Reject the Smears against Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa in 1986 (Jacques Boissinot/Reuters)
The latest attempt to destroy the reputation of a modern Catholic saint is as baseless as past efforts.

Touting a scurrilous podcast, Michelle Goldberg in her column in the New York Times last Friday mused whether Mother Teresa of Calcutta was actually more of a cult leader than a saint.  In so doing, Goldberg displayed her ignorance of the woman, the Christian meaning of human suffering, and, most of all, the inspiration for her work. Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity to bring the love of God to the poorest of the poor throughout the world. For over 70 years, the MCs, as they are affectionately known, have provided compassionate care to the dying and those suffering from malnutrition, leprosy, AIDS, and, now, COVID.

Danger is nothing new to Mother Teresa’s nuns. They freely assume such risks — even life-threatening ones. Their missions in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Haiti, and other countries torn by violence place these women in harm’s way every day. Several have been killed in the line of duty. Those who enter the MC convent do so knowing that they will receive no salary or health insurance but instead depend entirely upon divine providence for all their material needs. Despite the heroic sacrifices asked of them, the MCs are known for their joy and cheerfulness, and a surprisingly small number of them have quit the convent.

But one who did apparently has a score to settle. Mary Johnson, who left the MCs in the 1990s, wrote about her experiences in an obscure book that now is the basis for a new, ten-part podcast, The Turning: The Sisters Who Left. Johnson, an atheist, was not your standard nun during the years she professed faith in God. She once described her state of mind in the convent as follows: “I wanted intimacy, I wanted sex. . . . I was tired of looking at these desires as temptations. They seemed so full of God, not the devil.”

Johnson was free to pursue those desires out in the world and leave the MCs any time she wanted. But she didn’t. Instead, she chose to remain an MC and break her vows. She claims she had a sexual tryst with a priest. She lied to Mother Teresa when confronted by a report that she had been discovered in bed with a woman under her supervision. All of this is in Johnson’s book, including other ways she betrayed Mother Teresa’s trust, not to mention eavesdropped on her. Through it all, Mother Teresa treated Johnson as kindly as Jesus treated Judas.

Erika Lantz and other former colleagues from the Boston affiliate of National Public Radio who produced the podcast knew that the best way to put their new media company on the map was to denigrate a revered religious leader and her companions. Sadly, the smear campaign against Mother Teresa and the MCs is only beginning. In upcoming episodes, the podcast will air false allegations, of sexual abuse against innocent MCs, leveled by a few embittered women dismissed from the MCs for conduct unbecoming nuns. (An eyewitness saw one choking another sister who rebuffed her amorous advances.) And expect a continued disparagement of Catholic moral teaching and the role of redemptive suffering in consecrated life. It seems the “sisters who left” harbor grievances with their former superiors and are hell-bent on airing them.

What won’t be broadcast is an account of the deceitful tactics of Lantz and her colleagues last fall when they contacted the MCs in Calcutta and cynically sought their unwitting cooperation in the hit piece then under development. Lantz never mentioned to the MCs that Johnson was the co-producer of and inspiration for the podcast. I alerted Calcutta to the bad faith animating Lantz’s media project and informed her that the MCs would have nothing to do with her program. She then sent Calcutta a 16-page list of questions and requests for documents. Presumably, Lantz wanted the MCs to set aside their work with COVID victims in India to provide her more grist for her stories.

The MCs did not respond to her. Instead they promised to pray for Johnson and the others. If I have learned anything during my 35 years of association with them, it is that no plague, famine, or media attack will distract them from their vocations of love. Each day more than 5,000 women in 139 countries follow in Mother Teresa’s footsteps, joined by the hundreds of professed brothers and priests of her order. They happily serve those whom Mother Teresa described as “Jesus in His distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor,” come what may. With the MC nuns, as with Mother Teresa, there is no fleeing, no turning. They are the sisters who stayed.

Jim Towey was legal counsel to Mother Teresa of Calcutta for the last twelve years of her life. He served as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006 and as president of Saint Vincent College and Ave Maria University. He is the founder and CEO of Aging with Dignity, a nonprofit with offices in Tallahassee, Fla., and Washington, D.C.


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