Convent from Hell

The Magdalene Sisters and Catholic Guilt

Guilt and shame are two Irish-Catholic traits that are as typical as corned beef and cabbage on St Patrick’s Day to Irish-Americans. It’s one thing to be Catholic, but to be an Irish-Catholic is a whole new ball of shameful wax.

When I was a child, the God I was taught to believe in was a judging God, and I think I spent more time trying to stay out of hell than I did practicing baseball.

The theme of Irish-Catholic guilt is placed at the center of the film, The Magdalene Sisters , where guilt chastises and shame paralyzes.

The Magdalene Laundries are a chapter of Catholicism that has been relatively unheard of outside of the Emerald Isle. Even in Ireland, the insular world of the laundries has been relatively unexplored. According to ABC News,”over a period of 150 years, an estimated 30,000 women were forced into labor, carried out in secret, behind high convent walls.”

Cat’s out of the bag
That secret was safe until now. The Magdalene Sisters is the story of three young women who are sent to the one of the aforementioned laundries, a type of reform school for “wayward” women, women thought to be hussies and whores.

Sexual sin in Ireland, however, is pretty easy to commit. In fact, Bernadette, the story’s main character, never has sex with anyone, but is sent to the laundry simply for being “a temptress,” a pretty girl who attracts and flirts with the boys, bringing them closer to the ever-dreaded “near occasion of sin.”

Work hard, fly right
The laundry becomes a place where the women can atone for their sin through hard physical labor, as St. Mary Magdalene did, working her way to heaven (although there is no scriptural evidence that she was a prostitute as is supposed). They scrub their hands raw and work themselves to near exhaustion in sweatshop-like conditions while being considered a danger to both themselves and the men who desire them.

Their parents have abandoned them out of shame and leave them in the good hands of the sisters in hopes of getting not only their daughters into heaven, but also themselves. After all, what kind of parents could have a whore for a daughter? Perhaps the Church, who knows best, can save the family soul.

How do you plead?
The mentality of a judging God winds its way throughout the
film as chances for escape are often met with fear. The nuns run the laundry as tyrants as the residents live in terror while tending to their daily chores. The women are abused mentally, physically, and emotionally (well displayed in a particular scene where the women are horribly maligned sexually by one of the nuns), casting a dark pall on the Catholic Church of Ireland and most especially on the nuns.

But not all is right in The Magdalene Sisters. The ending is too neat and clean and perhaps a bit unbelieveable (there’s a BBC drama called Sinners about the laundries which is more plausible). And while the stories of the women are fictitious, the director makes them seem real (somewhat disingenuously) as he scripts out futures for four of the girls and runs them in the closing credits.

Catholic guilt check
The film is venomous towards the Catholic Church, and the Vatican has claimed that it’s basically anti-Catholic rhetoric. The laundries, however, are real. And so is the sense of guilt and shame they exploited, guilt often associated with the stereotypical depictions of Irish-American Catholicism, but also a reality that many of us know all too well.

How many Catholics (even still) have thought they were hell-bound for minor sexual infractions or even mere desires that, by the way, are perfectly natural? How many altar boys have shamefacedly and urgently presented themselves to the priest for confession before morning mass (the most scrupulous glad they made it through the night without dying in alleged mortal sin)?

What everyone missed
So many of us failed to see that, despite our brokenness, God will always love us and could never disown us. Jesus didn’t shame people into being sinless or embarrass them into hopelessness.

That’s what the Church and the families in the Magdalene Sisters forgot. God values us enough to dwell within us. It’s the culture of guilt that pushes us all away from the positive message of God as forgiving, including, and loving—a point that the Magdalene Sisters, the film, drives home.