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The Magdalene Laundries; A Study in Authoritarian Idealist Regimes

So, I’m late in viewing the movie The Magdalene Sisters. I had a sense of the topic of the film, and I think I just wondered why on earth we needed more films to tell us that authoritarian idealist regimes do bad things?

After viewing the film, I read a review written by Steven D. Greydanus for the web site Decent Films.

Though Mr. Greydanus, an apparent apologist for the Catholic Church, admits to some wrongdoing on the part of the Church and some nuns who were involved in the Magdalene Laundries, he saves his real shot for film director Peter Mullan.

Mullan claims that his film isn’t meant to be anti-Catholic, but is meant to expose the victimization of young women by a certain phenomenon in the Church. Nevertheless, he freely acknowledges his animosity toward his Catholic upbringing, and admits that he brought his prejudices and sympathies to this project.

Perhaps he didn’t consciously set out to make an anti-Catholic film. D. W. Griffith didn’t set out to make a racist film, but it doesn’t make Birth of a Nation any less racist.

Whatever value the film might have had as an exposé of social sin is undermined, not enhanced, by its prejudicial stereotyping of every individual nun and priest. Instead of being a morally serious film about a corrupt institution in a flawed society, The Magdalene Sisters becomes mere agitprop about how evil and terrible Irish Catholic nuns, priests, and parents are.

To repeat a theme, human history has taught us that authoritarian idealistic regimes do bad things to people. These regimes are perpetuated by seemingly nice, normal people, who just happen to be participants in the abuse of their fellow humans.

Are there nice priests and nuns in the Catholic Church? I’ve no doubt that there are. But, in the end, fundamentally, they are working to further the cause of and giving their life’s energy to support an authoritarian idealist regime. As such, they are contributing to the devaluation of human rights and individual dignity.

Mr. Greydanus thinks that we should temper our criticism of nuns and priests who imprisoned a slave population of women, punishing them for minor sexual conduct, at times for years, for the mere possibility that some of them may have been conflicted about their role, or may have had other complex motivations for doing what they did.

This is silly. It is hypocritical to simultaneously decry the bad that is done by authoritarian idealist regimes, and then to also demand fair treatment of them. Authoritarian Idealist Regimes (Cathoicism, Mormonism, Communism, etc) afford no fundamental rights to individuals, provide no checks and balances for fair treatment, give too much authority to their leaders, and give too little assistance to adherents. “Just following orders” went out the window centuries ago as a moral justification for bad acts.

Even if you were a nice nun who worked in a Magdalene Laundry, you were still participating in the unjust imprisonment and forced slavery of young, innocent women. It doesn’t matter if you consoled a few of the girls along the way; in the end, you were still committing an abhorrent crime against human dignity, and committing a terrible injustice to these very girls.

Shame on you, and shame on any who seek to apologize for organizations that, by their very nature, will continue to commit grievous sins against humanity.

  • Lex

    I still haven’t seen this film, but I’m vaguely aware of the situation. Your post raises a couple more questions for me.

    First, regarding your analysis of Greydanus’s review, I thought this was a pretty provocative point:

    Greydanus: Perhaps he didn’t consciously set out to make an anti-Catholic film. D. W. Griffith didn’t set out to make a racist film, but it doesn’t make Birth of a Nation any less racist.

    What do you make of the idea that acting on our most righteous intentions cans still lead to flawed outcomes? Do we run less of a risk of doing this if we act as independents? Also:

    Greydanus: Instead of being a morally serious film about a corrupt institution in a flawed society, The Magdalene Sisters becomes mere agitprop about how evil and terrible Irish Catholic nuns, priests, and parents are.

    Like I said, I don’t know the film, and I don’t know Greydanus. Maybe his agenda here is to gloss over the dark sides of Catholicism (or at least Catholic history). But there’s a greater point here about the ineffective nature of agitprop. It’s like the Michael Moore phenomenon. I’m very sympathetic to his politics, and I find his films outraging in a way that’s is inspiring. But as a tool to persuade others, his work is more outrageous than outraging. The world is a grey place, not black and white. And while we choose sides as if all of life as binary all the time, the reality of the grey makes it all too easy for those who tend to the white to ignore those who would say that the white is actually black. The whole conversation that isn’t happening is about the truth, which will inevitably be grey.

    Maybe this doesn’t apply specifically to this film. Maybe Mullan has made a perfectly grey film that is being maligned. But even if that’s the case, I think the point about agitprop is a good one.

    Moving on:

    Timothy: Are there nice priests and nuns in the Catholic Church? I’ve no doubt that there are. But, in the end, fundamentally, they are working to further the cause of and giving their life’s energy to support an authoritarian idealist regime. As such, they are contributing to the devaluation of human rights and individual dignity.

