In a headline for its review of a new podcast called The Turning: The Sisters Who Left, the New York Times asks, “Was Mother Teresa Running a Cult?” Excuse my naiveté, but I thought we had all agreed the answer was maybe yes years ago.
Since her death in 1997, the legacy of Mother Teresa, who was granted sainthood by the Catholic church and won a Nobel Peace Prize, has been under scrutiny for so long that I thought it was common knowledge that she needlessly increased the suffering of the poor she was ostensibly “helping” because she had a boner for human misery and thought god did too. But there’s still more to say, this time about the women who served her Missionaries of Charity outfit, who say that Mother Teresa made their lives as miserable as she did everyone else’s:
“The former sisters describe an obsession with chastity so intense that any physical human contact or friendship was prohibited; according to Johnson, Mother Teresa even told them not to touch the babies they cared for more than necessary. They were expected to flog themselves regularly — a practice called “the discipline” — and were allowed to leave to visit their families only once every 10 years.”
Additionally, former sisters say they had to walk two-by-two like The Handmaid’s Tale to prevent running away and all manner of other behaviors. All of this is pretty nun-standard, historically speaking, so the surprise likely stems from the fact that we were still celebrating this abuse as saintly so recently. The Times asks if the time is right for a podcast like this merely because cults are really hot right now in terms of true crime-adjacent content, and no one has thought to look within more mainstream religious for cult shit, though, of course, it’s definitely there:
“The Missionaries of Charity, very much, in so many ways, carried the characteristics of those groups that we easily recognize as cults,” Mayr Johnson, a former member, told the Times. “But because it comes out of the Catholic Church and is so strongly identified with the Catholic Church, which on the whole is a religion and not a cult, people tend immediately to assume that ‘cult’ doesn’t apply here.”
If we are looking for more church-affiliated true crime content involving venerated clergy and imprisonment, might I suggest the Irish mother and baby homes or Indian boarding schools next, and then we can work our way backward through about a thousand years of history from there.