The work done by Frank Duff highlights the fact that, although forced adoptions were widespread in Ireland, there were those who did much to help single mothers

A new film Philomena is now on general release. Based on a true story written by Martin Sixsmith and titled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film is the heartrending story of a young Irish girl, unwed and pregnant, who is forced by the nuns who are looking after her to give up her son, named Anthony, for adoption. I won’t divulge what happens next but, directed by Stephen Frears and with Dame Judi Dench in the title role, it is bound to attract unwelcome publicity for the Church, especially in Ireland.

I haven’t seen the film yet but this blog is in no way an attempt to whitewash the nuns’ behaviour. I won’t even dwell on the obvious point that attitudes were different then and that the nuns should be seen in the context of their times. They were hard-hearted and unchristian, whatever the historical circumstances. I am not criticising all such adoptions, many of which might have been for the best; I am merely suggesting that this case sounds particularly inflexible and harsh.

It is the more so because such practices, though widespread in Ireland of the time, were not the only option for girls in Philomena’s predicament; as the Catholic Commentary blog points out, one man had been inspired to open a hostel in Dublin as early as 1930, for the sole purpose of keeping unmarried mothers with their children. This was Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, which ran the Regina Coeli hostel according to Duff’s wish that there should be “a home-like feeling about the place” and that the surroundings should be as beautiful as possible. At the “Mater Dei” unit within the hostel, one of the mothers cared for the babies while the others took jobs to help pay for the household costs.

At the time such a response was almost unknown and in the early days of the new lay movement Duff was criticised for the Legion’s policy. The Sisters in Roscrea, who were caring for girls like Philomena, would not have approved. But like saints throughout history Duff, whose Cause for sanctity is being investigated, cared passionately for the spirit rather than the letter of the law. As well as founding a hostel for single mothers, he and the Legion had already established a hostel to rescue prostitutes from the streets and, in a gesture far ahead of its time, he had also arranged a social venue where people of same-sex orientation, already ostracised by society, could relax without fear of police persecution.

In 1970, forty years after the opening of the Regina Coeli hostel, Frank Duff wrote presciently: “I find it a little difficult in my own mind to make a broad differentiation between the determined separating of the unmarried mother from her child and the relieving of the unmarried mother from her unwanted child by way of abortion. Deep down it seems to me that these two processes have an identical root. This root would be the denial of the fact that a spiritual relationship of the supremest order exists between a mother and her child, inclusive of the unborn child.”

Statements like this, comparing the censorious attitude of the Church towards illegitimacy to a modern secular approach to unwanted pregnancy, would not have endeared Duff to the Irish clerical establishment who were suspicious of any lay initiative, like the Legion of Mary, that they did not control. For those who would like to know more about the deeply apostolic life of this quiet and unassuming civil servant, Finola Kennedy’s Frank Duff: A Life Story would be a good place to start. Duff believed that the Church, the “Mystical Body of Christ”, summoned all its members to vocation, lay as well as clerical. As early as the 1950s he warned that “in Ireland we were thrown back on a caricature of Christianity.” He would have been certain that the forcible separation of unwed mothers from their babies was part of this “caricature”.

When watching the film Philomena, with all Dame Judi Dench’s acting gifts on full display, it is worth remembering that this strict and punitive side of the Church as it then was, is not the whole story and that in every age of the Church’s history there are men and women like Frank Duff working ceaselessly to incarnate the mercy and love of Christ.