    Was Mother Theresa contributing to the devaluation of human rights? Was Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish priest and prisoner in Auschwitz who traded his own life for that of another prisoner who was to be executed for attempting to escape degrading individual dignity? This kind of sweeping statement just won’t hold up to scrutiny. The Catholic Church, like most churches, is not all good or all bad, just as we all have our own personal demons and angels that surface at various times. But I think the flaw that insists that we dismiss the better sides of humanity because of its flaws is too close to the flaw that allows us to ignore the bad to uphold the good to make this distinction meaningful.

    This is reminding me of a Frontline documentary about Pope John Paul II that showed both his accomplishments and his flaws. You might be able to watch it on the Frontline website. I don’t think every story need (pr can have) objective balance. I think there’s value in telling a story like that of the Magdalene laundries without apology, condemning openly the violations of human rights that occured. But I don’t think you can take that one story and use it to reach this conclusion about the Catholic Church as a whole. The tone of that Frontline piece rang much more true to me than your statement here.

    Timothy: This is silly. It is hypocritical to simultaneously decry the bad that is done by authoritarian idealist regimes, and then to also demand fair treatment of them. Authoritarian Idealist Regimes (Cathoicism, Mormonism, Communism, etc) afford no fundamental rights to individuals, provide no checks and balances for fair treatment, give too much authority to their leaders, and give too little assistance to adherents. “Just following orders” went out the window centuries ago as a moral justification for bad acts.

    I have a few responses to this:

    1) It’s not hypocritical to separate the good that institutions do from the bad that they do. In fact, i think this kind of moral analysis is core to valuing and belief system or ideology. It only becomes hypocrisy (or more specifically, ketman) when we deny the existence of the bad to prop up the perceieved “good.”

    2) Religious and governmental regimes are not equal. In our non-denominational democracy, the only power that a religious institution has over us is that which we give to it through our choice to believe. In a totalitarian state (Communist or otherwise) no such choice is afforded the individual. I made this same point in a comment on your previous post about LDS feminism, but you’ve yet to explain why I should see ignore this distinction.

    3) You’re incorrect to say that Catholicism, Mormonism, and Communism “afford no fundamental rights to individuals.” At best, you’re just disagreeing with these ideologies as to what constitutes a fundamental right. For example, the Catholic church would argue that life is a fundamental right that trumps the right of a woman to have an abortion. Mormons believe that choice (including the choice to reject the church) is a fundamental right. Communists believed that the right to work and share equally in society’s progress was a fundamental right. What you’re really saying here, I think, is that there are rights that you would consider “fundamental” that are not considered fundamental by these ideologies. That’s fair, and maybe even true. But I’m sure that if we looked closely, we’d find aspects of your belief system that deny a right that someone else will consider “fundamental.”

    As for checks and balances, in the case of the religious institutions, I’ve already stated that he imnportant checks and balances (in America, anyway) are provided by the state. In a totalitarian Communist state, I agree that the lack of meaningful checks and balances on power is a critical flaw. Ditto the level of authority granted to leaders.

    As for assistance, Catholics, Mormons, and Communist states all provide assistance to adherents. Especially Catholics and Mormons. One of the “goods” of the LDS church is it’s extensive welfare program. The Catholic church in Africa is doing some pretty amazing things to combat poverty. I wish I could take you to Nairobi and introduce you to Fr. D’Agostino, a Jesuit priest and physician who founded an orphanage for HIV positive children, and who is working with the Kenyan government to create a self-sustaining village of AIDS orphans and grandparents–the two age groups who bear the greatest part of the collateral damage that comes from the evisceration of “parent-class” by the epidemic. While there could always be more, I think there’s far more assistance than you acknowledge here.

    Oh, and I absolutely agree that “just following orders” does not free us of moral responsibility. We’re on the same page here.

  • Lex Asks:
    What do you make of the idea that acting on our most righteous intentions cans still lead to flawed outcomes? Do we run less of a risk of doing this if we act as independents?

    Our “most righteous intentions” should not involve setting utopian ideals that we determine for other people, especially not when we have unmitigated authority over them. It does not matter how “righteous” we consider ourselves, it is not our job to make life decisions for others.

    In other words, utopian, idealist notions are dangerous, regardless of our self-confirmed intent of righteousness. We are smart enough to know this and powerful enough to act on this knowledge.

    Lex Asks:
    The world is a grey place, not black and white. And while we choose sides as if all of life as binary all the time, the reality of the grey makes it all too easy for those who tend to the white to ignore those who would say that the white is actually black. The whole conversation that isn’t happening is about the truth, which will inevitably be grey.

    Of course the world is grey; but, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few blacks and whites that do exist. The Catholic Church is in the business of peddling utopian ideals as completely black and white, and they do so by authoritarian means. There comes a point where we have to draw certain lines, and the lines I draw are meant to exclude utopian idealists, especially those with authoritarian leanings.

