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John DoughertyMay 03, 2024
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in a scene from the movie "Philomena" (CNS photo/Weinstein)

Whenever Catholics are faced with the very human failures of the institutional church, we must answer a difficult question: Why do we stay? The church is our home, the community in which we encounter Christ. At the same time, we can’t ignore the many skeletons in the ecclesial closet: clerical sex abuse, financial scandals, the dark history of residential schools, the church’s complicity with colonialism, the slave trade, and fascist regimes in Europe and Latin America. Choosing to stay in the church means existing in the tension between its grace and its fallibility, and making peace with it.

“Philomena” (2013) is a film that wrestles with one of the church’s historical failures: the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland. (The film, which is directed by Stephen Frears and written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, is based on Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.) Operated largely by Catholic convents from the end of the 18th century well into the 20th, these asylums for unwed mothers were sites of abuse and exploitation, much of which has only come to light in recent years. Philomena (Judi Dench) is a survivor of the asylum in the town of Roscrea; now an elderly woman living in London, she is still haunted by the experience, especially of being forced to give up her son, Anthony, for adoption. Despite repeated requests over the years, the sisters at Roscrea claim that they have no information about what happened to her son.

Hope arrives in the unlikely form of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, playing the author of the book that inspired the film), a former journalist who has just lost his job in the Tony Blair administration and is looking for work. In Philomena he sees a juicy human interest story. A lapsed Catholic (“I don’t believe in God and I think he knows,” he tells his wife after an uncomfortable visit to church), Martin is happy to take on the church. He and Philomena journey to Ireland and across the Atlantic to the Unites States in search of answers.

Philomena and Martin embody two different ways of responding to church scandals. Martin left the faith years ago and harbors a deep well of anger over the church, which he sees as absurd and hypocritical. Coogan plays him as particularly abrasive (a specialty of Coogan’s as a performer), but I can’t say I didn’t sympathize. I have seen that same anger expressed by friends who walked away from the church because of the McCarrick scandal, or its treatment of women and L.G.B.T.Q. people, among other reasons. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also understandable. When an institution that holds others to the highest possible moral standard fails to hold itself accountable, the result is broken promises and broken faith.

On the other hand, Philomena remains a devout Catholic despite the suffering she endured at the hands of Catholic sisters. She endured years of abuse and forced labor, her child was literally stolen from her, and yet she still attends Mass, says her prayers and goes to confession. While she never articulates why she stays, she seems determined not to let the sisters’ cruel actions sever her relationship with God. You get the sense that she is committed to practicing what the church preaches, since she can’t rely on its ministers to do so.

Martin is often dismissive of Philomena’s faith, considering it naive. But that doesn’t give her nearly enough credit. Philomena’s faith is the result of daily struggle. In one painful scene, she tries to attend confession but can’t find the words—her hurt and anger at the church still wrapped up in the shame and self-hatred instilled by her time at Roscrea. But later, after confronting her unrepentant former caretaker Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), Philomena forgives her. Martin is appalled: “Just like that?” “It’s not ‘just like that,’” Philomena says. “That’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people.” (This confrontation is one of the film’s several creative liberties; the real Sister Hildegarde died several years before Lee and Sixsmith met, and members of her order have criticized the depiction of her in the film.)

I appreciated that “Philomena” gives these two reactions equal weight. Certainly Philomena is portrayed as happier and, in a sense, saintlier than Martin, but the film never shortchanges his righteous anger. We don’t want people to leave the church; but in the face of scandal and the deep spiritual wounds inflicted by religious leaders, we can understand why they would. At the same time, Philomena speaks to those of us who choose to stay. Her faith doesn’t dismiss or excuse the church’s sins, but she has made peace with living in the tension.

“Philomena” is streaming on Max.

More: Ireland / Film

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