‘Was Mother Teresa a Cult Leader?’: Debunking The New York Times’ Latest Hit Piece

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910 - 1997) visits St James' Church in Piccadilly, London, 8th July 1981. (Photo by John Downing/Getty Images)
John Downing/Getty Images

Amidst a surge of anti-Semitic violence in the streets and legislation restricting freedom of conscience in Congress, a new piece published by The New York Times claims to have identified a little-recognized purveyor of violence: Mother Teresa.

The newspaper featured a column about the deceased, sainted servant of dying lepers titled “Was Mother Teresa a Cult Leader?”

Mother Teresa, who is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, founded the Missionaries of Charity to serve lepers abandoned in the gutters of Calcutta, India. Malcolm Muggeridge launched the self-effacing nun into international prominence through a 1968 interview, attracting donations and women from around the world exploring their vocations. Some found they were not meant to be nuns, or considered the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience too restrictive.

The article by NYT opinion writer and frequent MSNBC contributor Michelle Goldberg described the order as “a hive of psychological abuse and coercion” and highlighted the testimony of former nuns who say they consider the sacrifices required by the monastic order Mother Teresa founded to be overly demanding.

The column objects to the three central pillars of all monastic life: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

“We always went out two by two. We were never allowed just to walk out and do something,” said former nun Mary Johnson (no relation) in a new, 10-part podcast series titled “The Turning: The Sisters Who Left,” which Goldberg’s column summarized. Traveling by twos is a standard practice for virtually every religious order — all the more so in areas of concentrated crime and poverty, like the areas Mother Teresa’s order serves. The practice is so well-known that it formed the basis of an archaic anti-Catholic joke.

The nuns had “an obsession with chastity,” Goldberg wrote, in part because monastic leaders encouraged the sisters not to touch anyone longer than necessary. That is more lenient than broadly accepted definitions of sexual harassment trainings, which forbid “touching an employee’s clothing, hair, or body,” according to guidelines published by the United Nations’ agency “dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women,” UN Women.

The podcast’s narrator, Erika Lantz, similarly complained that the monastic vow of obedience — where a monk or nun vows to carry out the instructions of a more experienced monastic known as an abbott or abbess — creates “a power dynamic.” No one should be surprised that the rejection of meritocracy and excellence has carried over to the spiritual realm.

The column’s most graphic claim is that, as part of their ascetic practices to tame the flesh, the nuns practice self-flagellation (whipping themselves). Although the practice has mostly disappeared from Catholicism, Pope John Paul II reportedly practiced it; he, too, has been canonized as a saint.

Yet self-flagellation, which was once common to the world’s three great religions, is still widely employed in some parts of the world. On the Islamic holiday of Ashura, Muslims in many nations still practice a form of self-flagellation known as tatbir, where they sometimes “use whips and chains … to punish their bodies,” reported HuffPost. Others cut their foreheads with knives, according to the New York Times.

Judaism once adopted a form of this discipline, as well. “[T]he practice of self-flagellation became commonplace on the day before Yom Kippur both in Europe and in the Arab world. Jewish men would … whip their own backs, usually 39 times,” reported Haaretz in 2013. Today, Haredim (”ultra-Orthodox”) Jews lightly “whip” one another in the Malkot ceremony before Yom Kippur.

Goldberg does not appear to have addressed either subject.

Instead, the New York Times columnist blew the lid off the 1,700-year-old institution of monasticism, which she rhetorically equated with Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate:

It raises the question of whether the difference between a strict monastic community and a cult lies simply in the social acceptability of the operative faith. … Viewed through a contemporary, secular lens, a community built around a charismatic founder and dedicated to the lionization of suffering and the annihilation of female selfhood doesn’t seem blessed and ethereal. It seems sinister.

But while the podcast uses the term “cult” about the order, “[i]t doesn’t necessarily mean those women thought they were in a cult,” Lantz admitted. The ex-nuns actually said their “reverence towards Mother Teresa was absolutely warranted.” One sister told Lantz that Mother Teresa “was so close to God and you knew it when she was there.”

Of course, Goldberg has jumped the gun calling organizations cultic in the past. In July 2016, she wrote, “The GOP is now purely a cult of personality.” In August 2018, Goldberg told MSNBC’s Katy Tur that Donald Trump would “certainly like to” start rounding people up and murdering them.

Needless to say, Goldberg could not resist tying Mother Teresa’s alleged cult to the modern-day Republican Party. “There is the surge of interest in cults, likely driven by the fact that for four years America was run by a sociopathic con man with a dark magnetism who enveloped a huge part of the country in a dangerous alternative reality,” she wrote.

Goldberg’s poison-pen column is far from the first assault on Mother Teresa’s image, as she noted. Catholic leaders at the time critiqued Christopher Hitchens for lambasting the nun in a 1995 book titled The Missionary Position.

“Your entire book on Mother Teresa reeks of phony scholarship: no index, no footnotes or endnotes, no checkable sources, no evidence,” Catholic League President Bill Donohue told Hitchens during a debate in 2000. “If I were your college teacher, I’d have to give it an ‘F.’”

That response is not new to followers of Jesus. He once said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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