Philomena, The Church, and Our Problems with S-E-X


This year I’m trying to see as many of the big Oscar nominees as possible. Last Friday I checked off my first film: Philomena, which is about an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls, unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes.

It’s an excellent movie, though devastating to watch. It brings up any number of issues related to faith. Here are a couple:

The importance of forgiveness. I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of the topic, however. Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene in which a roomful of religious people practically cluck in disdain at the character of Martin Sixsmith (the journalist who’s been helping Philomena), who is livid at the injustice and secrecy that has persisted for decades. The implication in their response (including Philomena’s) is that he needs to let go of his anger and forgive because such negative feelings serve no purpose.

Forgiveness is indeed a gift of grace. And simmering resentments can corrode our lives. But Martin’s anger in that moment was appropriate. Given the magnitude of the injustice, it was more than that. It was righteous.

I’d wager that any anger the real Martin felt provided motivation for the writing of the book, which after all, served to bring this important story to light. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful fuel, and it bothers me when religious people are portrayed in such a milquetoast manner in popular culture.

But pop culture didn’t invent that image out of whole cloth. The Church, if I may be so monolithic, has offered plenty of inspiration for such a portrayal.

But it’s not just the anger and forgiveness thing…

Issues of the body and sexuality. We are still so primitive when it comes to talking about sex and our bodies. The young Philomena is doubly disadvantaged: she was not taught enough basic anatomy to understand how to prevent pregnancy. But she wasn’t taught anything about her body and its own pleasures, either—she admits with some chagrin that she enjoyed her “sin,” and exclaims to Martin Sixsmith, I never even knew what a clitoris was!

We in the Church are still dealing with the aftermath of that old Greek dualism in which the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers were steeped: spirit good, body bad. But as Martin’s character asks Philomena, what kind of God would create us with these natural sexual urges and then saddle us with such screwed-up, shame-filled religious baggage at the same time? How can something that feels so good be so very very bad? (Secular culture is not much better. Yes, the contours are different. But body image issues, self-punishment to fit an unattainable ideal, the rise of cosmetic surgery in the age of Photoshop—it’s not like the Church is a lone dysfunctional voice.)

We can rejoice that the Magdalene laundries are a memory (though not a distant enough one; the last one closed in the ’90s). But it’s still hard for us to talk about the body in a mature and meaningful way. The spiritual resources are there; we just have to embrace them.

Last week I wrote an endorsement for a book of spiritual practices for families. It’s a wonderful resource, full of ideas for parents to bring their faith into everyday life, whether it’s offering blessings at bedtime or welcoming a new pet to the family. It was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve written, and you’ll be hearing more from me about the book when it’s released.

But as I reflected on the legacy of Philomena, I realized with a start that there’s nothing in the book about children’s physical and sexual development. And I’m not saying this to knock the book at all—I myself didn’t see a thing missing until the movie prompted me to think about these things.

An obvious one: there must be a way for families (or at least mothers) to mark the occasion of a girl’s first period from a spiritual/faith perspective. My eldest daughter is excited because I’ve promised to take her to Spa World to celebrate this milestone. But there must be more that could be said or done. I’m not talking about a big show or an embarrassing display. I’m talking about some language celebrating God’s good gift of creation and the beauty of our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.

How about a teen’s first date? Or a first breakup? Surely the Christian tradition can offer more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s…

What about a young person’s coming out?

And the real kicker. According to Wikipedia, the average age for a young person to have sex for the first time is 17. That means they’re living under our roofs when it happens. How do we respond to this from a faith perspective?

Can I envision what a faith-filled ritual would look like between parent and young person after she loses her virginity? No, I really can’t. Does such a thing sound easy? Do we need to consider the young person’s privacy and autonomy? No and yes. But that’s all the more reason for the church to be a resource for parents. Don’t we want the kind of relationships with our children such that they could share news of that milestone with us? If so, then we should be ready, with the best our tradition can offer them. (See Tami Taylor’s conversations with Julie on Friday Night Lights—some great stuff to build on there. So simple and authentic.)

I’m not talking about a lecture on abstinence. Parents should communicate their own values, though lectures aren’t terribly effective in my experience. I’m also not talking about the contraception/condoms discussion, though such a conversation is essential; it’s borderline parental malpractice not to have it.

No, I’m talking about making it clear to our kids that their sexual lives are not divorced from their faith, but an essential part of it. I’m talking about repairing the body/spirit duality such that our lives are one integrated whole.

Does a resource containing such rituals exist? If so, I hope my readers will alert me. If not, maybe my friend will write a sequel.


Hey, I’d love for you to join my email list for further inspiration and content. And if you haven’t already checked out Sabbath in the Suburbs, the price has dropped on Amazon! And of course it’s available from Chalice Press, my publisher.

Image: The Dench and Steve Coogan in a still from the movie. If you’re interested in discerning fact from dramatic license in the film, here’s a place to start.

