After seeing “Philomena” last night, in a brief Facebook post I called it “affecting.” I chose that word deliberately because of the mixed emotions evoked by the film, and others’ responses to this comment reflect similar divergence. I loved the movie, but it left me feeling angry and terribly, terribly sad.
That being said, Philomena herself is inspiring. She demonstrates great fortitude and spiritual depth to forgive the nuns for their treatment of her while under their care as an unwed pregnant teen and mother in 1950s Ireland. She was refused any pain relief during an excruciating breech birth as penance for her sin, and she’s given no notice of her son’s adoption, no opportunity to say goodbye. He was three years old by then in 1955; they had a warm and loving relationship even though she saw him only an hour a day. Alerted by a friend, she runs to the gate, screaming and sobbing as the car pulls away with his chubby-cheeked face visible in the back windshield. These two incidents actually occurred as portrayed in the film. Over the years, she never forgets him and when 50 years have passed, finally she begins to search for her son. The actual process unfolded differently than presented in the movie, but the nuns’ obstruction of her efforts is substantively true. Yes, the law prevented them from releasing records, but the particular circumstances years later called for a pastoral response, not a legalistic one.
Ultimately, our admiration for Philomena’s resilience cannot be permitted to eclipse the cruelty that was done to her by the Church’s representatives. Our affection for Philomena does not change that reality in her individual case or on the matter of unwed mothers in general. And we cannot write off her experience as being “of a different time,” because unmarried pregnant women are being treated badly by the Church right now, despite its vocally stated pro-life priorities. Last month, the Diocese of Helena, MT, fired a teacher who became pregnant and is not married, and the same thing happened here in the Cincinnati area two years ago, because their contracts included a clause requiring them to live by Catholic teachings. Again, a legal response to a pastoral situation. Cathleen Kaveny expresses the ramifications of this approach in a blog post at Commonweal on the Montana situation: “I think the message that firing this teacher conveys to the students is that they, too, are subject to being “fired” from the Catholic community if they misbehave in any way. After all, the little school is probably the main Catholic community they’ve known. For all the talk of love and understanding and forgiveness, in the end, it is a hard and abstract contractual provision–a sign of willing, not being–that counts the most. For all the talk of a rich and humble inner life, it is a wholesome appearance that matters most.”
Throughout the movie Philomena resists “making waves” as she and Martin, the journalist assisting her, endeavor to learn about her son, but when the nuns’ stonewalling becomes undeniable, along with forgiving them, she decides that she does want her story published. It is this small but significant gesture that plants a seed of hope. Stories are powerful, and we must tell them, no matter how hard they are to hear.