night (of the soul)' is used in Roman Catholicism for a spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God, like that described by Saint John of the Cross.

      "Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite, wrote of her own experience. Centering on doubts about the afterlife, she reportedly told her fellow nuns, 'If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.'

      "While this crisis is usually temporary in nature, it may last for extended periods. . . . Mother Teresa of Calcutta, according to letters released in 2007, 'may be the most extensive such case on record,' lasting from 1948 almost up until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief in between. Franciscan Friar Father Benedict Groeschel, a friend of Mother Teresa for a large part of her life, claims that 'the darkness left' towards the end of her life."

  7. I found the comments interesting, and really like your reply where you used the poem about belief even when the sun is not shining. I think most Christians do not live on the spiritual high they first felt when they met God personally. As I read the remarks about Mother Teresa's "darkness" and it lasting so long, I thought it was probably depression which usually takes the delight out of living even though people often carry on their responsibilities. I think I would be depressed, too, if my job all those years was to find the nearly dead on the streets and clean them up and minister to them until their death. I admire her for being able to carry on despite her own (dark) feelings and even through her own health issues.

  8. Well, it didn't make much news...

    1. Check this out: http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/04/europe/mother-teresa-canonization/

    2. And there was also this: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2016/09/04/thousands-gather-for-canonization-mother-teresa.html

  9. I fully intended to give thanks for Mother Teresa in our "joys and concerns" time in church this morning. But, distracted by two little great grandsons in our care, it slipped my mind. Charles K

  10. Local Thinking Friend Gloria Throne shares the following comments:

    "I am Catholic, but not opposed to birth Control. I have discussed with at least a couple of good friend priests. One said he saw no Biblical support for banning birth control. Another one said the ban was based on misinterpretation of science . . . when sperm was first seen in a microscope it was thought that was a human life swimming around ... therefore it must find a place to complete its journey ... same argument was used to forbid masturbation."

  11. Madeleine L'Engle wrote beautifully about icons (and saints) in her book Walking On Water. In it she contends that the stylized imperfection of the icons was intended to both facilitate ease of recognition but also to resist the urge toward idolatry. Saints are to serve as the human connection of one aspect of God's relationship with God's children. The imperfections of the saints should remind us that they are merely windows not the light. The Hebrews got it right with their stories of incredibly flawed humans being used by God and being "after God's own heart". The cult of purity is a profound denial of God's grace and how God works in the world. Our tendency toward hagiography (in the negative, white washing sense) serves only to create distance between God and God's beloved children. The flaws of the saints should give us strange comfort in walking into a life filled with Grace "just as we are."

    I also like how you and Joan recognised the difference between sentiment and a faith that does the work when the feelings aren't there.

    I wonder sometimes if our urge whitewash our heroes comes from some subconscious desire to create distance and thereby lower expectations for ourselves. Cody McMahan

    1. Thanks, Cody. I hope there will be many who read your significant comments.