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Tonight I watched Doubt, a wonderful movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams. It’s a movie about a Catholic Church located in the bronx during the mid-1960’s. A Priest (played by Hoffman) is accused by a nun (Streep) of having an improper relationship with an altar boy. Never was there any indication of wrong doing. In fact, the Priest had been the boy’s sole protector and role model. However, the nun despised the progressive Priest and threatened to ruin his vocation with this accusation. In the end, it’s a film about faith, love, and change…
At least that’s how I interpreted it, but what do I know? I’m only college educated. After watching the film, which centers around a theme of child abuse committed by a Priest, a sensitive subject for Catholics like myself, I decided to see what other Catholics thought of the film. I was shocked to see that many would not even see the film, thinking that it was another Hollywood attack on the Church. The Catholic blogs that reviewed the film were generally dismissive. I only read one Catholic review that was mostly positive. However, one reviewer in particular got under my skin.
Here’s her review, which can be found at InsideCatholic.com:
“Of Certainty and Doubt
by Joan Frawley Desmond
The implosion of Catholic religious orders in the 1970s shook the foundations of the Catholic Church in America, threatening both the financial viability of parish schools and the transmission of faith and morals to subsequent generations. Decades later, the clergy sex-abuse crisis produced another earthquake from which the Church has yet to recover.
Most Catholics view these two developments as entirely separate. But John Patrick Shanley, the screenwriter and director of the newly released Doubt — the film adaptation of his award-winning, off-Broadway play of 2004 — draws out the clear and subtle connections between the exodus of nuns and the unchecked abuses of clerical predators.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t succeed half as well as the play. The spare plot works better on stage, and Meryl Streep’s interpretation of the central character occasionally drifts into caricature. Still, Shanley’s meditation on the seismic shift in Catholic culture that converged with the Second Vatican Council helps us understand why an era that began with so much promise ended in such darkness and confusion.
Like the play, the action in the film occurs almost entirely within the confines of St. Nicholas School in the Bronx. The time is the mid-1960s, and the pervading mood is somber, brooding. Elsewhere in this prosperous nation, young America’s desire for increased spontaneity and creativity fuels the steadily growing pressure for social change.
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school principal, is unimpressed by such youthful naiveté. Evil exists; original sin is not to be casually dismissed. Her sense of threat remains unshaken, and thus she repels the introduction of ballpoint pens and secular Christmas songs with continued vigor.
She wears her uneasy, suspicious nature like an uncomfortable hair shirt, barking out reprimands to the students and revealing little concern for their emotional life. The declining standards for student penmanship and the Christmas pageants deeply trouble her. Yet they are mere precursors for something or someone more dangerous — a coming, but still undefined force that will undermine the ordered existence of her school.
When Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arrives in the parish and begins spouting newfangled ideas about a more compassionate Church, the principal smells trouble. Before long, Sister James (Amy Adams), the credulous young eighth-grade teacher, reports that Father Flynn requested a private meeting with an eighth-grade boy, who subsequently returned to class with alcohol on his breath.
Sister Aloysius rushes to the barricades. But what can she actually do, lacking both hard evidence or ultimate authority? Technically, Father Flynn is her superior in the parish; the pastor is unlikely to move against a fellow priest without solid proof.
The principal’s sole weapon remains her “certainty.” She confronts Father Flynn with her suspicions. He denies any wrongdoing, but offers a curiously muted explanation of his actions. Then, the priest turns the tables on the principal, putting her judgmental attitude on trial.
Father Flynn dismisses Sister Aloysius as a “dragon.” He is eager to discard the mantle of clerical authority in order to establish closer bonds with the students. The generational fissures surface slowly, and the future promises to inflict more damage on Sister Aloysius brittle psyche than on the easy-going disposition of her opponent. But is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or simply a creature of his time?
The principal’s next step is to call in the boy’s mother (Viola Davis). Shockingly, mom doesn’t want “trouble,” and begs Sister Aloysius to protect her son from any gossip or disciplinary actions that might force his departure from the school. “What kind of mother are you?” Sister Aloysius asks, as she grapples with something disturbing and novel — a parent who rejects her moral authority.
Consumed by a driving sense of responsibility for protecting her domain, the nun resorts to morally questionable tactics that appall Sister James. Yet, as Sister Aloysius tracks her prey with ferocious energy, the audience is left to speculate about the absence of such determination within diocesan chanceries that received complaints about abusive priests. Clericalism has been identified as one reason for the foot-dragging; the clubby world of priests is crudely evoked in the film.
Trendy, progressive ideas about guilt and responsibility also shaped episcopal decisions to schedule therapy sessions for sexual predators, rather than impose punitive measures that isolated them from children. Sister Aloysius, Shanley suggests, would never be seduced by faddish methods that contradicted the fundamentals of Christian realism.
Shanley touches on an additional explanation for the unchecked abuse of minors: a lack of courage on the part of Church authorities who feared confronting evildoers. Sister Aloysius’s own struggles underscore an unpleasant truth: Opposing evil is both morally and spiritually dangerous. This kind of combat is not for sissies, and it can poison the soul of the prosecutor.
