Sunday, September 09, 2007


Penney Adams of Columbus, Ohio, couldn't help being troubled by a recent issue of Time that featured Mother Teresa on its cover. In an article about the publication of her letters, in which she confessed her spiritual doubts, Adams read that "she had requested that (the letters) be destroyed, but was overruled by her church." (Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith)

How ethical was it, Adams wondered, for the church not to destroy the letters? How ethical was it to let the letters be published? Knowing that Mother Teresa did not want her letters read by anyone else, would you read her published letters? Finally, knowing that some of her letters would be excerpted in the Time article, would it even be right to read the article about them?

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Good question. I'm sure this is one that biographers have struggled with more deeply than I have and can talk about more articulately, but my gut reaction is that there is something off about publishing and reading letters or diaries that are meant for the eyes of only the writer and recipient.

That said, I would probably read them anyway.

That said, I would feel a little guilty about it.

My struggle comes from the idea that history is about historians finding and understanding and sharing something like the raw truth, with all its aches and pains and embarrassments.

Louis Menard had an interesting essay about this in a recent issue of The New Yorker -- about how many biographers seem to feel that what we keep secret reveals more than what we're open about. I don't think that's necessarily true, but what we keep secret can often provide a richer context for what we feel and how we live our lives.

The whole thing makes me wish we all were more public with our secrets! Wouldn't it have been something to hear Mother Teresa herself talk about the concept of doubt and what that meant for her and her work! What a richer conversation it would have been if she had been willing to be part of it.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this one is difficult. As a nun, she was always subject to the rule of her Church, and owed (as she would readily have admitted) obedience to its hierarchy. Thus, while it would be proper for the Church to consider her personal preferences, they would have no obligation to agree with her if they believed that what she wrote would be of value to others. The best analogy would be an author who had sold the rights to her papers before death - thus removing her power to object to their publication - but then later decided she wanted to back out of the contract and have them burned.

I'm quite confident, by the way, that if reading her papers could help just one person come to Christ, Mother Theresa would DEMAND that they be published.

Frank Snyder

Franklin G. Snyder
Professor of Law
Texas Wesleyan Law School
Ft. Worth, Texas

Anonymous said...

I am a person who has serious doubts. How would (of all people) Mother Theresa's doubts be at all helpful in bringing me to Christ? If even SHE had doubts, where does that leave us serious doubters?

In any event, I vote for her right to privacy. If in fact she accomplished a "greater good," oddly, by somehow bringing more people around through her doubts than would have happened if they had not been published, I suppose she would be pleased.

Another analogy would be that if relatives decided that those who wished to be buried should be cremated (or vice versa) the "living" should rule. It happens all the time. The deceased may not have taken the vows the Church demanded, but they were every bit as human as Mother Theresa and would have every right to complain (as if they could) "after the fact."