Monday, April 21, 2014


My wife and I recently watched the movie “Philomena,” and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. The story is about an Irish woman by the name of Philomena, who is now elderly (played by Judi Dench) in the movie. Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) helps Philomena Lee search for her long-lost son, who was taken from her by nuns in an Irish convent and sold into adoption when she was an unwed teenager. The movie is based on a true story, and it raises some moral and ethical questions that I’d like to address.

On the positive side, the nuns provided a place for these disgraced mothers and their children to live at a time when such pregnancies often resulted in rejection by the girl’s family and the community as a whole.

Unfortunately there are a number of serious negative acts these nuns did. The first negative act had to do with their treatment of these unwed mothers. The nuns took in these girls and their children, but then they treated the girls like slaves. It was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, but occurring in the mid-20th century. The rationale, according to “Sister Hildegard” in the movie, was that these girls had sinned and therefore deserved harsh treatment as penance for their transgressions.

We should understand that there are a number of problems with that mentality. First of all, the Bible tells us that Jesus died to pay the penalty of our sins. If you believe you have the responsibility to punish people for their sins, then you have a very distorted view of Christianity and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Of course I’m not talking about civil authorities, whose job it is to keep order and dispense justice.

Such a mentality is dangerous because it then could be used to justify punishing the Jews for Jesus’ death, for example. It also encourages revenge rather than forgiveness, ignoring the teachings of Jesus about forgiveness, loving one another, and the principles expressed in The Beatitudes. You also have to ask these nuns, “Just how long must these girls be punished before their sins are fully atoned for?”

Secondly, Jesus did not establish his Church to be a vehicle for punishing sinners. Rather, one of the roles of the Church is to dispense God’s grace (unmerited favor) through good works. Those nuns did not exhibit grace, only condemnation and cruelty.

Thirdly, the Bible tells us that all have sinned and fall short of God’s standard. So why were these nuns so hard on those who committed one particular sin? These nuns were abusing the weak and vulnerable, judging them rather than ministering to them.

The second negative act these nuns did was to sell these girls’ children. On one hand, it was good that these children usually, I presume, ended up in good adoptive homes. These were often in the U.S., where these children had opportunities available to them that they wouldn’t have had in Ireland in mid-century. On the other hand, to yank away these children from their mothers, usually without warning, and sending them off into the unknown, was cruel and heartless. These young mothers were not given a choice as to whether to keep their children or not. It was assumed they were unfit, and taking away their children was probably considered to be another justifiable form of punishment.

The third negative act on the part of these nuns was to destroy all adoption records to prevent birth mothers from ever reuniting with their children. The nuns even lied to those inquiring about their children. So we can add deceit to the list that includes cruelty and lack of grace.

Steve Coogan, who played Martin, also co-produced the movie, and co-wrote the screenplay. He admits he is not fond of the Roman Catholic Church. Having been raised Catholic, he fell away from Catholicism and now views it (and probably most religions) with some distain. Hence some of the negative comments by “Martin” in the movie. Nevertheless, the basic facts in the movie are true. These nuns did mistreat the unwed mothers and did sell their children. Regardless of your view of the Roman Catholic Church, or Christianity in general, we have to acknowledge the sins of these nuns, and realize that such actions are inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, whom they claimed to serve.

Despite blatant wrongdoings that have been well-publicized, the Church and its agencies have done many good works in the past 2,000 years: sending missionaries out to help people all over the world; building hospitals and orphanages; providing food and goods to the needy (Salvation Army, Catholic Charities); and it was the “safety net” before government got into the welfare business. On balance, the Church has done more good than harm, something we should remember when we are tempted to view the Church as irrelevant or worse.