The Magdalene Sisters
by Daniel C. Maguire
Whos to blame here?
a movie Like Schindlers List or the newly released
The Magdalene Sisters has the rare cinematographic power
to bring an atrocity eerily back to life. The Magdalene
Sisters personalizes the horror that befell as many as
30,000 women imprisoned in laundries run by nuns under
conditions that constituted torture and unending debasement.
The film is a fictional rendering of a horror begun in
the 19th century in Ireland that ended only in 1996.
In a conspiracy of church, state, family, and culture,
women were incarcerated because they were raped, molested,
became pregnant outside of marriage, or simply because
they were deemed by their families to be too flirtatious
or even too attractive. Director Peter Mullan did not
exaggerate in this film. He didnt need to. Every
day these women were insulted, overworked (at good profit
for the Church), kept in silence, and at times, sexually
abused by their keepers and by priests with no
possibility of recourse. They were fallen women
whose word was worthless against their anointed religious
jailors. Some stayed in these prisons until death. Some
escaped but then returned, so stigmatized were they by
having been Maggies, that there was no place
for them in Catholic Ireland. The whole nation was their
prison, and the laundries were their only cell.
When the laundries finally closed, some of the women
did not know how to make a phone call or cope with life
The chief demons of the film seem to be the nuns, or
maybe Irish Catholicism that admittedly took sexual rigor
to extremes. But such localized indicting is shortsighted.
As paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin said, nothing is
intelligible outside its history. In the light of history,
the nuns were as much victims as their battered wards.
Healthy religion is powerful and has led to civilizing
epics of compassion. Unhealthy religion seems even more
powerful. The poet Alexander Pope said the worst
of madmen is a saint gone mad. The real demon of
the laundries tragedy is the poison poured into
Western culture by the Christian horror of sex and sexual
pleasure and those roots are deep.
The shadow of the influential 5th century
bishop, Augustine, hangs over The Magdalene Sisters.
Augustine taught, and others followed, that the sexual
pleasure of the parents transmits a moral blight
original sin to the newborn. Small wonder there
is talk of ecclesiogenic psychoneurosis.
Sexual pleasure was itself a kind of moral pollution.
It distanced you from all that is holy. St. Jerome and
St. Thomas Aquinas both taught that in heaven virgins
received a 100% heavenly reward, while widows and widowers
got 60%, and people who died when married got only 30%.
The message was clear: sexuality is incompatible with
spirituality. Sex is dirty, spirituality sublime. And
in the maledominated Christian history, women, especially
attractive women, were to be blamed for the blight of
sexual pleasure and its relentless draw. All of this
poison seeped into Catholicism, and The Magdalene Sisters
show it in full virulence. The Irish nuns and the Irish
culture simply took this sick attitude toward sexuality
to its logical and brutal extreme.
Sometimes a movie can be an event, in this case, a cathartic
event. The pathology it starkly portrays is directly
related to contemporary sexual scandals racking the Catholic
Church. It partially explains the empty Catholic seminaries
and convents and closed parishes. The long-tenured, poisonous
miasma of sex-hatred and women-hatred is being blown
out to sea by healthy currents today as new modes of
Catholic living are being pioneered. The Magdalene Sisters
is a jarring look back that can only encourage the reforming
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