If we are to believe the words of her critics, the late Agnes Gonxha—better known as Mother Teresa—celebrated the pain and suffering of the sick and poor. In a recent Alternet article, Valerie Tarico explores the nun’s attitude toward suffering and how religious organizations are using the concept of religious masochism to survive. While some lessons may be learnt from unavoidable hardship, this does not excuse avoidable pain—the Universal Life Church Monastery believes in helping the sick and poor, not tormenting them.
In her article, Tarico unearths some rather unflattering evidence of the treatment of patients in Mother Teresa’s facilities. Tarico quotes her as saying, “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering”, and cites an anecdote in which she tells a dying cancer patient, “You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you”, to which the patient responds, “Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.” Tarico also notes that doctors have described the nun’s facilities as “deficient in hygiene, care, nutrition, and painkillers”, enough to cause a former volunteer to establish a counter-practice in Kolkata, called Responsible Charity, which employs medical professionals to look after patients. The picture which emerges is of a person who almost exults in sado-masochism, a trait which most who people become ordained ministers would hardly call humanitarian.
Despite these ugly discoveries, euhemerizing Mother Teresa might prove useful for the Catholic Church, which has suffered from an image problem in recent years due to child abuse scandals and opposition to reproductive rights and equality. Hope for a revitalized Church with the election of Pope Francis I might be bolstered by a sanitized treatment of the famous nun. “What could be better than beatification followed by canonization of [Mother Teresa] to revitalize the Church and inspire the faithful, especially at a time when churches are empty and the Roman authority is in decline?” Tarico asks, quoting a group of Canadian scholars who, after conducting research on altruism, unearthed documents revealing Mother Teresa’s dubious medical ethics, financial practices, and political connections.
But for Universal Life Church ministers, this campaign of religious revitalization is insufficient justification for the anguish experienced by those who suffered excruciating mental and physical pain under Mother Teresa’s care. As the famous Serenity Prayer asks of God, “[g]rant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”, yet Mother Teresa didn’t make this distinction. This fetishization of pain for redemptive or purgative purposes trivializes the horrible experience of pain itself, treating it as a means to an end when in reality the end should be to eliminate it.
To be certain, there are countless compassionate Catholics round the world who would be shocked to discover the doctrine of masochism taught and lived by Mother Teresa, who was only one person. It is our duty to recognize and praise these caring and compassionate human beings as well as expose practices which condone pain and suffering. This is a key part of what it means to be “children of the same universe” and to “do that which is right”.