Sometimes I come across articles that leave me pondering for quite awhile. This happened to me the other day when I came across an article written by Susan Shields for the website “Council for Secular Humanism”. Ms. Shields an ex member of Mother Teresa’s Sister’s of Charity. I’m going to quote the part that caused me a certain amount of mental angst:
Three of Mother Teresa’s teachings that are fundamental to her religious congregation are all the more dangerous because they are believed so sincerely by her sisters. Most basic is the belief that if a sister obeys she is doing God’s will. Another is the belief that the sisters have leverage over God by choosing to suffer. Their suffering makes God very happy. He then dispenses more graces to humanity. The third is the belief that any attachment to human beings, even the poor being served, supposedly interferes with love of God and must be vigilantly avoided or immediately uprooted. The efforts to prevent any attachments cause continual chaos and confusion, movement and change in the congregation. Mother Teresa did not invent these beliefs – they were prevalent in religious congregations before Vatican II – but she did everything in her power (which was great) to enforce them.
Once a sister has accepted these fallacies she will do almost anything. She can allow her health to be destroyed, neglect those she vowed to serve, and switch off her feelings and independent thought. She can turn a blind eye to suffering, inform on her fellow sisters, tell lies with ease, and ignore public laws and regulations. (These behaviors are endemic to every single one of the right wing traditional apostolates approved of and singled out for praise by the Vatican in the last forty years.)
Women from many nations joined Mother Teresa in the expectation that they would help the poor and come closer to God themselves. When I left, there were more than 3,000 sisters in approximately 400 houses scattered throughout the world. Many of these sisters who trusted Mother Teresa to guide them have become broken people. In the face of overwhelming evidence, some of them have finally admitted that their trust has been betrayed, that God could not possibly be giving the orders they hear. It is difficult for them to decide to leave – their self-confidence has been destroyed, and they have no education beyond what they brought with them when they joined. I was one of the lucky ones who mustered enough courage to walk away……
Taken together these three beliefs describe a very sad definition of the path to holiness. They also describe logical extensions of the belief that man’s material existence has meaning only in terms of his soul and that since the fall of Adam and Eve, our bodies are condemned to suffering in order to appease God and purify our immortal souls from the filthy stains of material existence.
Take the first one for example: “the belief that as long as a sister obeys she is doing God’s will.”
There’s no question that with in the Sisters of Charity, as it is in Opus Dei, the Legionaries, or any number of other twentieth century apostalates, obedience to the will of the founder was equated with obedience to God. This was not just an attitude freely assumed by members, it was promulgated by the founders themselves and they were backed by the Papacy. Why wouldn’t they be? This demand for obedience to the founder is exactly what the Vatican demands of every Catholic with regards to the Pope.
The problem is neither the Pope nor any given founder is God. Jesus did not say God is obedience, He said God is love. Every parent has experienced the fact that our children can still love us dearly without feeling the need to obey every jot and tittle of what we say. And if a parent matures with their child in parenting, one finds that they actually love their children more when those children think for themselves, act decently on their own initiative, and stop demanding approval for everything they do. None of those free acts of a maturing child is an assault on the fundamental parent/child relationship. It is instead both a deepening and a broadening of the relationship. What a parent really learns as their child matures, is the reason for and nature of, forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a ‘get out of hell’ free card. Nor is it a reset button to engage in the same failed strategy. It’s an opportunity to change direction, learn a lesson and grow some more. Parental forgiveness is often the weedkiller in our children’s garden of life
The second belief is in some respects even more damaging than the first: “the belief that the sisters have leverage over God by choosing to suffer. Their suffering makes God very happy. He then dispenses more graces to humanity.” There are so many fallacies here. No human person has the capacity to leverage God. That’s a description of a very small god, but it gets worse. The thought that this god is happy being leveraged by our suffering makes him an even smaller God. That he would then dispense more grace to humanity because of his happiness with our suffering makes him very very minuscule on the god scale. Puts him about as far up the god scale as the parent who beats their child to get the rush when they cry and then gives the child candy to shut them up until the next time. It’s called abuse dynamics.
Then we come to the third belief: “that any attachment to human beings, even the poor being served, supposedly interferes with love of God and must be vigilantly avoided or immediately uprooted”. For Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity this belief can be restated as the love of the concept of poverty as a path to holiness. Their ministry actually has very little to do with an effective realtional love with the poor. It has to do with their individual choice to live in, and surround themselves with institutional poverty.
This is probably why Mother Teresa never built a world class hospital with all of her hundreds of millions in donations, or did a great deal to eradicate poverty in the areas in which her convents and clinics operated. These initiatives served as way stations for sufferers in which her sisters were given the opportunity to evangelize and ‘save’ souls. It was this that took precedence over alleviating suffering or providing real medicine. The truth is she didn’t need a world class hospital to evangelize and save souls–she needed hundreds of convents and that’s precisely what she built.
In honesty, Mother Teresa never claimed to be in the business of lifting the yoke of poverty or eradicating disease in the areas in which her enterprises operated. She forthrightly said she was in the business of Catholic evangelization and the saving of souls. The poor people she worked with were not victims of choices not their own. Instead they had been given a wonderful opportunity from God to both achieve her definition of holiness, and offer their unchosen suffering for others. And of course, they provided the means by which she and her fellow sisters could achieve their definition of holy poverty. In this respect, she would have been working against her definition of their best interests to do otherwise.
Not one of these three beliefs are espoused by LCWR congregations, which makes me wonder if that’s not part of the problem they are having with the Vatican. There’s nothing like making poverty a short ticket to heaven to soothe the consciences of people whose own greed makes that poverty possible. No wonder Mother Teresa had many good things to say about the Duvalier’s in Haiti. Just think of all the opportunity the Duvalier’s provided for the people of Haiti to experience holy poverty.I think progressive Catholics need to put some time and effort in understanding this dynamic in the traditional and conservative Catholic mind set. Ignoring it will not make it go away nor lessen it’s influence in the Vatican and subsequently on Catholic laity.