Twenty years ago, Mary Johnson was a nun.
In fact, until 1997, Johnson was serving as a nun under Mother Teresa in the Missionaries of Charity. In her time with the woman excoriated by Christopher Hitchens in The Missionary Position, she travelled Europe, trained other sisters, and studied theology.
Since leaving the order, Johnson has married, written a book (An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life), and become a non-believer.
As a former Catholic who heard in her childhood about the self-sacrifice and kindness of Mother Teresa’s ministrations to the poor… and was later disillusioned when, as an atheist, she was faced with the facts, I was especially excited to hear from Mary.
Could you describe your religious journey?
I think my religious journey has four stages.
Child Mary: God is my best friend. I play priest in the backyard, saying Mass with Kool-aid and potato chips.
Teenaged Mary: God is my truth. I see Mother Teresa on the cover of TIME magazine and sense God calling me to a life of adventurous service as a nun.
Nun Mary: God speaks through my superiors (or so they say) and I try to obey. Sometimes God feels close, mostly life is full of sacrifice and struggle. I am a naughty nun, but I last for twenty years.
Now Mary: I think my own thoughts, am responsible for my own actions and no longer believe in God. Life is an adventure again.
How would you describe your faith, or lack thereof, now?
I believe in mystery. I believe that we shouldn’t pretend to know what we don’t and that we should ask a lot of questions. I believe that we’re all connected, that every human action affects each of us, that living well means making the world a better place. I believe honesty is more important than tradition, that fostering the common good brings more happiness than self-aggrandizement does. Life is full of meaning and frustration, joy and fear, love and uncertainty — and I enjoy wading into the midst of it all.
There’s been a bit of an upset over the recent conversion of atheist-turned-Catholic blogger Leah Libresco. While she claims her conversion was based on moral study, there’s been a lot of discussion about the reasons people join churches. What do you feel are appealing characteristics of the Church to those who convert?
People who convert to the Church often seek community, meaning, structure, purpose, ritual, and a way to connect with something larger than the individual self.
I don’t know Leah Libresco personally, so I won’t presume insight into her motivations, but through her blog she impresses me as someone open to dialogue on life’s important questions. Sincere seekers are often painfully aware of holes in their current philosophies — and every worldview that pretends to answer every important question does indeed have holes somewhere because it’s overreaching. So a worldview that seems to fill the irritating holes in a previously held philosophy can be very appealing, especially if it claims not to be subject to human limitations. When I was Libresco’s age, I placed my faith in the God she recently embraced. I’m curious to see where Libresco will stand as she comes to terms with the enormous holes in the Catholic worldview.
Many atheists find the ritual of church to be comforting — Richard Dawkins himself has spoken of attending church to enjoy the beauty — do you still find comfort in the parts and trappings of your old religion?
I lived as a devout Catholic for forty years, and spent fifteen of those in Rome; that sort of experience gets under your skin and seeps into your bones. Though I don’t go to Church anymore, sometimes I find myself humming hymns or referencing the Beatitudes. Sometimes I miss the power of Christian stories — particularly rituals connected with Holy Week, which address deep human longings and hopes. I believe that humans need ritual and art and encouragement. I’m in the process of becoming a Humanist celebrant so that I can help people celebrate weddings and births and funerals in a secular context. I’m encouraged that people like Alain de Botton and Greg Epstein and Miriam Muroff Jerris are taking on the challenge of creating meaningful Humanist rituals without supernatural references.
You had doubts that eventually drove you to leave the Missionaries of Charity. What contributed to these?
I didn’t leave the MCs because I doubted God or the Catholic Church — that came later. What I doubted was that God wanted me to remain an MC. As two powerful sisters pulled the community very far to the right, I found myself increasingly at odds with the community’s direction. I also developed a relationship with a sister, then with a priest. I realized that I wanted intimacy and that I couldn’t lead a double life anymore, so I made a deal with God. I promised to keep all the rules for a year; if at the end of the year I felt I could remain in the MCs and still be true to myself, I would stay and never think of leaving again. At the end of the year it became obvious to me that the MCs wanted my obedience, not my creative ministry, and that they would allow no independent thought. I left the community so I could be myself.
What countered those doubts; what made a case for staying with the Missionaries?
I stayed for twenty years because I believed God had called me. God could ask anything of me, no matter how unreasonable. He had asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, had asked Jesus to accept crucifixion. Faith is irrational. Any injustice can be justified by a theology that says, “Suffer now and God will reward you in the next life.”
In 2003, Mother Teresa was beatified, an event you attended. How do you feel about sainthood for her?
Becoming a saint was the only approved ambition for a Missionary of Charity. In every MC refectory throughout the world, there’s a photo of Mother Teresa, with this quotation from Mother underneath: “I will give Saints to Mother Church.” Once, Mother told us all to “hurry up and die” because Pope John Paul II was “canonizing everybody.”
I’ve never known anyone more dedicated or more self-sacrificing than Mother Teresa, nor anyone who wanted to be a saint more than she did. That said, Mother Teresa was not the wisest person I’ve known. The danger in canonizing her is to idealize the way of life she outlined for her sisters as well as her particular style of ministering to the poor; both are in need of drastic revision. So many of the practices of the Missionaries of Charity are inimical to human growth. Sometimes we harmed the poor by our incompetency.
Do you think the Catholic Church does more harm than good in the world?
The Catholic Church has a two-thousand year history of liberation and oppression, education and superstition, inspiration and exclusion. Today, in areas of the world where the rights of women and children and the poor are routinely denied, or where medical and educational facilities are woefully inadequate, the Catholic Church can provide a step up — when it’s not acting as a tool of repression. It’s clear to me that much of the Western world has outgrown the Church, though Church members often remain fiercely attached to a group they consider family. I believe the Catholic Church is becoming less influential, and I think that’s a good thing.
The Catholic Church has been getting press recently, as nuns receive support for protesting orders from the Vatican. Do you think the Catholic Church will change significantly in our lifetimes? If so, how?
The Church hierarchy is becoming increasingly less tolerant of dissent while Catholics in the pews are thinking more for themselves. The American sisters who have been reprimanded by the Vatican are brave women and I’ve been vocal in my support for them, with pieces on Bloomberg View, Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post blog, and other places. This summer the American bishops have gone on a rampage about “threats” to their religious freedom, but they won’t give the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) freedom to examine issues thoughtfully, demanding the sisters support the bishops’ agenda. At the same time, the Vatileaks scandal has revealed Machiavellian maneuvering among cardinals and bishops at extremely high levels.
Last Friday, the LCWR met to form a response to what amounts to the Vatican’s hostile takeover of this leadership group that represents 80% of American nuns. The sisters seem to think this moment holds a possibility for real dialogue with Rome. Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world have expressed support for the LCWR, so perhaps they have a chance, but I don’t have much hope for real change. I can think of few systems more dysfunctional than the Roman Catholic Church — Iran, Uganda, the followers of Warren Jeffs. It’s hard to reform a dysfunctional system, especially one that’s been around for two thousand years, reaches into nearly every country in the world, and claims divine infallibility.
What message would you like to send to anyone who is sitting in a Church pew right now but may not believe in Catholic doctrine?
Trust yourself. Find someone to talk to who will listen to your doubts with an open mind. Realize that those who pronounce on doctrine are human, just like you are. Find a community that will nourish you and in which you can be yourself without pretending, whether it’s at your gym or in a book group or an atheist or Humanist organization. Is remaining in the Church worth losing your soul?
Mary Johnson’s book, An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, is available in bookstores and online.