An earlier column at EthicsDaily.com spoke of this movie from a Catholic point of view. Phyllis Zagano believes this movie paints a caricature of the Catholic Church and that it speaks doubtfully about religion, the church and God. My opinion is much different.
The story is set in a parochial school in 1964. Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is very much a part of the “new Catholic church.” This is soon after Vatican II and the church is in reform, which he clearly embraces.
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principal of the school and is, what we non-Catholics have heard, a typical nun of the period. She boxes ears and haunts the nightmares of the school’s students. Hers is a by-the-book ministry. Ballpoint pens are taboo, as are Luden’s Cough Drops (they’re too much like candy).
Within the story is Sister James (Amy Adams), a point in the triangle of relationships. She is young and idealistic. Not knowing where she needs to be, she is like a feather in the wind. Each influence blows her around, moving her back and forth in her understanding of what is taking place.
The drama of the story centers on Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the only African American in the school. Home life is bad and the children at the school treat him as less than. Father Flynn cares for the boy and goes out of his way to help him navigate life’s storms.
One day during class, Father Flynn calls Donald to the rectory. Sister James notices on his return that Donald is sad and has the smell of alcohol on his breath. She reports this to Sister Aloysius. Without any real evidence, except her certainty, Sister Aloysius begins a mission to get rid of Father Flynn.
As I watched this movie, I remembered Timothy Keller’s book, “The Prodigal God,” which is a reflection on the parable of the Prodigal Son. There Keller speaks of the church as being made up of younger brothers and elder brothers.
The younger brothers are those who have rebelled and come home. They live by grace because they have experienced it. The elder brothers are those who see their relationship with God measured in rules followed and merit earned. “Doubt” spoke to me of this.
There is a scene in the movie where we get a view of priests gathering for a meal. They laugh and drink wine and tell jokes. Then we see inside the nunnery. It is quiet, austere and being watched over like a hawk by Sister Aloysius. There is no grace there—only the measuring of actions to ensure no offense can occur.
Sister Aloysius is not without compassion. One of her fellow nuns is old and going blind. She tells Sister James to take her hand and help her, for if it is discovered that she is blind the older nun will be sent away to die alone. But there is a problem with this kind of compassion: It is only for her kind that she has it. None is given anyone else.
I have to say that I have not stopped thinking about “Doubt.” It is heavy-handed and broad, but it is telling a story that needs this breadth. If I were a Catholic, I am sure it would offend me; I remember so many of the stereotypical portrayals of Baptist ministers that crossed the screen. But looking beyond this, there is more here.
Writer-director John Patrick Shanley is telling a story of what happens to religion that forgets its foundation. Sister Aloysius says that to confront wrong, one must take a step away from God. Clearly Sister Aloysius has taken many steps away from God.
Shanley is speaking to all of us about the danger in being so focused on the sin that we forget the sinner and the grace of God that comes in repentance. For elder brothers and sisters, like Sister Aloysius, it becomes important to cast out the sinners and keep their corner of the kingdom free of sin—for God comes and demands accounting. It is not accounting for the whole world, but how we kept our part of the field.
We have our story to tell. We have worked our part of the field, and it is perfect. No sin here, except the log in our eyes.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material.
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Writer: John Patrick Shanley, based on his play
Cast: Father Flynn: Phillip Seymour Hoffman; Sister Aloysius: Meryl Streep; Sister James: Amy Adams; Mrs. Miller: Viola Davis; Donald Miller: Joseph Foster.