Was Mother Teresa a heretic?

Many orthodox Catholic theologians discuss the necessity of being united to the Catholic Church. Mother Teresa’s motto was to help a “Muslim become a better Muslim, a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Jew become a better Jew,” etc. How do her teachings and models written above coincide with the teaching of theologians? Is it that Mother Teresa’s apostolate did not concern proselytization but rather showing the love of Jesus Christ to the poorest of the poor, whereas theologians have the other calling?

Without a citation of her exact quote, I cannot comment on what Mother Teresa may or may not have said, much less to concur that it was her “motto.” Be that as it may, let’s consider whether the idea itself of a Catholic helping a Jew to be a better Jew, a Muslim a better Muslim, or a Hindu a better Hindu is in line with Catholic thought.

Here are some passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to consider:

The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life” (CCC 843).

How are we to understand this affirmation “Outside the Church there is no salvation”], often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the head through the Church which is his body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the [Second Vatican] Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it (CCC 846).

This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation (CCC 847).

If we consider the last two passages first (CCC 846-847), it is obvious that the Church stresses the necessity that those who are given the grace and knowledge to understand that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ and that they must therefore be Catholics have the responsibility to become or to remain Catholics. Those who, through no fault of their own, do not understand this must follow what they do know and understand to the best of their ability and God – who judges us based on fidelity and sanctity and not on knowledge or education – will judge them based on their fidelity to what they did know.

Now look at CCC 843: The Church acknowledges that non-Catholic and non-Christian religions have varying degrees of truth, based on where their doctrines agree with Catholicism. These religions can indeed be considered, in some ways, to be authentic attempts of men to understand truth and to follow God. Insofar as the non-Catholic and non-Christian religions do so, they can be considered preparations, some more remote than others, for the fullness of truth found in Catholicism.

Urging someone to follow to the best of his ability what he understands God to require of him is fully in line with these passages from the Catechism, which are in turn based on the documents of the Second Vatican Council. When one speaks colloquially, as Mother Teresa might have done to followers or to the press, this might translate to urging “a Jew to be a better Jew, a Muslim a better Muslim, or a Hindu a better Hindu.” Were one speaking formally, as theologians do in peer-review journals – something Mother Teresa did not attempt to do – one would speak more precisely and in a systematic manner.

Recommended reading:

Can Outsiders Be Insiders? by Fr. Peter Stravinskas
It Didn’t Go Out with Vatican II by Mark P. Shea

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