Shanley shows considerable respect for Sister Aloysius. Her guile, passion, charity, and courage are on display here. At one point in the story, another nun who is going blind meets with an accident. If her disability is discovered, she could lose her place at the school. Sister Aloysius comes to her friend’s rescue, telling Father Flynn that most nuns trip on their robes and regularly fall like “dominoes.”
The incident reveals Sister Aloysius’s own brand of Christian compassion. But it also hints at the coming exodus of women religious. Despite her considerable moral authority and worldly experience, Sister Aloysius holds little real power to protect her students. Father Flynn possesses a bit more power, but not much wisdom. Could Sister Aloysius, that tower of certitude, become one of the “dominoes”?
Shanley leaves that question for his audience to decide. But Doubt evokes a haunted time before “the deluge.” Sharp-eyed parochial school principals sensed danger, but could do only so much to protect their charges.
Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.”
I was so outraged by the review, that I was literally compelled to write a response. The following is my response to the movie and to the review:
I do not think that we watched the same movie.
What I watched was a film about a conniving, self-righteous, vindictive nun, who took it upon herself to violate her vows, the Church’s hierarchy, and common decency by destroying a good Priest’s reputation. She had no proof, whatsoever, that Father Flynn was involved in an inappropriate relationship with the boy, yet she had her certainty. She regarded her own opinion as the final word– she was judge, jury, and executioner, as it were. Joan Frawley Desmond, the movie reviewer, lamely views Sister Aloysius’ prudish and conservative disposition as entirely proper, while seeming to cast a negative light upon Father Flynn, as though it were Priests such as him who molested alter boys. As Desmond put it, he was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I humbly suggest that it is people like Sister Aloysius and Joan Frawley Desmond who are the problem with the church, not Father Flynn.
Put the film in the proper historical context. The boy was an African-American, who had been chased from his previous school and, at that moment in time, had no hope for his future. Besides a violent home life, society at large was not entirely eager to accept African-Americans as equals. After-all, it had only been ten years previous when the Supreme Court made its famous Brown V. Board of Education ruling, and only a few years after the Supreme Court ruled again that schools had to immediately desegrate. This was a time of social change: a young President had been slain in public, Civil Rights were making legislative progress, and it seemed that the country was moving in a more tolerant direction. For some, like Joan Frawley Desmond and Sister Aloysius, tolerance might as well be a four letter word. But it is those sort of Calvinist and Puritanical tendencies our society has been trying to escape ever since our Founding Fathers created a country rooted in reason and Enlightenment principles. It took real “passion, charity, and courage” for Father Flynn to come to the boy’s aid and to show him the love he did not receive from home or society.
Father Flynn was a good man. His sermons were passionate. He was eager to engage and relate to the students, and he demonstrated love for them– love which our Lord demands we show to all people, especially children. But Father Flynn represented the winds of change. As our nation is currently experiencing, change is hard to accept for some. Sister Aloysius was not willing to accept that change was upon them. Father Flynn stood against the system, which Sister Aloysius jealously defended, that divided the clergy from the flock. We are all God’s children, and we are all called to serve him. The boy, who was also a victim of Sister Aloysius’ trickery, spoke to Father Flynn about his desire to enter the Priesthood, seeing Flynn as a mentor and a good male role model. It may very well be that the boy, after seeing the carnage wrecked upon Father Flynn, decided against joining the Priesthood. It may very well be the same sort of carnage that now prevents our young men from entering the Priesthood.
In the final analysis, it may very well be that this film is a form of Rorschach. For people like Joan Frawley Desmond and Sister Aloysius, this film demonstrates the “courage” of some to stick to their parochial and troglodytic ways, even if it involves ruining the life of an innocent man and an innnocent boy; for others, like myself, this film demonstrates the difficulty of bringing change to a system that is unwilling to evolve, and how that system would rather step away from God, our Father, in order to maintain the status quo. Father Flynn’s only crime was that he cared too much, unlike Sister Aloysius, the Warden, who’s crime was hate and villainy.
In closing, I would call the reviewer’s attention to the beautiful opening of the film. Father Flynn begins mass with a wonderful sermon about doubt. It is at this point that it is obvious that Sister Aloysius has a problem with him. She even interrupts the nuns’ rivetingly silent dinner to seek their thoughts on Father Flynn’s sermon. Why? It is obvious. She is jealous that Father Flynn is so passionate and strong in his fidelity to God, because, as we learn in the final twenty seconds or so of the film, Sister Aloysius has doubts. Her faith in God is weak. It almost seems as though there is an inverse relationship between her vindictiveness and the unwavering faith of Father Flynn. While her final words of the film express her doubt in God, Father Flynn’s final words are one of acceptance– acceptance that God has superior knowledge (more superior, one would assume, than Sister Aloysius’), and as such God’s judgement should not be questioned.
Father Flynn is content with the winds of change at his back, while Sister Aloysius is left crying in the snow, her inferior, Sister James, feeling both contempt and pity for her. Who is better off?
This was a really good movie, and I recommend it for everyone, especially Catholics. Below, I’ve added the trailer. Take a look!