A question of privacy:
Mother Teresa’s letters

By Deirdre Good

The publication of personal letters by Mother Teresa to Jesus, her spiritual director, a few clergy, and her bishop -letters that she specifically asked to be destroyed-raises ethical questions. The letters acknowledge God’s absence in her spiritual life for some fifty years and contrast the already known public persona to the private reality but this is immaterial. What right does Mother Teresa’s spiritual director have to release letters that Mother Teresa wrote either to or for him? Do we honor the requests of the dead or not? What right does the editor of the book, Joseph Kolodiejchuk, have to publish them?

These letters are all that remain of trunk loads of correspondence most of which she destroyed. Perhaps Mother Teresa knew she would be declared a saint. She already recognized the public nature of her witness and work. She wrote to Father Joseph Neuner, S.J., on March 6, 1962: “If I ever become a Saint-I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heaven-to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” Could this kind of sentence mean that she could foresee what would happen to her letters and that she covertly approved of others seeing what she wrote?

Some letters have been public for years. But the recent publication of more must be seen in light of her canonization. Mother Teresa has already been beatified. Full disclosure of her spiritual darkness in a book with carefully controlled commentary and interpretation seems to be a way to contain and present this material before her canonization is complete. The editor of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light addresses this matter only once in the book: “Providentially, Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors preserved some of her correspondence. Thus, when testimonies and documents were gathered during the process for her beatification and canonization, the remarkable story of her intimate relationship with Jesus, hidden from even her closest collaborators, was discovered. In contrast to her ‘ordinariness,’ Mother Teresa’s confidences reveal previously unknown depths of holiness and may very well lead her to be ranked among the great mystics of the Church.” As a student pointed out in a class discussion, this paragraph doesn’t answer the question. But it is the only explanation offered by the editor of the book.

Is it possible the letters signify, not unlike the Virgin Mary, a construction of a feminine portrait of the Roman Catholic Church that can legitimate its own moral failures and justify its moral stances? Mother Teresa was unwavering in her commitment to the Church’s teaching on abortion, and she never advocated for women priests. For all intents and purposes, she was loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and teaching of her church. But, as the Catholic Church itself has demonstrated in the many cases of sexual misconduct now surfacing, she did have a “darker” side. One motivation of this re-imaging — we might even say re-branding — of itself on the contours of her life is that it represents the Catholic Church’s attempt to come to terms with its own past and engage in honest self-disclosure. But the veiled nature of the signification — the fact that they chose a feminine image to shore up the status quo of a church that has failed to grapple with its own sexual misconduct and other moral failures suggests otherwise. Like the Virgin Mary, Teresa is evolving into a paradigmatic image of the challenges, hopes and fears of contemporary Roman Catholicism. In making these new revelations of her inner life, the church may have changed our perception of her, all the while failing to change itself.

We might also ask about the motivations of the book’s publisher, Random House. On September 4, Publshers’ Weekly noted “Random House reported an 8% decline in worldwide earnings for the first half of 2007, to 44 million euros ($60 million) while parent company Bertelsmann posted first-half losses primarily due to Napster legal difficulties.” Random House CEO Peter Olson indicates that the fall publication list of the next four months (including Bill Clinton’s new book Giving) will go some way towards meeting the full year’s financial goals.

The extraordinary challenge Mother Teresa’s spiritual life poses is in danger of being subsumed into our apparently insatiable desire for personal disclosure, of becoming a vehicle for rehabilitation of the Roman Catholic Church in a particular way, and of returning a publishing house to solvency. But despite the potential exploitation of Mother Teresa’s spiritual life and my own deep reservations about overriding the explicit wishes of the departed, I participated in both – I bought the book. And I am grateful both to the author of the letters and to those who made it possible for me to read them. The miracle is that, murky ethical issues notwithstanding, we can witness in her letters an authentic sojourn in the heart of darkness as she carried out her mission to quench Christ’s insatiable thirst for all human souls.

Professor Deirdre Good wrote this piece in conversation with Professor William Danaher at The General Theological Seminary in New York City where they both teach.

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