Imagine being a single and pregnant woman in Ireland in the 1950s. Your family would likely disown you and leave you to raise your child alone. The only place that would open its doors to you were Catholic convents where nuns would help women through their pregnancies for free in exchange for the women giving them four years of manual labor and signing away their rights to their children forever.
It certainly would be a tough experience to give away your own baby for life, contractually bound never to track him or her down or interfere with the child's new life and family. But in a horribly tough situation, the nuns were at least there for those women when no one else was.
The current movie “Philomena” deals with these issues in a powerfully made fashion, and it is connecting with audiences ($25 million and counting – a solid haul for a small “artsy” film) and with critics and Oscar voters (including Best Actress and Best Picture nominations).
“Philomena” stars the legendary actress Judi Dench (nominated for a best Actress Oscar) and British comic Steve Coogan in the story of a woman named Philomena Lee, who enlisted the help of a disgraced British journalist named Martin Sixsmith in her quest to find out what became of the son she lost in the adoption system run by Irish Catholic nuns in the 1960s.
The film has been accused by some of being extremely anti-Catholic. Released by Oscar-winning powerhouse, The Weinstein Company, “Philomena” has become a viable and likely long-remembered part of the pop culture pantheon and merits analysis of its message and who’s behind it.
At a recent appearance at the prestigious American Cinematheque in Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, the film’s acclaimed director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “High Fidelity”) was glibly defensive of “Philomena.” But with Lee herself there to make a surprise appearance endorsing the film’s take on her life, and an audience member stating they were on their third viewing of the film because they had been raised in the same convent program at the same time as Lee’s son, it became hard to deny the basic story underlying the film.
The movie shows Lee as a teenage girl who became pregnant after being naively seduced into losing her virginity, and then entered a convent-run program in order to deliver her child. In addition to being given medical assistance and a home in a society that would have shunned them otherwise, Philomena and her fellow unwed mothers had to perform difficult manual labor for four years and sign documents which stated they would never seek to meet their children after their adoption.
Philomena herself is shown as having been devastated when her son Anthony was adopted without any warning or chance for her to say goodbye, and she is still haunted 50 years later, despite the fact she has been married and widowed and raised another child.
Nonetheless, she has maintained a rigid and unshakable faith in Catholicism, and defends her beliefs against the wryly condescending comments from the atheist Sixsmith (who to be fair, comes to respect Philomena’s faith by the film’s end).
The movie’s revelation of what happened to her son is shown in a desolate light, despite the fact he went on to have a wildly successful legal career that likely would have never occurred if he had been trapped in poverty with Philomena. The nun who controlled the adoption process is portrayed as a stern-faced, bitter scold, while the younger nuns who currently run the convent lie and mislead her throughout the movie, and the film also unleashes an attack on the celibacy of nuns and drove the audience to fits of cheering when Coogan as Sixsmith delivers stinging sarcasm to the nuns, saying he could never forgive them the way Philomena has.
The movie is balanced by Philomena’s unshakable faith and willingness to forgive the nuns, but New York Post film critic Kyle Smith (a conservative who nonetheless professes to be atheist) accused “Philomena” of having a relentlessly biased anti-Catholic agenda. He also noted that the movie willfully ignores the fact that unwed mothers in Ireland 50 years ago had no other place offered to them by their society, with the nuns saving a generation of “unwanted” children from being aborted.
“The film doesn't mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed. No, this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up,” Smith wrote in the New York Post.
When asked about the controversy and whether he tried to either attack the church or sought a balanced approach to the film’s portrayal of the nuns and their adoption system, Frears offered only a glib dismissal of the critiques.
“Are you saying the story isn’t true, that this never happened?” said Frears. “It is true, and the truth hurts sometimes. As far as I know, the criticism has only come from that one bloke. But anytime there’s a chance for controversy, Harvey Weinstein does like to blow it up.”
Frears was referring to one of the film’s executive producers, Harvey Weinstein, who has had a string of other films throughout his career – including “Priest” and “The Magdalene Sisters” – which have negatively portrayed the Catholic Church. Couple that with the fact that Coogan, who co-wrote the film as well, publicly admits he’s an atheist, and it’s easy to wonder.
When trying to decipher if the film has a blatant bias or merely offers shameful truths about systemic abuses, prominent conservative Catholic arts blogger Barbara Nicolosi says that it’s important to consider the sources behind the creation. While she hasn’t seen the film, Nicolosi said that the numerous people she has discussed it with make it sound more complex than Smith’s take on it.
“The Irish nuns’ adoption system is like any number of things in church history where the intention started very good but it got corrupted for many people for many reasons,” says Nicolosi, who is director of The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University.
“You had a society that only turned its back on unplanned pregnancies, especially back then. They show the church system was harsh, but the world was even harsher. There was literally no place for women with unplanned pregnancies to go back then. And if your family was humiliated by the fact, you were out in the street.
“The Church is of the age it’s in, and the sins of the age can infiltrate. But if the movie was set in a secular orphanage, you would have the same problems.”
The question is, what would have happened to the child if not for the system?
“The idea,” says Nicolosi, “is not to make excuses or say the church shouldn’t behave better or different. Is there anyone in the adoption world shown as gracious, loving? What you don’t want is there to be no mercy shown. The reaction of the audience is telling. If they’re primed to cheer his act of hate, it shows something about what they’re really going for. In a movie of this nature, you just need to suggest the problem is not being Catholic but being a sinner.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.