That mainstream press anti-Catholic ‘Philomena’ pileup

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In the “now I’ve seen everything” category, let’s welcome self-described atheist film critic Kyle Smith of the New York Post, now excoriated for defending the Roman Catholic Church, specifically its Irish branch, against “Philomena,” an apparently smarmy new film that applies 21st century scruples to 1952 Ireland.

More than a sentence or two of background is necessary before the media criticism. And, yes, I know that GetReligion rarely if ever digs into the contents of reviews. Trust me, this one is worth it.

The “biopic,” as Hollywood’s press likes to call these things, stars Dame Judi Dench, portraying Philomena Lee, a now-senior citizen from Ireland who, some 60 odd years ago, was pregnant “out of wedlock” as the old saying goes. In Ireland, in the 1950s, being “in a family way” without being married was an express pass to ostracism for both mother and child. Think Hester Prynne on steroids.

Lee finds shelter at the Sean Ross Abbey, run by the Sacred Heart Sisters. As the story goes, Lee signs away the rights to her child, who is plucked from her at age three and packed off to America, long after firm mother-and-child bonds are formed.

Decades later, Lee enlists the help of a real journalist, Martin Sixsmith, apparently down on his professional luck. Together, they trace what happened to the baby she gave up, only to find the son, now named Michael Hess, passed away a few years earlier, a closeted gay man who rose high in Republican U.S. administrations, becoming chief legal counsel to President George H.W. Bush, before tragically dying of AIDS. Ironically, Hess donated money to the Sean Ross Abbey so he could be buried there, in case his estranged birth mother ever sought him.

Smith’s original review doesn’t divulge his own faith background (raised Catholic, he ditched the Church for atheism), but the critic comes out swinging:

The film doesn’t mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed. No, this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up.

Such criticism apparently didn’t sit well with Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, whose firm is the U.S. distributor for the film. Here’s Smith’s take:

I’ve never been flogged in the public square, but now I have a rough idea what it’s like.

On Thursday, Harvey Weinstein, the US distributor of the Judi Dench-Steve Coogan film “Philomena,” placed a full-page, color attack ad in The New York Times that screamed my name in blood-red letters.

“The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today ALL PRAISE ‘PHILOMENA’ WITH A 92 % CERTIFIED FRESH SCORE ON Rotten Tomatoes,” read the ad. “BUT THE NEW YORK POST’S KYLE SMITH HAS A DIFFERENT OPINION. ‘ANOTHER HATEFUL ATTACK ON CATHOLICS.’ ”

What I know about Hollywood film promotion, to borrow from the late Fred Allen’s quote on honesty in tinsletown, “you could fit in the navel of a flea and still have room left over.” But it does seem anti-instinctual to take out an ad promoting a harshly critical review of your film. In any event, Weinstein’s blast allowed Smith to reveal a bit more of his thinking — and himself — in a column responding to the Weinstein advertisement and an “open letter” from Lee in which she “forgives” Smith for “misunderstanding” the film about her:

My inbox is full of e-mail from fans of the film saying “a) how dare you ding it for being anti-Catholic when b) the Catholic Church is so transparently evil?”

We all know how cruel it was for the mid-century Catholic Church to provide shelter for scorned women written off as dead by their families, help them give birth to their children and place the adoptees in loving homes. Today we’d be much more compassionate: We’d simply abort all those kids. Problem solved!

Today’s Philomenas don’t have to wonder what happened to their babies. They’re out back, in the Dumpster. But better that than growing up to be a Republican.

And:

Like ['Philomena" male lead actor Steve] Coogan, I was raised Catholic and became an atheist, but I have too much respect for people of faith to be obnoxious about it.

Coogan does hint in “Philomena” that atheists should be careful about ridiculing believers, but that “Philomena” shows that people of faith can be perfectly nice and decent people doesn’t override the fact, Philomena, that the movie makes you out to be a fool who should be angry at the way she has been brutalized by a particularly vicious arm of the Catholic Church.

