In case you haven’t seen the wonderful Judith Dench/Steven Coogan film entitled “Philomena,” let me start off with a brief summary (hopefully without giving too much away). A young Irish woman conceives a child out-of-wedlock in 1960’s Ireland. In those days, the sin and shame of such a birth were tremendous, and girls who did so (who “took their nickers down,” in the scolding and remonstrative words of one of the nuns) were outcasts of society. The girl, Philomena, was packed off to a convent that specialized in these things, and there under the care of the nuns she had her baby. Forced to sign an agreement to give the child up for adoption, she was not even afforded an opportunity to say goodbye to her baby, when a wealthy couple from America comes to adopt the boy. The pain of the separation was almost unbearable for the young girl, but her troubles were not over. As were all of the girls, Philomena was forced to work afterwards for 4 more years, doing backbreaking menial labor in order to “pay the nuns back” for all they had supposedly done for her. Fast-forward 50 years, and the now almost 70 old Philomena still longs to find her son. The main events of the movie, in fact, revolve around that search, facilitated by a reporter, who eventually took Philomena to the United States to find him. I hesitate to say much more, for those of you who have not seen the movie (and I hope you will), except to report that, in the end, there was skullduggery enough on the part of the “good nuns” at the abbey to make the reporter justifiably very angry. Philomena herself, however, in this reenactment of a true story, is somehow able to reach within and find forgiveness for those who had hurt her, and her son, so profoundly.
There is no doubt that the Catholic Church – and to be fair, I suppose, most churches and much of organized religion – has a lot to answer for. From the Church’s sometimes ambivalent historical stance on slavery (at one point, bishops preached that there were “just” and “unjust” forms of slavery), to the giving of “cover” for the conquest of the Americas by the European powers (the pagan “savage” Indians after all had to be taught the “true religion”), to the crimes supported and even committed by the Church against the Jews over the ages, to the terrible things the last pope said about gay people and the Church’s continuing disparaging of gay relationships, to its forbidding of all forms of birth control (in spite of run-away world overpopulation), to the subjugation of women and their exclusion from the priesthood, to the hiding of sexual predation by priests on the part of local bishops, and on and on. It is not too strong a statement to say that some of these at least could be thought of as crimes against humanity.
Having spent a number of years in a Catholic monastery in my own early life (I went willingly, however), I saw some of this up close. The scolding, reprimanding, and reproachful orientation to life we witness on the part of the nuns in “Philomena” did not come from nowhere. With Vatican II and the papacy of the more human John XXIII, it looked at first as though the Church was finally making a shift and entering more fully into the modern era. Much of this ascendant promise, however, was soon rescinded during the reigns of various popes that followed, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.
But what of the Church nowadays? Is it still mired in the rhetoric and rigidity of post-reformation thinking? It could be argued that most members of the hierarchy are indeed bogged down in such a doctrinal quagmire. And whether the new pope, who at least has a more tolerant affect, will in the end bring about real change is yet to be seen. To be sure, there seems to be something of a split between Catholics who live in the United States and Europe, and those living in Africa and Asia, with the faithful in South America falling somewhere in between, depending on the question. Here is just a sampling of a recent poll taken among Catholics in these areas. On the question, “Do you think women should be allowed to become priests?” 64% of Europeans and 59% of Catholics in the US agreed they should be given that opportunity. However, the split was almost even in South America, 49% for and 47% against, while 76% in the Philippines and 80% of Africans said women should not have the right. As far as the use of contraceptives is concerned, 86% of Europeans, 79% of US Catholics, and 91% of those in South America say it should be allowed, whereas only 44% of Africans and 31% of Philippinos agree. Finally, in regard to gay marriage, 38% of Europeans and 37% of South American Catholics favor allowing it, while 54% of the US faithful are in favor; a mere 14% of those in the Philippines say they are for allowing gays to marry, and amazingly in Africa those in favor barely register at 1% of Catholics.
All this amounts to a church in transition, with many push-pull factors splitting congregations in various parts of the world. Perhaps, who knows, at some point it might even lead to a new division in the Catholic Church, just as the Anglican community risks these days? Interestingly, too, much of this mirrors the larger political rift we see in the United States now between progressive Democrats and ultra-conservative Tea Party Republicans. How many are there left anymore in the middle?
Toward the end of the movie, Philomena and the reporter, played by Steve Coogan, are back at the abbey in Ireland. Some of the same sisters who were in charge when Philomena was a young, pregnant teenager there are still alive. In a wrenching scene, the reporter reprimands and lambasts these nuns for what they had done. But Philomena, who has remained a faithful Catholic all these years in spite of everything, stops him. She feels as much compassion for him as she does for the nuns, it would seem, these same nuns who had traumatized her so, and says to the reporter, “it must be exhausting carrying around so much anger.”
In the end, I wondered, which one does any of us wish to be more like, Philomena or the reporter? Of course, to be sure who among us has not experienced denigration and disparagement aplenty in life? But does it do any good to hold on to old wounds and deep grudges from the past? No doubt, it’s easy enough to say that it doesn’t, but it is a far more difficult thing to let go of pain, especially pain we feel has been unjustly inflicted. We hold it like a wounded child, injured and trembling in our arms. We hope that, by holding it so, we may somehow soothe its fears, its grief, its despair. Then, feeling the injustice of the child’s undeserved pain, it is all too easy for heartbreak to turn to rage, and to lash out at a cold and unfeeling world for what it has done.
What makes Philomena able to forgive so profound an injury, but the reporter, who feels for Philomena, seemingly unable to do so? This may be the key question the movie poses: how and whom to forgive, and under what circumstances. The film does not answer this larger question, but it does give us examples of how two individuals react to injustice, one with justified anger, and the other with compassion and forgiveness. That said, the film is also not suggesting that it is all right for people to inflict pain on others, or that there should be no consequences to such actions. The one nun who had played such a pivotal and damaging role in Philomena’s early life, now 50 years later, comes across as a bitter, morose, dispirited, and deeply unhappy old woman. In this sense, then, consequences may well have come of their own accord, without anyone else having to hasten or enhance them.
So, what lessons may we draw from all this? Speaking for myself alone, I know I often vacillate between forbearance and wrath, between mercy and outrage, between compassion and blame. In theoretical physics, or so I have learned from reading about the topic, mathematical calculations can sometimes be so enormously complicated and vexing that reasonable approximations may be the best we can ever expect. As Brian Greene, author of “The Hidden Reality” puts it, “the art of physics lies in deciding what to ignore.” Maybe the same could be said about life in general. Sometimes we have to learn what to ignore, what not to concentrate on, and what ultimately to let go of.
As much as I may fail at it time and time again, I think my preference always would be to try to act more like Philomena than her angry companion. To be sure, it’s nice to be right, to fell as though we are correct in our judgments, and even our condemnations, but in the end it may just be nicer to live a life of compassion and forgiveness. After all, as Philomena says, why exhaust ourselves? And who knows? Maybe someday we’ll be the ones in need of reprieve, and it is we who will be glad for those who give us a pass and ignore our weaknesses, our imperfections, and what are surely our own unfortunate shortcomings.