Just as Pope Francis promotes the image of a kinder, gentler Roman Catholic Church, along comes “Philomena” to remind the world of another chapter in church history that is anything but warm and fuzzy.
The movie — based on a true story — stars acclaimed British actress Judi Dench as an Irish woman named Philomena Lee who becomes pregnant at age 18 in the 1950s and is sent to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland, that takes in unwed mothers. She gives birth to a son, who at age 3 is adopted by wealthy American parents. Philomena has no chance to say goodbye. Watching her son peer out the back window of a departing car is her last glimpse of him.
Martin Sixsmith, a British journalist, chronicled the saga in "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty Year Search." It's one of thousands of cases involving unwed mothers in Ireland. Viewed by the church as sinners, these young women were forced to sign away parental rights. Church officials deny "baby-selling" allegations, but the children ended up with families who contributed generously to the church.
As with the sexual abuse scandal, the church is once again cast as cold and heartless, determined to hide the truth of what is going on. The nuns who oversee the heart-rending process of taking children from mothers seem especially cruel.
After a New York Post critic described "Philomena" as "another hateful attack on Catholics," the real Philomena Lee, who is now 80, responded with a letter which stresses her continuing Catholic faith. Her letter and excerpts from the Post critique were featured last week in a full-page ad in The New York Times that was placed by the movie's Hollywood distributor.
"Decide for yourself," the ad blares to potential moviegoers.
I'm no film critic, but it's hard to describe Dench's performance as anything but riveting, even if some comedic touches seem a little patronizing. As the real Philomena told The New York Times, "They really make me look like a silly billy, don't you think?"
As far as Catholic-bashing, it's not. It's truth-telling.
Tragically, Philomena is never reunited with her son. When he was dying of AIDS in 1995, he tried to find her in Ireland, but, as Lee told the Times, "The nuns told him that I had abandoned him when he was 2 weeks old. He believed that his whole life. I have to live with that."
He donated money, so the nuns agreed to bury him at Roscrea. Philomena learned what happened after he died. Yet, still she retains her faith. In the movie, there's a pivotal scene where she forgives the nun who blocked her son from finding her. It's Steve Coogan, the actor who plays journalist Sixsmith, who says he can't forgive what happened. And neither could I.
Understanding that the movie fictionalizes some parts of Philomena's story, there's still enough truth in it to enrage Catholics, lapsed and practicing. It's another illustration of moral rigidity from a church that too often in the recent past has been at odds with Christian principles of compassion and mercy. Of course, what happened at Roscrea doesn't describe all nuns, and it covered a period of time when great shame was attached to out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Still, whatever the cultural mores of the time, you would think there would be room for more forgiveness in a religion rooted in the concept of a savior conceived by command of God and born to a woman betrothed to someone else.
"Philomena" comes in the midst of a very successful effort by Pope Francis to soften the image of a church obsessed with below-the-belt morality issues. His every utterance seduces a receptive media, whether he is denouncing trickle-down economics, gently scolding "sourpusses," or emphasizing the need for universal access to health care and education. Indeed, when it comes to branding, Hollywood may have met its match in Pope Francis.
So far there are no policy changes, but he wants American bishops to poll Catholics on their attitudes regarding divorce, birth control, and gay marriage. After saying little about the clergy sexual abuse scandal, he just appointed a panel to advise him on it.
When it comes to church history as depicted in "Philomena," Pope Francis cannot change it. But he could call it for what it was.