Constructive Criticism

Judi Dench and Martin Sixsmith in Philomena
“Constructive Criticism”
A Review of Philomena by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, L
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

“Every saint has a past, every sinner had a future.” – Oscar Wilde

The Catholic Church, while preserved from theological error by the Holy Spirit, is made up of billions of sinners, some very great sinners, and some even in the name of the Church herself. Philomena is a painful examination of a dark chapter in Catholic history when Irish nuns would care for outcast women (prostitutes, teenage mothers, street children) by putting them to work in so called “Magdalene laundries” but force the adoption of their children. This story is told through the true life account of former laundry girl and still faithful Catholic Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) trying to find her long lost son and the secular journalist telling her story, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who has nothing but contempt for the Catholic Church and human beings in general. Both will learn shocking truths along the way, and both will become better Christians too. Most importantly, by examining her mistakes, the Church will also become more faithful to her mission.
As an impressionable teenager, Philomena falls in love with a suave young man at a carnival resulting in a passionate one night affair. Pregnant and without any options, she agrees to work and live in the laundry to pay for her son Anthony’s care. One fateful day, an American couple adopts Anthony at only three years old as Philomena watches screaming behind a gated door. Philomena later has a wonderful family of her own but never forgets her son. This includes praying for his well being every day. The life of Martin could not have been more different. Education at Oxford and recently dismissed for a high profile government position, he has money, prestige, and nothing to do but be grumpy all day. It’s difficult to assess why he agrees to help Philomena in the first place: embarrassment for being drunk and rude to her daughter at a party, genuine interest in her hardships, or simply boredom. Martin claims to be an atheist yet spends an exuberant amount of energy cursing religion in the spirit of another young Oxford writer who said “I did not believe God existed, but I was also very angry at him for not existing.”
The contrast between Philomena and Martin is the perfect foil of Catholic Ireland and post-Anglican secular Britain. Philomena has experienced the worst of hardships including poverty, abandonment, and being traumatized by the people who were supposed to show her how to be a good Christian. Yet, she remains passionately and joyfully Catholic. She compliments the man who flips her omelets at the hotel, endures Martin’s insults, and even refuses to demonize the nuns who raised her. “Some of them were very nice,” she tells Martin. Martin challenges her: “If you asked God why all these terrible things happen in the world, what could He possibly say?” “He would say you were a [traditional Irish colloquial term of endearment] idiot.” I’d have to check my bible, but I think that was God’s response to Job as well.
Martin has every reason to be thankful to God even despite losing his job. He has a loving wife, great intelligence, and more money than he could ever use. Yet he scorns God and religious people for being ignorant and delusional. He is rightly angered with the nuns for how they have treated Philomena, yet he mimics their pharisaical “disdain for the unrighteous.” He also deliberately skews his article against Philomena’s wishes. She tells him not to use the phrase “evil nuns,” but he tells her it “sounds better.” It is an all too familiar reminder how the press has treated both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Although one was painted well and one not so well, both were painted in the color journalists chose.
At the heart of Philomena is an extremely important lesson of humility for all religious people, especially Catholics. The nuns who took Philomena in were providing an important charity, but they also ripped families apart and were unjustly harsh to the people under their care. It is a potent reminder to orthodox Catholics who have such nostalgia for the past that life before Vatican II was not all holy cards and rosaries. Even in regards to the liturgy, Cardinal Francis Arinze pointed out that there were many liturgical abuses before Vatican II, but they were in Latin so no one paid attention. It’s extremely important for Catholics to be honest about the very real sins committed by Catholic institutions. After all, the first Pope was one of two people who betrayed Jesus. The difference is that Peter did not despair and came back to Christ.

There are some people who will no doubt call this film anti-Catholic. It is not. It is a film that is critical of a practice committed by one group of Catholics, and it is a legitimate criticism. Catholic teaching is ageless but it lives in the age of men, and the Church ignores negative feedback at the risk of turning hearts away from the true gospel. If the faults are true, Catholics must seek forgiveness and penance even if it comes from the enemies of the Church but especially when it comes from its most faithful.