The Smith story hasn’t stopped with the Post critic, however. Lee’s “open letter” was mentioned by other media, including columnist Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe, who uses the controversy to take a swipe at the Catholic Church and tell Pope Francis how to run it:

Understanding that the movie fictionalizes some parts of Philomena’s story, there’s still enough truth in it to enrage Catholics, lapsed and practicing. It’s another illustration of moral rigidity from a church that too often in the recent past has been at odds with Christian principles of compassion and mercy. Of course, what happened at Roscrea doesn’t describe all nuns, and it covered a period of time when great shame was attached to out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Still, whatever the cultural mores of the time, you would think there would be room for more forgiveness in a religion rooted in the concept of a savior conceived by command of God and born to a woman betrothed to someone else. …

So far there are no policy changes, but he wants American bishops to poll Catholics on their attitudes regarding divorce, birth control, and gay marriage. After saying little about the clergy sexual abuse scandal, he just appointed a panel to advise him on it.

When it comes to church history as depicted in “Philomena,” Pope Francis cannot change it. But he could call it for what it was.

Bottom line: that a film critic would dare to take on a movie’s factual claims with some trenchant analysis of his own seems to be rather shocking to the Hollywood elite. That it’s someone who rejects faith altogether seems a remarkable example of a reporter who “gets” religion, even when many others in the media clearly don’t.

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Darren Blair

    As a movie reviewer myself, if I saw something that was blatantly wrong in a film I’d be quick to point it out as well… especially if the film in question was supposed to be a docu-whatever.

    That the film’s distributor would respond with a full-page attack ad in response to this is 100% unprofessional.

    • Tom B.

      More likely 100% milking it for publicity.

      • Darren Blair

        …in which my minor in marketing comes in to play and tells me “Even if it is publicity, it’s still making the person in question look like a jerk.”

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Wasn’t just 1950s Ireland – 1950s America and Britain would also have considered a young woman pregnant out of wedlock as being disgraced, and that handing over the baby/infant for adoption was the best course of action for everyone concerned.
    But that doesn’t fit the narrative. And of course, a pregnant teenager in 2013 would be advised that her best option was an abortion, else her life would be ruined by – having a baby out of wedlock.
    The solution to the problem may have changed, but not the underlying attitude.

  • boinkie

    It’s the poverty, not the morality, behind this punative mindset.

    In a very poor country like Ireland was in the 1950′s, there was no way for her to get a job and support her child. Period. And this is true in non Catholic countries, and in the third world today.

    So what does one do with a pregnant single teenager’s children? Russian orphanages anyone? Abandoned street kids in New Delhi? “Honor killings” in Saudi Arabia?

    And no one seems to notice that this is a backhanded slap at those of us who dare to adopt children. So let’s ignore Steve Jobs and others whose adoptive families gave these children love, and demonize adoption so more moms will abort the children they don’t want, or decide to “keep” them when they can’t raise them (one million kids in foster care or with relatives, mostly not available for adoption because mom “loves” them and won’t release them to another family, and taking her rights away is too difficult).

    • n_coast

      Couldn’t it be both poverty and morality?

      • TJL

        No.

    • Julia B

      I’m 69 and remember those days in the US, as well as Ireland. It was a general fact that girls who got pregnant out of wedlock were ruined for life. It would take an exceptional man to marry such a woman with what was considered a bastard child. Then there was the problem of getting a job in the era before equal pay.

  • Hegesippus

    The ad reflects one of the greatest problems that is faced regarding Christianity in today’s culture.
    The ad proclaims a vast majority of reviews like it, naming a few big names.
    The problem is that the content of these reviews and the prejudicial views of the reviewers are not considered.
    Indeed, by proclaiming a percentage of opinions as evidence of a fact leads people to increasingly believe that truth is decided democratically.
    God bless the reviewer who had the courage to stand up and use historical truth as the arbiter of the film.

  • Gina101

    Surprise surprise. Another leftist, Hollywood-billionaire insider produces yet another hateful, bigoted, anti-Catholic movie. Go figure.

  • David

    Forget the total factual inaccuracies about Sister McNulty, who died in 1995 and before the “investigation” and also before the other scene where she confronts Dench for “carnality”. Maybe someone should make an “alternate universe” version of this movie where Dench is thrown to the wolves by her society at that time (1950s America would be great), left to work at McDonalds, disparaged as a teenage mother “whore” (edit that word if you must), regularly faces depression and stress, and then overcomes it thanks to a kind soul in the parish food line, who volunteers their own time every week passing out food to the less fortunate and decides that she actually can cut it in the world and offers her a job as a professional at some professional services firm he works at. Maybe then we can also have the alternate sequence, where instead of the religious person hatefully condemning their victim from a wheelchair, we can see what really happens and Dench’s character can console this kind soul that converted and believed in her on his death bed as he breathes his last alone because his family turned to atheism and refused to tolerate the hate his religion blared at gays and instead of chastising her carnality, maybe this figure can look her in the eyes in his final moment and tell her, “You know why I offered you that job? I knew you were special. I knew you realized you had made a mistake. And mistakes are not permanent, they are lessons. Never forget that. We always forgive.”