12 thoughts on “Philomena, The Church, and Our Problems with S-E-X

  1. Deborah

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but it’s on the list!

    I couldn’t agree more about the paltry puny language we use in the church. Those who seem to talk about it the most are decidedly on the bodies and sex are bad end of the continuum. Those of us who don’t believe that tend to keep our mouths shut more and/or live dual lives — no mention in church, while trying to navigate/fit in with the culture at large in a sex positive way (as Liz Lemon would say). You rightly point out that the culture at large doesn’t have its sh*t together on this either.

    I love your challenge to create appropriate rituals. When I went through Safe Space training at UVA several years ago and listened to a panel of students speak about their coming out experiences, almost every single one involved a negative church experience. It was astounding how connected or at lease in the sphere of the church most had been at some point and how almost universally that was no longer the case. By the way, this wasn’t training for religious leaders, so these stories were just naturally part of the way they talked about coming out.

    I don’t know what the rituals should be but I would like to suggest that inclusion of Ben & Jerry’s is a great start — it’s not “only” ice cream, it’s the ritual of eating and bemoaning with those who care about you and can help you see how the episode fits into the bigger picture of your life and relationship with God. Doesn’t get much more incarnational than a good bowl of Ben & Jerry’s and a broken heart and friends who are willing to share both.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Way to extol the virtues of Ben and Jerry’s! I approve.

      I realize how fraught some of these suggestions are. Some parents’ coming-out ritual would be an experience of utter lament. That’s not obviously what I have in mind.

      Then you have purity balls/young women pledging themselves to their fathers until they get married, which is at least *trying* to ritualize/sacramentalize some of this coming of age stuff… but that’s about the only positive thing I see in that stuff.

      1. Deborah

        Glad we’re on the same page with Ben & Jerry’s!
        To your point about some parents who would expect a ritual of lamentation: Right, that’s not the sort of ritual I’m talking about either for the coming out experience. But if the quiet parts of the church (the non-promise ring and lamentation over coming out parts) continue to be quiet, I’m afraid that leaves ample room for (inappropriate) lamentation. How would we as people and congregations be different if we grew up in a church that had communal rituals for a girl’s first period or the beginning of sexual activity or coming out? If we chose to behave that way together, while still loving and showing compassion for lamenting parents, what would that communicate to a whole new generation of children and parents? So, no shunning of anyone or the emotional/spiritual work they must go through, but a visible and recognized sex-positive communal stance?

  2. Jan

    If we can’t talk honestly about sexuality in our spiritual communities, where can we? HH’s congregation offers “sex camp” for 8th-11th graders annually. Parents sign appropriate permission slips to allow their kids to spend the weekend with trained youth leaders, a nurse practitioner & others to talk in a safe space about everything from body image to how to ask someone on a date to birth control. It’s very effective and something I wish all churches offered.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      We had a similar program in the church I served as a youth leader–it was excellent.

      I want to build on these kinds of ministries to envision a ritualistic (liturgical? sacramental?) level. And also have this be a conversation between children and parents, not just children and nurses/youth leaders.

  3. anne

    i wonder if you know how truly grateful i am to have you in my life.

    i did some of what i should have done, but did MUCH better than my parents did. one step at a time, generation by generation.


  4. Mamala

    I think the Unitarians have a wonderful program for middle schoolers, Our Whole Lives, a series of sexuality education curricula for six age groups. I think the UCC also has the same program.

  5. Sarah Erickson

    Having parent groups to discuss these things opening…what a step to take – vital – not only for the children, but for their folks/grands.

  6. Sonja Kjar

    I had a book that I wanted to use with my daughter in terms of celebrating/marking certain points along her childhood/adolescent journey. Unfortunately, she was not as interested in acknowledging or ritualizing important passages the way I wanted to. But at least we had some conversation, or rather, I shared and she listened —especially about her first period. I talked about how my mom handed me a pamphlet describing the onset of puberty and made sure I had a less than comfortable (but the only thing available at the time) bra. There was no conversation back then. I suppose even opening up the subject and my willingness to go there, even if my daughter wasn’t at the time, said more than I realize. The book I am referring to, is called: Celebrating Girls: Nurturing and Empowering Our Daughters by Virginia Beane Rutte
    I could not find it on my book shelf and wonder if I passed it on to someone else. But I remember thinking it had some good ideas in it.
    Can’t wait to see the movie Philomena. Your description reminded me a bit of another movie, some years ago: The Magdalene Sisters. It’s worth watching too.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Thank you Sonja, I will check that out!

      You bring up a good point about kids’ reactions. Especially if this kind of thing comes out of the blue, it’s going to inspire a lot of titters and/or eye rolling. So Traci’s book actually provides a great entry point—rituals and practices around life events that aren’t quite so personal.

      It also occurs to me that some of these practices may benefit the parent as much as the kid. We don’t want to take that too far, using our kids to work out our own issues, but part of what could be important in these rituals is to heal our own past, providing a place for *us* to say things that couldn’t be said when we were young.

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