I was a little surprised the other day to find a picture of Mother Teresa adorning The Nation’s website, illustrating an interview in which Richard Rodriguez rehearses the very canards about the left and religion I discuss in my column this week. Christopher Hitchens may have gone overboard in his attack on Mother T (as Alexander Cockburn put it in the New Yorker’s starstruck profile of Hitchens, “Between the two of them, my sympathies were with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Calcutta, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup?'”). But Rodriguez’ view is simple hagiography: he doesn’t even raise in a parenthesis Mother Teresa’s deep political and theological conservatism, her hob-nobbing with dictators , her opposition not just to abortion rights but to birth control and to condoms for disease prevention, her lack of interest in getting rid of poverty or bringing modern medical care to the poor.
It’s fascinating that, according to recently released letters , Mother Teresa almost never felt the presence of God and suffered terribly over this. In a way that made me like her more: this was one tough nun. But when Rodriguez says the revelation of her spiritual aridity will deepen “our sense of her mystery and possibly her sainthood” who is the “we” he has in mind? If you’re not a Catholic, you probably don’t believe in Catholic saints. He argues that public knowledge of her religious doubts may mitigate what he correctly identifies as a worldwide excess of murderous faith, but this seems most unlikely. Mother Teresa herself didn’t let her lifelong dark night of the soul get in the way of her extreme religious orthodoxy. I think her example goes the other way: it says, if you have doubts, keep quiet, don’t use them to question dogma, challenge authority, open yourself up to new ways of thinking. Just keep kissing the rod. If Mother Teresa wasn’t such a big humanitarian icon, we might think there was something a bit masochistic in her devotion to a God who made her so miserable.
Rodriguez writes “The left, like spoiled children, having been accused of being sinful by the Church, they decide the Church is really sinful. That’s not useful. More useful is to spend a life of service to a Church that is not easily yours.” Tell it to Voltaire! Was he a spoiled child? Was his life not useful? Anyway, the people most ardently convinced of the “sinfulness” of the church these days aren’t leftists but Catholics appalled by molesting priests and the failure of the hierarchy to deal with this scandal in an honest and open way– Boston’s Cardinal Law did more to hurt the church than all the atheists and anticlericals who ever set pen to paper. And why is it more “useful” for, say, a homosexual like Rodriguez to “serve” the Church than to leave it and join a denomination that respects his sexuality ? He could still believe in Jesus if he was an Episcopalian — he could even be a priest.
So what is all this about serving and being useful? If gay men and women walked out of denominations that regard homosexuality as evil, sinful, “inherently disordered” (current official Catholic view) and the like, they would be making quite a powerful statement. So too if women , the backbone of most faiths, quit denominations that regard them as subordinate to men, bar them from ministry, and enforce medieval views of sexual and reproductive morality. If change is the aim, it is at least arguable that voting with your feet achieves more than staying and continuing to put your money in the collection plate every week.
I wish Rodriguez had discussed these issues in a more reflective way. I don’t understand why a person remains loyal to a denomination that tells them they are inferior, ill, born wrong, when they could worship next door in a church that welcomes them as they are. As with Mother Teresa, masochism comes to mind: God is punishing you because he loves you, suffering is good, someday it will all make sense. Maybe, like Log Cabin Republicans, they think they can work from within;I suppose that is what Rodriguez is getting at. Maybe, though, perhaps also like Log Cabin Republicans, they’ve internalized the negative stereotype. Whatever, I don’t think Rodriguez is in such a good position to deride more critical or impatient folk as “spoiled children.” It’s better to be a spoiled child than a child who thinks abuse is love.
NB: I realize that by the rules of engagement that govern debates between religious and secular, the religious are allowed to say whatever they like about the secular, but if the seculars respond equally frankly they’re bigots. So before you write that e mail, just remember who started this.
Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion: My collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories” is just out from Random House. These are not Nation pieces, but memoiristic (is that a word?) essays about love, sex, betrayal, and, um, so on, only two of which have appeared in print (in The New Yorker). Don’t like the Amazon clickthrough? Ask for it at your local independent bookstore.