    Huh? How about it Hollywood? Just one freaking movie that casts what we as Christians ACTUALLY do in a positive light? smh

    • Darren Blair

      This reminds me of the initial hype around “September Dawn”, a wildly over-exaggerated and one-sided rendition of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

      Whenever people talked about wanting to see it and how the film would do oh so much damage to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I would always ask them about what would happen if someone made a similarly over-exaggerated and one-sided film about the Haun’s Mill Massacre.

      …Haun’s Mill being the place where, in 1838, Missouri state militia rode into a peaceful Mormon settlement and shot the place up, killing 19 men, executing a 10-year-old boy to send a message to everyone, and then shooting down another boy who tried to flee.

      I say this as when the people behind Mountain Meadows were finally brought to trial, they cited “a desire to seek revenge for Haun’s Mill” as one of their motives.

      I *never* got an answer from anyone. :p

  • FW Ken

    After The Magdalen Laundries was shown to be a fraud, you would think journalists would be more cautious about movies concerning Irish Catholicism.

    • http://europa-antiqua-arca.blogspot.com/ para_bellum

      I wouldn’t think that. They don’t care whether they are actually true or false. True and false represent “moral rigidity,” remember? Even if the claims aren’t quite “true,” the movies are “valid” because the Church is evil, according to their line of thinking. It’s about “telling your story” not worrying about whether it’s true or false.

      • Darren Blair

        …hence why films like “Saints And Soldiers” are almost always made by smaller production houses these days, and always take the mainstream media by surprise when they eventually become sleeper hits.

        (In “Saints and Soldiers”, one of the characters – an American GI named Deacon – served a religious mission in Berlin before the outbreak of WWII. Because of his time in Berlin, he’s fluent in German; his ability to speak the language is pivotal in several instances, and even allows his “squad” to rescue a downed RAF crewman.)

      • Maria

        That said, the film did prevail upon us that there is a lot of manipulation and exaggeration in the “art” of journalism. I think that point comes across quite well especially in the conversation calls between the editor and Sixsmith and even in the 1st meeting between Sixsmith, Philomena and her daughter.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    In this controversy it is amazing how everyone’s religion is front and center whether a former Catholic, raised a Catholic, or an atheist.
    But what is the religion of movie promoter Harvey Weinstein??? What religion was he raised in???
    Just curious.

    • Michael Duvic

      Seriously?

    • Cristian Rodriguez

      He’s a liberal Jew. Definetly not an orthodox or religious Jew. Religous jews are some of the most God fearing people and would never conceive of putting out or even let their kids watch the kind of trash that we call movies. Weinstein and others in Hollywood continue to push the envelope on anti-moral movies and reap the financial profits that we give them. And yes these film butchers are good at captivating our imaginations but focus on filling us with filth and the worst part is that we pay them to do it. The main point they love to make is that good can be evil and bad can be good. This premise is entertaining and attention grabbing. But it also makes a very negative impact on impressionable kids and dumb errr young adults who btw are maturing very late in life nowadays. So ppl now believe that being religous and moral & traditional is bad and boring. Ppl also believe that being untraditional is preferable and exciting. So we have dumb asses believing in the virtues of single motherhood instead of core family structures. The result is more dumbasses in our world. I’m the kind of guy who gets up during a movie and demands a refund if it’s that offensive. I will not watch Harvey Weinstein movies. Peace.

  • Michael Duvic

    I saw it today. It was truly excellent and well-balanced with the realities of what happened then, plus Philomena’s incredible forgiveness. If you haven’t seen it, you have no grounds for passing any judgement.

    • NYAttorney

      But if you don’t know the actual facts, you have no grounds for judging whether it shows “the realities of what happened then.”

      • Michael Duvic

        Right, because NO ONE knew what was actually happening then, except the thousands of victims. Fuck them. What do they know, right ?


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