    Lex Asks:
    Was Mother Theresa contributing to the devaluation of human rights? Was Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish priest and prisoner in Auschwitz who traded his own life for that of another prisoner who was to be executed for attempting to escape degrading individual dignity? This kind of sweeping statement just won’t hold up to scrutiny.

    In other words, can people do good things even while they advocate and work for bad causes? Sure. But, as adults who care about the political structures of the world, we have to take a step back and look at the larger picture.

    Lex Asks:
    The Catholic Church, like most churches, is not all good or all bad, just as we all have our own personal demons and angels that surface at various times. But I think the flaw that insists that we dismiss the better sides of humanity because of its flaws is too close to the flaw that allows us to ignore the bad to uphold the good to make this distinction meaningful.

    There’s a certain irony, Lex, in you defending the Catholic Church in this way; the religious tradition that you hold to says that there is nothing good whatsoever about the catholic or other churches (see the various versions of Joseph Smith’s First Vision Account).

    That being said, the Catholic Church is a fundamentally flawed institution that has and will continue to produce more harm than good in the world. Are there good people associated with the Catholic Church? Certainly; and it is their responsibility to learn to understand the ramifications of supporting certain organizations and ideologies.

    Lex Asks:
    But I don’t think you can take that one story and use it to reach this conclusion about the Catholic Church as a whole.

    Trust me when I tell you that this movie had no effect upon my view of the Catholic Church, which is based in principle that has been established long before I saw this film.

    Lex Asks:
    Religious and governmental regimes are not equal. In our non-denominational democracy, the only power that a religious institution has over us is that which we give to it through our choice to believe. In a totalitarian state (Communist or otherwise) no such choice is afforded the individual. I made this same point in a comment on your previous post about LDS feminism, but you’ve yet to explain why I should see ignore this distinction.

    Religions have lost their power to imprison and kill. But, in their theology, many still hold to the idea that one day, they’ll regain total power over the state. So yes, religion, currently, is hobbled in its power, but is generally only biding its time. We could (and should) have additional conversations about the power that religion exerts over its adherents and how it is similar/dissimilar to political power.

    But, additionally, religion is a purveyor of political philosophies that have dramatic influence over secular politics. To that end, I consider them all players in the political arena. All is politics.

    Lex Asks:
    You’re incorrect to say that Catholicism, Mormonism, and Communism “afford no fundamental rights to individuals.” At best, you’re just disagreeing with these ideologies as to what constitutes a fundamental right. For example, the Catholic church would argue that life is a fundamental right that trumps the right of a woman to have an abortion.

    Oh, the irony. The Catholic Church argues that life is a fundamental right, not for the sake of the individual, but for the increased power of the institution. The abortion debate is not about giving individuals more rights; it would be oxymoronic to make that argument, since to do so you have to deny the woman the individual right to make that decision for herself. But, I don’t want to sidetrack…

    But, the point is that if looking at the examples you posit as “individual rights” are really just the rights of authoritarians to control individuals. If you believe that these organizations are fundamentally in existence to protect individual rights, then I suggest you need to rethink your ideas.

    Lex Asks:
    As for assistance, Catholics, Mormons, and Communist states all provide assistance to adherents. Especially Catholics and Mormons. One of the “goods” of the LDS church is it’s extensive welfare program.

    All to the end of perpetuating authoritarian idealist, utopian regimes. Many tyrants build schools, bad people even give candy to children.

    Again, Lex…do these organizations perform some admirable things? Certainly. But, I’m asking you to take the macro-view of their ultimate aims, and the ultimate good or evil that they perform in the world. You may yet disagree with me, but we’d at least be talking about the same thing here. While there may be an interesting point to examining the good things that Hitler did, that would only make sense once we’ve firmly established that his ultimate value was negative, that he needed to be stopped, and that we were going to take any and all measures to end his reign of terror. Once that was done, once the danger was past, then there was utility in asking the more subtle questions of motivation and examining the complexities of human nature.

    Lex Asks:
    I wish I could take you to Nairobi and introduce you to Fr. D’Agostino, a Jesuit priest and physician who founded an orphanage for HIV positive children, and who is working with the Kenyan government to create a self-sustaining village of AIDS orphans and grandparents–the two age groups who bear the greatest part of the collateral damage that comes from the evisceration of “parent-class” by the epidemic.

    This good man would find that he is just as able to do his good work absent a need to support an authoritarian idealist regime that is leading the world in fighting against gay rights, and fundamentally damaging large communities of individuals with aids. It is not that we can’t find, as I say, good people caught up into the pursuit of bad ideals; they abound. It’s that we must, at some point, ask people to take a step back and understand the larger picture of their actions.