I see the film “Philomena” and I am deeply moved. So much so that I go home and spend several hours researching the true story of Philomena Lee. I’m able to sort history from the inevitable artistic license modern filmmakers cannot not indulge.
In 1952, the real Philomena Lee is sent by her parents to Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland both to conceal and to manage her teen pregnancy. Philomena says her father told friends and neighbors that she had died. Died! My own mother tells me not to be shocked. She remembers, in the early ’80s, a colleague whose father said he’d rather his daughter contract cancer than conceive and deliver a child out of wedlock.
As a high school freshman in 1971, I remember once or twice female students “disappearing,” then reappearing six to 12 months later with vague stories about travel, illness or their father’s career. But it was years later before I put the puzzle together.
Philomena’s son, Anthony, is adopted by an American couple and raised as Michael Hess. Three times did Michael, as an adult, go to Ireland to inquire about his birth mother. And many times did Philomena inquire to the nuns about her son. Both were told the same deliberate lie: “We have no information about your mother … your son.”
Mean? Evil? Malicious? I might surprise you here. My answer is “no.” I would describe the behavior of the powers-that-were at Sean Ross Abbey as predictable, completely in concert with the cultural mores of the day, albeit ignorant, unconsciously terrified, psychologically immature and utterly wrong. Which is, of course, the ideal breeding ground for mean, evil and malicious, but I’m not willing to paint every Christian leader, every monastic, every cleric (Roman Catholic or otherwise) with my presumption of their motive. I’ve been ignorant, unconsciously terrified, psychologically immature and utterly wrong before, too.
Ann Medlock writes for the Huffington Post. Her story virtually mirrors Philomena’s story. She writes:
Illegitimacy is a bizarre concept to me, a stunning manifestation of human hubris. An infant, wonder of wonders, arrives in the world and some construct of our prideful, rule-making culture declares this particular child less-than, extra-legal, flawed because his parents were not united by the civic and religious constructs we’ve invented.
Somewhere in even the most rule-bound heart, it must be clear that this is demented. Life given should be life welcomed. But that thinking was not the prevailing wisdom in 1954.
My mother knew instinctively that the man-made rules made no sense, telling me after her first grandchild was on his way to placement in another household, “We should have kept the little guy, and the hell with the neighbors.”
Then, speaking specifically to Roman Catholic history, Medlock says:
The obsession with sexual restrictions is and always has been wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong to be contemptuous of naive young women like Philomena and me. Wrong to ignore the men involved in creating “illegitimate” children. Wrong to demonize gays while knowing full well how many men and women of the church are gay. Wrong to excuse and hide criminal priests, transferring them to new, unsuspecting parishes. Wrong to think that forbidding consensual human sexuality is more important than Christ’s message of compassion and forgiveness.
Not surprisingly, I find a news story quoting the monastics at Sean Ross Abbey as complaining how unfair the movie is. How it “made us look like monsters.”
Really? Still? After all this suffering you still think the most important part of this discussion is your reputation?
Sisters, imagine how powerful it would be if you simply released the following to the press:
“The church is at once a beacon of light to the world, and a product of that world. As regards the latter, the courageous story of Philomena Lee brings to light a great darkness in which the church often participated, nurtured and furthered. As regards human sexuality and gender, the church has too often been ignorant, afraid and egregiously unjust. We are complicit in untold, undeserved human misery. It is our fervent hope that the story of Philomena Lee will open doors of forgiveness, healing, and a clearer embrace of Christ’s message of mercy and love to the world.”
How hard is that?