Movies —
The Magdalene Sisters

by Daniel C. Maguire

Who’s to blame here?

ometimes a movie Like Schindler’s 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 didn’t 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 outside.

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 process.

 

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