Mother Teresa: Perhaps No Saint After All 1

Mary Johnson’s memoir An Unquenchable Thirst came out in paperback last week. It’s a compelling read.

When she was 17, Johnson spotted a picture of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine1, and thought she’d found her calling. She was still a teenager when she joined Teresa’s organization, the Missionaries of Charity, becoming a nun and thus a “bride of Christ.” Soon, however, doubts began to plague her.

The L.A. Times summarizes:

Over time, Johnson began to chafe at the political maneuvering and less-than-holy behavior of her superiors, several of whom she names in the book while disguising rank-and-file nuns and priests with pseudonyms. Even Mother Teresa herself doesn’t escape Johnson’s sharp eye and sense of injustice. While Johnson clearly loved the “living saint” and admired her life’s work, Mother Teresa comes off as a control freak who senses her chance at sainthood under the congenial Pope John Paul II and strictly adheres to the rules set by Rome, including several of the Catholic teachings that have kept women in a place of powerlessness.


It’s still an altogether more charitable depiction of the Albanian nun than the one painted by the late Christopher Hitchens, who famously called her “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud,” and who published The Missionary Position, a book that takes Mother Teresa to task for allegedly promulgating poverty rather than fighting it.

To bolster his case, Hitchens offered, among other things, such damning Mother Teresa quotes as:

I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.


The greatest destroyer of peace today is the crime of the innocent unborn child [abortion]. If a mother can murder her own child in her own womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?


Hitchens, while also not a fan of abortion, nevertheless pointed out that Teresa’s life-long opposition to abortion, and even to “non-natural” birth control, inevitably resulted in bigger families and more mouths to feed — and therefore, in more poverty, hunger, and sickness. He wrote:

Tenderness about the unborn is an emotion that I share myself. But tenderness about the unborn also becomes an overtly political matter when it’s preached by a presumable virgin who also campaigns against birth control.

If the word presumable seems a bit unkind, Hitchens might in fact have been wise to the forbidden sexual peccadilloes that were hardly uncommon at the Missionaries of Charity. This is where we return to Mary Johnson’s memoir, and to the L.A. Times‘ summary of it:

What overwhelms Johnson [is her] battle against loneliness and the lack of emotional and physical intimacy. Although Missionaries of Charity nuns are forbidden any physical contact — even a friendly hug — Johnson engages in sexual relationships with other nuns on several occasions, including one affair with a sexual predator that the Missionary of Charity leadership knew about but chose to retain on the roster.

After 20 years, and more religious misbehavior — including sex with a priest — Johnson left the Missionaries of Charity. She ultimately also abandoned her Catholic faith.

On her website, she explains why and when she decided to write her book: it was

the day my youngest sister phoned to say she was about to marry a man she’d met twice; their guru had decided the two “could contain each other.” We human beings sometimes do odd things, especially when religion is involved. Odd and interesting and “not discussed in polite company” things. But it seems to me that what happens when we surrender our wills to religious figures — or deny our sexual natures or believe the Creator of the Universe speaks to us — are things that need to be discussed.

As you can tell from her tone, Johnson can hardly be categorized as disgruntled. Today, she experiences the world differently: no longer through the curious, distorted prism of religious faith, but free from bitterness.

It seems to me that we damage ourselves and our communities when we claim infallible conclusions based on subjective spiritual experience or ancient tradition. I don’t consider myself a religious person today. I believe in living life to the fullest. I try to live mindfully and to treat others and myself well. I believe in the power of love and in the importance of exploring the world around us and of speaking honestly about what we find.

Works for me.
P.S.  I just discovered that there’s a brand new study, by Canadian academics, that takes a dim view of Mother Teresa’s efficacy as a helper of the poor. The Huffington Post has more, under the headline Mother Teresa Humanitarian Image A ‘Myth,’ New Study Says. A slightly better (more methodical and factual) look at the study is here.
1À propos the Time cover, that was in 1975. Mother Teresa made the cover of the magazine again in 2007, years after her death, when long-suppressed documents showed that she struggled with her belief in the divine, and suffered in a spiritual void of which she dared tell no one.

[Mother Teresa image via Picsdrive]

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