When perfect Christianity can never be enough

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By Nancy Kennedy

A few weeks ago, I watched a movie on TV called “The Perfect Family.”
Right away, just by the title, you know they’re not perfect.
The main character is Eileen, the mother of the family. A devout Catholic, she attends Mass every day, and at confession she confesses every sin she can think of down to her gossipy thoughts.
She serves communion and delivers food to the homebound. She’s careful to pray before meals and keeps a family altar in her home.
When she learns that she’s been nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year, she’s surprised, but she’s also honored and desperately eager to win. One of the “prizes” that comes with the title is a prayer of absolution — forgiveness for all her sins. She especially wants this, even more than the title and any accolades that come with it.
One of the criteria for winning the award is having an upstanding family that exemplifies Catholic values. However, Eileen’s family has a few areas that may exclude her from being Catholic Woman of the Year. Her unmarried pregnant daughter is marrying a woman, and her son is cheating on his wife, whom Eileen had pressured him to marry in the first place because she was pregnant. The dad of the family is a recovering alcoholic.
The story follows Eileen’s painful emotional struggle as she tries to reconcile her real family situation with the family she thinks she needs to present to the nominating committee.
Her daughter had previously kept her relationship and her pregnancy a secret from Eileen because she was afraid of her mom’s judgment and disapproval. When Eileen learns of it she begins lying, saying that her daughter is dating a nice Catholic man. She lies about her son’s marriage, saying it’s fine, which is difficult for Eileen since lying is a sin.
Eventually, Eileen’s husband leaves because he can’t stand the pressure. Eileen is putting pressure on the family to be something they’re not, including him. He’s been sober 15 years, yet Eileen treats him as if he’s still drunk.
Throughout the whole movie I wanted to ask Eileen, “Why are you putting yourself and your family through all this agony just to win a title? Shouldn’t your religious devotion be because you love serving God and not because you want to win an award?”
Another woman at Eileen’s church is also nominated, and her family appears to be far “better” than Eileen’s. Her record of church and community work is also more impressive.
But Eileen wants it more, deeply, desperately more. It’s not until her daughter suffers a miscarriage and Eileen confesses a secret of her own that what’s behind her desperation is revealed.
Years earlier, when her son and daughter were young and her husband was still drinking, she discovered she was pregnant with a third child — and her husband said he had fallen in love with someone else.
She aborted the baby and had lived with secret, agonizing guilt ever since. She didn’t even tell her husband.
As the time for the award presentation nears, Eileen writes a letter to the nominating committee. Her letter isn’t a glowing list of her accomplishments and reasons why she should be Catholic Woman of the Year, but a confession of her reality, her sin and her fault in her family’s dysfunction.
The day of the awards luncheon arrives and Eileen is alone at her table — her family never shows up. With a look that says, “Why am I doing this?” she walks out only to see her family in the parking lot. She ends up reconciling with them and does actually win Catholic Woman of the Year — and the absolution of her sins.
As movies go, it wasn’t great, and the theology was Hollywood and not biblical — absolution isn’t achieved by winning it as a prize, but simply by faith in Christ, available to anyone who believes and asks.
What I found most true about the movie was Eileen’s turmoil over wanting to be perfect, because she felt she had to atone for her own sin. That’s what drove her. That’s what drives many of us.
It’s when we stop trying to be perfect and admit we’re not but Jesus is, that’s when we find absolution. We cannot bear our own sin, but Jesus already has.
Nancy Kennedy is a syndicated church columnist for The Anderson News. She can be reached via email at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.