Trying to Justify Mother Teresa’s Sainthood

Mother Teresa was granted sainthood recently. The speed and manner in which it occurred ruffled the feathers of some Catholics who know and value the normal sainthood process. But when a pope is pushing a cause, things get done, formalities be damned. As a recovered Catholic, I shouldn’t care a whit. But I do. Teresa caused me some serious grief and careful examinations of her life and work seem to raise more questions than answers about her saintliness. No less a person than Richard Dawkins has attacked her work and efficacy. And he’s not the only one.

As my three regular readers know, I taught public school in Woodland Park, Colorado for thirty years. I love living there but it is a strange place; it is part bedroom, part ranching, and part “waiting for the rapture” community. Add to the fact that it was redlined and a refuge for survivalists and you get a stunning lack of diversity as well as a huge distrust of “the other.” Once you fall into the “other” category, your social status is zero.

In the late eighties, I had been reading a lot about Teresa and her work. The stories of her caring for the dying in the poorest neighborhoods resonated with me. My own mother had recently died and I had just finished reading the Bible from cover to cover. Teresa’s selflessness both inspired me and made me ashamed that I wasn’t doing more in my own community. This was my mindset when a sixth grade boy asked me, “Mr. Parent, are you a Christian?”

I should have recognized the trap. But the thoughts of what the Sisters of Charity were doing in the streets of Calcutta muddled my thinking. I answered, ”No, but I’d like to be.” Over the next seven or eight years I came to regret that remark many times. Of course the child did not tell his parents the second part of my answer, only the first part. I always liked to tell parents, “I’ll believe only half of what your child says about their home life if you promise to only believe half of what they says happens at school.” Soon it went around the community that I was not a Christian. And things didn’t stop there. All kinds of speculation about my religious preferences made the gossip circuit. I’m sure, based on what some parents reported to me later, that people drove by my house looking for signs of goat sacrifices, witches’ covens, and Aztec altars.

I’d have been better off saying I was an atheist. I still would have been ostracized but after 9/11, people wouldn’t have suspected me of being a secret Muslim. In the world of Evangelical, which includes a large part of Teller County, the charge of not being a Christian is a serious accusation. For many of them, it is the equivalent of being a child molester. Every summer, my principals had to deal with parents demanding that their child not be in my class. I didn’t know it at the time. I believed the vague explanations by the office staff of “trying to academically balance the classes” as a reason for why so many students got moved off of my spring class list.

It didn’t help that as a science teacher, I taught why evolution is science and creationism is not. For some parents, I was not just an unbeliever; I was an evil Darwinist trying to drag their children to hell with me. Then, out of the blue, a student said they had heard I wasn’t a Christian and was this true. This time, I asked her to define what being a Christian meant. She recited a couple of items (such as reading the Bible) and it turned out I fit her criteria and the rumors soon ran out of gas. I no longer had to live up to Teresa’s standards.

Since then, I have learned some disturbing facts about Teresa. It seems she spent most of her life feeling abandoned by God because he quit talking to her. She refused to give pain meds to the dying because she believed suffering was good for them. She fought against programs to help the poor, such as family planning initiatives. And according to some who met her, she was stubborn, arrogant, and a serious pain in the ass. Of course all saints are troublesome, so this really doesn’t disqualify her.

Bikram Vohra argues that anyone who attacks Teresa is a coward. I beg to differ. Sainthood is serious business for Catholics. Tens of millions of people will pray to her, light candles, and try and emulate her life. Questioning her credentials as a saint is required, and even more so when the church itself has failed to do so in a rigorous manner. Personally, I would never claim to be qualified to judge her worthiness for sainthood. But it seems to me that the unexamined saint is not worth praying to.

I don’t have a balloon in this race. And perhaps the fact that so many of India’s poor worship Teresa as a saint should be enough. It’s not like I expect a saint to be unflawed. Part of the point of holding a saint up for emulation is that they are human just like us. Still, her sainthood bothers me. I don’t question her dedication to the poorest of the poor. I question whether her ideology allowed her to truly serve them. Denying pain meds to someone so they can share in Christ’s suffering seems very unchristian according to my reading of the scriptures. Jesus spent much of his time on Earth healing the sick, dying, hungry, and thirsty. It seems to me that someone who wishes to honor him should do the same.

Making someone a saint should not be done lightly. Saints are held up, not only to Catholics but to the entire world, as worthy of emulation. By the accounts of some who met her and examined her work closely, it is debatable whether she was worthy of emulation. Many argue that we should just honor Teresa’s intentions and efforts on behalf of the poor. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe results don’t matter. After all, the Clinton Foundation has saved tens of thousands of lives. And nobody is offering them up for sainthood. It’s all very confusing to me. I’m glad I’m not a Catholic anymore.