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Progressives Must Stop Ignoring Certain Conservative Beliefs About Holiness

There is a reason for the obvious lack of any medical equipment in this clinic of Mother Teresa’s and it’s not lack of donations.

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.

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9 Responses

  1. A few days ago, a writer on this blog was critical of Pope John Paul II.

    Today, a writer on this blog is critical of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

    What are you thinking?

    Who are you trying to reach here?

    Because, if you are trying to change the hearts and minds of your fellow Catholics or other Christians, attacking JPII and Mother Teresa is not the way to do it — esp. not in the early life of a blog with a mission to advance the debate.

    At least have some balance and point out the good things done by JPII and Mother Teresa. They were complex figures. There’s more to their stories than what you have presented.

    In your approach and in your language, you are just as bad as the far right — and a lot of us in the middle are left scratching our heads.

    • Paul, I am probably the writer on this blog who was, as you say, critical of Pope John Paul II. And for that reason, I’m responding, though your comment is re: a posting by another author here.

      I think your points are well-taken. Because we’re a brand-new blog, it’s important that we ask whom we’re trying to reach, and what we’re hoping to accomplish with this blog.

      My understanding is that we’re hoping to open a conversation space in which many voices interested in catholic issues from a progressive standpoint can exchange dialogue.

      And, though some responses of some readers have been critical, at least, there does seem to be the kind of exchange taking place that we envisaged–even when some readers find positions taken here provocative.

      I think I’d want to ask why either Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa are automatically off-limits for critical discussion. It strikes me that free exchange of various opinions is a healthy sign for an organization, and that something unhealthy may have happened in our church in recent years, when some topics (and figures) were placed off-limits for such free discussion. And when the cult of personality seemed (to some of us) to become central to our iconic figures in the Catholic tradition, while other figures who weren’t widely promoted by the mainstream media and by powerful monied interest groups who also deserve attention–it seems to me–for their conspicuous holiness fell by the wayside.

      I think of Oscar Romero, for instance.

      In my view, opening new dialogue spaces for these kinds of conversation is healthy for the church, though there may be pain on all sides when people speak their minds freely, after such a long period of non-conversation and of official predeterminations about what we might validly say and whom we might validly canonize.

      I appreciate your feedback, and hope you realize that this response is an attempt to engage in dialogue.

    • Paul, I agree completely that blanket criticisms of John Paul II and Mother Theresa, in a vacuum, are inappropriate. It is important to be putting positive messages as well, especially on a new blog such as this. however, it is also important to note the context.

      As far as John Paul is concerned, the context is specific: the proposed path to canonization, to which the writer objects. Here, the many virtues of the man are assumed: but canonization requires that there be more than just “many virtues”. The case should be overwhelmingly strong. Were the context neutral, of course any assessment of the man should resent the positive as well as the flaws. But that is not the context. To call out dissent to the canonization process, it is entirely appropriate that just the reservations should be put. In the old days, there would have been a “Devil’s advocate” formally entrenched in the process. In the absence such a figure, others have to take up the role informally.

      As for Mother Theresa, you have yourself highlighted the problem: she was indeed a complex figure. Unfortunately, that is not widely recognized. Far too often she is perceived against oversimplified assumptions about unalloyed goodness. I thought that the post made clear the intention was to provide balance, when taken in conjunction with what is otherwise known.

      I take seriously your more general point, and agree that we could, even should do more to promote what is good as well as what is bad in the Catholic faith. This is something that I hope we will constantly strive to improve as we develop the site. However, I believe that is unrealistic to expect it in every single post: that is not the nature of a blog.

      I also accept that we could be more careful, at times, in our language.

    • Paul I appreciate your comment. In the thoughts I expressed above I was using Mother Teresa to ask questions about the theological direction of the Church, about what constitues holiness. These are the same questions many of her ex members and volunteers wondered about Teresa and the Sisters of Charity.

      Did she practice a form of Christianity or a form of Pre Vatican II Catholic Christology? Mother Teresa herself never claimed to be advancing the cause of the poor as I state in the article. Her myth claims such for her. Her myth claims many things for her which were never her motivation.

      She is one of those larger than life people who seem to serve as a screen for outsiders on which to project their own needs and desires.

      In my mind MT represents the belief that saving one’s soul and the souls of others is the pre eminent Catholic path to Holiness. Alleviating pain, poverty, and suffering is secondary. For MT this required that her sisters place evangelizing and conversion over love or human relationship, that they place the saving of their own souls above all else.

      My personal question would be is this the direction Catholicism needs to take and does it mean that saving one’s soul or the souls of others takes precedent over the great commandment to love?

      There is no question MT served others. The questions revolve around how and why she served others?

      I think these kinds of fundamental questions need to be asked and the contradictions raised because they serve to provoke thinking about how we see holiness in the Catholic tradition, how we see suffering, and how we see the nature of God.

  2. “This demand for obedience to the founder is exactly what the Vatican demands of every Catholic with regards to the Pope.”

    News to me.

    I happen to be something of a fan of the last two popes, but I don’t recall having taken a vow of obedience.

  3. Your right Rick, I probably should have written “attempts to demand”. Neither one actually crossed the line demanding obedience from the laity. Some theologians and other professed religious were not so fortunate, but I guess that goes with the territority.

  4. with a hat tip to Mary Daly, de/constructing mythology (where myth=sacred story) is a crucial step in the road to an open tabernacle. yet, it doesn’t have to be done with derision toward the ‘other’. those of us who are ‘in the know’ about certain things enjoy a certain level of privilege, simply by having the opportunity to be exposed to certain information. are others ignorant or simply uninformed? i think ignorance indicates a choice to refuse knowledge offered – to consciously choose not to acknowledge it. that is different than not knowing the information. i’m a highly educated individual with a certain level of expertise in emerging theologies, but i never had the opportunity to learn about the workings of Mother Teresa’s ministries or JPII’s changes to the saint verification process. I’m grateful that I’ve found this website to help my education in these matters. Perhaps considering whether an article that has the potential to be inflammatory could be reworked to a) present new information in smaller, more digestible chunks (deconstruction is hard work!) and/or b) include some personal reflection on the process the author went through when exposed to the same information for the first time, or what inspired them to look deeper into the issue in the first place. If the site is to be apologist in some respects (and not just preaching to the choir) such steps might go a long way in inviting people to the table.

  5. “Some theologians and other professed religious were not so fortunate”

    And I don’t see that as a bad thing.

    As Catholics we have both bishops, as upholders of orthodoxy with authority, and theologians, who routinely push the boundaries. Without the theologians, we stagnate. Without the bishops, we break into a thousand pieces, like out Protestant friends.

    It illustrates one of my favorite maxims: “The better your brakes, the faster you can drive your car.”

  6. Rick, many protestant denominations utilize an episcopal form of leadership, and those that do not frequently use centralized ‘conference’ leadership for position statements. (An infamous example of this is the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that began in the late 1970s). I’m not sure I follow your logic.

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