My sister and I have a running argument. Whenever we get together, the conversation inevitably turns to the Roman Catholic Church and whether it’s done more harm than good in the world. The journalist in me takes over to enumerate the atrocities: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the sexual abuse scandals and the anti-contraception doctrine that has destroyed countless lives.
If that’s not enough, anyone who grew up Catholic can testify to the church’s use of shaming and shunning to keep the flock in line. Think of all the brilliant minds left fallow because of priests who frowned on inquisitiveness and challenges to doctrine. Or the rampant hypocrisy and lavish lifestyles of church authorities that belied any claim to holiness.
My sister, who’s 18 years older than me, is no church apologist. As someone who mostly grew up before Vatican II’s modernization of the mass, she has more bones to pick with a church that put a bigger cramp on her intellectual freedom than mine.
Yet, she also has what I don’t: faith. It’ s why I know I’ll never win this argument. But can she?
Now, along comes a movie made for our sibling symposiums. Director Stephen Frears’s Philomena tells the true story of Philomena Lee, a Irish woman who spent more than 50 years searching for the child she was forced to give up for adoption, by the nuns who took her in as an unwed teenaged mother in 1952. The film is a crowd-pleaser that takes plenty of artistic liberties. But there is no mistaking the villain of the piece.
“This is a diabolical-Catholics film straight up,” New York Post film critic Kyle Smith charged. “If 90 minutes of organized hate brings you joy, go and buy your ticket now.”
Of course, Mr. Smith’s review was like manna from heaven for Philomena producer Harvey Weinstein. Nothing stirs interest like controversy and Mr. Weinstein took out a full-page ad in The New York Times inviting potential moviegoers to decide for themselves. The ad included the real-life Ms. Lee’s rebuttal to Mr. Smith, in which she denies the film is an attack on the church.
“Despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl,” wrote Ms. Lee, now 80, “I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.”
My sister would see no contradiction in that. She can separate the wrongs committed by the church and individuals acting in its name from the institution’s greater mission of spreading the gospel and Christ’s message of forgiveness. And if Philomena is about anything, it’s about forgiveness and whether one needs an apology before granting absolution.
How Ms. Lee came to forgive her tormentors is in many ways beyond comprehension. She told the Daily Mail that, after her son was taken, “I cried and caused a right carry on. The nuns told me shut up and stop being stupid and that I was lucky I had my baby adopted.”
Ms. Lee was forced to toil in the convent’s laundry for four years. When she made subsequent inquiries to find her son, who had been adopted by an American couple, she was systematically lied to by the nuns. When her dying son, in turn, tried to find Ms. Lee, the nuns told him that his mother had abandoned him without a trace. Heartless and cruel? How about sadistic? Some of these nuns were truly twisted.
It’s true that, in the Ireland of the 1950s, an unwed mother like Ms. Lee might have been shunned by society. But is that any excuse for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart – the congregation that ran the so-called Mother and Baby Home where Ms. Lee was sent – to continue to deny women like Ms. Lee the simple apology they deserve?
This is the church that remains a deal-breaker for millions of disaffected Catholics. It’s the one that covers up abuse scandals despite the steady parade of priests on perp walks. The one that remains incapable of confessing its own sins, all while condemning ours.
It remains to be seen whether a populist Pope – and a focus not on dogma but on love, inclusiveness and alleviating poverty – can make the modern church a true force of good. My Christmas wish is that, one day, my sister wins the argument.