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Mother Theresa's Masochism: Does Religion Demand Suffering to Keep People Passive?

Passive acceptance or even glorification of suffering can be adaptive when people have no choice. But why does so much religion -- particularly Catholicism -- fetishize pain?
 
 
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With a new Pope at the helm, the Catholic hierarchy has set about to polish its tarnished image. Can an increased focus on the poor make up for the Church’s opposition to contraception and marriage equality or its  sordid financial and sexual affairs? The Bishops can only hope. And pray.  And perhaps accelerate the sainthood of Agnes Gonxha, better known as Mother Teresa.

In the last century, no one icon has improved the Catholic brand as much as the small woman who founded the Missionaries of Charity, whose image aligns beautifully with that of the new pope. In March a team of Canadian researchers  noted the opportunity: “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?”

The question, however, was more than a little ironic. The  team of academics from the Universities of Montreal and Ottawa set out to do research on altruism. In the process, they reviewed over 500 documents about Mother Teresa’s life and compiled an array of disturbing details about the soon-to-be saint, including dubious political connections and questionable management of funds—and, in particular, an attitude toward suffering that could give pause to even her biggest fans.

Passive acceptance or even glorification of suffering can be adaptive when people have no choice. As the much loved Serenity Prayer says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” This attitude of embracing the inevitable is built into not only Christianity but also other religions, especially Buddhism. But passive acceptance of avoidable suffering is another thing altogether, which is why the prayer continues, “. . . the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

By even her own words, Mother Teresa’s view of suffering made no distinction between avoidable and unavoidable suffering, and instead cultivated passive acceptance of both. As she  put it, “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.”  Or consider this anecdote from her life:

 One day I met a lady who was dying of cancer in a most terrible condition. And I told her, I say, "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." And she joined her hands together and said, "Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.”

Mother Teresa’s outlook on suffering played out in her order’s homes for the sick and dying, which doctors have described as deficient in hygiene, care, nutrition, and painkillers. Miami resident Hemley Gonzalez was  so shocked by his volunteer experience that he has founded an  accountable charity to provide better care. "Needles were washed in cold water and reused and expired medicines were given to the inmates. There were people who had chance to live if given proper care," . . . "I have decided to go back to Kolkata to start a charity that will be called 'Responsible Charity.' Each donation will be made public and professional medical help will be given," Gonzalez said after returning to the U.S. He also launched a  Facebook page called, “Stop the Missionaries of Charity.”

Even her critics mostly believe that Mother Teresa was devoted to God as she understood him and that she was devoted to serving the poor. And yet, it would appear that her institutions have offered a standard of care that would provoke international outrage if it were provided by, say the United Nations rather than an affiliate of the Vatican. How are we to understand this paradox?

 
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