Friday, 20 December 2013

Philomena and Catholicism(s)

Barack Obama was widely celebrated all over the world in 2008, including by the Nobel peace prize committee, and to a large extent this was because he was not George Bush. Rather he was seen as the antithesis of Bush. Something similar seems to be the case with the new Pope, Francis, who is today almost as globally celebrated as Obama once was. Part of that is of course because of who he is, but part of it is also who he is not, i.e. the previous Pope, Benedict XVI. As it happens the new film by Stephen Frears, Philomena, does in some ways capture the difference between the two popes, and two different ways in which you can practise your Catholicism. I am not a religious person, and I belong to no church, but these are still questions that interest me.

Philomena is about an English ex-journalist, Martin, who gets word of a story about an Irish woman who had a child when she was young and unmarried and who after giving birth at a convent was forced to work for the nuns and her child was given away (or rather sold) for adoption. Now 50 years later she wants to find out what became of her child, the son she has not seen in decades. She is a religious person, a Catholic, secure in her belief in God, and she has nothing against the Catholic Church, she just wants to find out what happened. The journalist was once a Catholic but now he has lost his faith and become an atheist. He is also filled with anger towards the Church (and a lot of other things as well). In the film they are played by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (who also wrote the script) and it is based on a true story. Martin Sixsmith, the journalist, told the story a few years ago in the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee on which the film is based.

The film has been condemned in some quarters for being anti-Catholic. It is clearly not. Another criticism it has received concerns Sister Hildegard, who in the film becomes the embodiment of cruel, pitiless catechism. In reality she died many years ago and cannot be held responsible for what happens towards the end of the story. But by making Hildegard out to be the villain the filmmakers does shift the burden of blame. Instead of arguing that it was the Church as a whole that was in the wrong the film could be said to argue that it was a question of a few rotten apples. It also makes for a very emotional scene towards the end of the film, which is fictional, but which is where the potential symbolism of the two popes appears.

Philomena Lee and Sister Hildegard are both devout Catholics, but one is kind and forgiving whereas the other is stern, stubborn and judgemental. They are each other's opposites, and that is what makes the film such an interesting theological statement. What is the true Christian spirit, to judge or to forgive? Which of the two does a better job of upholding the teachings of Jesus Christ? The film has its answer. This is not to say that Hildegard is less of a Christian, it is just that she emphasises different aspects of Christianity, and is perhaps more Old Testament than New Testament.

The new Pope has since he was elected in March 2013 been doing a remarkable job in improving the reputation of the Holy See and the Catholic Church. He has done this through words and actions. He has shown himself to be a man of the people, of being a man with simple tastes, a person who will embrace anyone. He has also instigated a number of reforms in the Vatican. But it is also in his choice of words and emphasis. The most famous instance was perhaps when, asked about homosexuals, he answered "Who am I to judge?" That could also be Philomena Lee's position. Francis is clearly a Pope for her, a Pope she deserves. And he is also the opposite of the previous Pope, Benedict. Benedict was in favour of lavishness and he was concerned with righteousness and dogma. It is much easier to imagine him saying "I am the Pope, therefore I can judge you." rather than say "Who am I to judge?" In this way Benedict is more like Sister Hildegard (even though she is materially as humble as Pope Francis), and it is timely that Philomena comes out the same year that Francis has replaced Benedict, openness has replaced judgement, dialogue has replaced submission.

In 1962 Pope John XXIII initiated the Second Vatican Council in order to reform the Catholic Church and bring it more in line with the modern world. In this it had some success, but there have been backlashes and it was not popular among more conservative Catholics. Maybe Francis will manage to make the Catholic Church a more inclusive and loving church. It is not only a concern for Catholics for what the Pope says and does is (regrettably) important far beyond the Catholic world.

Many headlines have been made concerning Pope Francis's views on capitalism, poverty and inequality but this is actually one aspect of his papacy that is not different from his predecessors (but rather a sign of the short memory of journalists and commentators). Pope Benedict had this to say about a year ago: "The world is sadly marked by hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism." And his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, argued that "[v]ast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. /…/ Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces."


  1. An interesting post, Philomena is definitely on my MustSee-list (and a long list, that is...). Hope you're having a relaxing holiday!

  2. Thanks! Christmas has been most satisfying. I hope yours also.