"Doubt" and Transforming Faith

"Doubt" and Transforming Faith January 7, 2009

On the web site for the film Doubt, writer and director John Patrick Shanley explains that, for him, doubt is not the absence of faith, but rather a stage of experience the faithful may go through, from which they emerge with a new kind of faith. Though in Shanley’s film, doubt and faith revolve around questions about human nature rather than questions about the existence of God, Doubt raises important questions about how those with religious convictions should relate to the world in a time of change.

Some summaries of Doubt may lead one to believe that the film (and the award-winning play, also written by Shanley, from which it was adapted) is about the sex abuse scandal among Catholic priests. While the plot is driven by the question of whether Father Flynn did or didn’t molest a boy at St. Nicholas School, the film, more than anything else, is about Vatican II. Because American Protestants, as fractured into denominations as we are, have never experienced a seismic shift quite like Vatican II, it may be difficult for many of us to grasp how thoroughly it shapes the world of Doubt, which takes places in 1964 (the Second Vatican Council convened between 1962 and 1965).

In Doubt, Father Flynn embodies many of the Vatican II reforms. He believes that the church should present a “friendly” face, that the clergy should be more like family members to their congregants, and that popular music should be incorporated into the Christmas pageant. He preaches rather shallow sermons with a more horizontal (concerned with relationships among humans) than vertical (concerned with God and his relationship to humanity) emphasis, in order to make his message more practical and relatable. He also may or may not be a child molester.

On the other hand, Sister Aloysius of the Sisters of Charity, the principal of St. Nicholas School, represents a more pre-Vatican II, hierarchical relationship between the religious and the lay people. She believes that structure, discipline, and fountain pens (as opposed to those new-fangled ballpoint things) are in the schoolchildren’s best interest. She genuinely cares about the children, but she is not what you might call touchy-feely.

Caught in between these two characters, between these two eras of the Catholic Church, is Sister James, a young, somewhat naïve nun who has a warmer personality than that of Sister Aloysius, but who is also (perhaps rightfully) suspicious of the way Father Flynn relates to the boys at the school. Sister James represents all Catholics, lay and religious, who had to find their way to a new expression of faith after Vatican II.

Doubt, as a play, is subtitled “A Parable,” which indicates that it’s not exactly intended to be subtle. However, its characters are intended to be fully realized people, as well as symbols, and this is where the movie version fails, largely due to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Sister Aloysius as a mean, cranky nun with an inconsistent Boston accent. Because she plays the role exactly like a composite stereotype from parochial school nightmares, the movie doesn’t quite achieve its intended ambiguity. Most audience members will probably have more sympathy with Father Flynn and believe his version of events, simply because Streep turns her character into a bitter “old dragon” (Streep’s own words, from an interview).

Yet part of Shanley’s intent in the play was to pay tribute to the Sisters of Charity, who really taught him as a young boy. He dedicated Doubt “to the many orders of Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools, and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned, who among us has been so generous?” Shanley has also said in interviews that he sympathizes a good deal with Sister Aloysius, even in her condemnation of ballpoint pens (because, as he and she point out, penmanship is a dying art). Beautiful things often have to be sacrificed for change—even good and needed change—to happen, he acknowledges, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pause to shed a tear for their loss.

Shanley is not some Latin-only Mass enthusiast, and he seems to be in sympathy with many of the changes in the Catholic Church (for example, abolition of some of the hierarchical structures that severely restricted the freedoms of nuns in comparison to monks and priests). Doubt does not oppose all change or say that those who favor it are all child-molesters; rather, it suggests that change is a difficult, but necessary part of faith.

Yet there is also a warning that, for the sake of “friendliness” and “accessibility,” we may sacrifice some of the church’s essentials. Vatican II basically dealt with the same question that many Protestants congregations and denominations face today: How can the church change in ways that represent Jesus’ incarnational relationship to contemporary culture—and yet still retain the truly good news that Jesus can and does transform our hearts, leading us away from sinful ways?

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  • I enjoyed the review and find it very helpful.

    Bottom-line would you recommend the movie or recommend we spend out time elsewhere? Thanks

    Chris Dattilos last blog post..Facebook and Twitter for the Glory of God

  • Carissa


    I’d definitely recommend the film, though it’s not as good as it could have been (again, mainly due to Meryl Streep’s seemingly uncontrollable urge to shew the scenery). If you’re somewhere where you can see the play, I’d recommend that instead, but that’s not an option for many of us!

    One thing I didn’t mention is that the film probably does flesh out the world of mid-Vatican II Catholicism more than the play does, because it adds characters (most notably a whole host of schoolchildren) not present in the four-member cast of the play. Still, I think the play probably has more nuance, assuming that whoever plays Sister Aloysius has a better understanding of the role than Meryl Streep did.

  • Great article! Thanks for being the first review I read that did spend any time on the pointless question of “did he or didn’t he.”

  • Mink

    Very adept, Carissa. As usual, you don’t let the methods distract you from the meanings. I’ll go see the play, thanks.

  • You raise some interesting points. Doubt is a necessary first step to critical thought. Although doubt appears to be the opposite of faith, critical thought is necessary for strong reasoning and persuasive speech.

    Minnesota Attorneys last blog post..Minnesota S Corp Attorney

  • @The Great CAPC Ether – Who do I have to beg to dump the bolding of every third sentence. It’s pretty obnoxious and makes it difficult to read. Obviously, it’s not perfectly illegible, but it does make reading articles tiresome enough to make it difficult to want to finish the article let alone begin it. I’ve found myself either skimming or completely skipping articles because of it.

    If a writer wants to include breakpoint headers or wants to use emphasis properly, that’s fine. But all this artificial emphasis really detracts from the articles.

    @Carissa – As to this article, good job Carissa. I’m curious (not having yet seen the film—I’ll be waiting for dvd), if Doubt is really, more than anything else, about Vatican II, how do you think the title speaks to this conflict between the two church paradigms?

    I was reading Berardinelli on Doubt and while he was much happier with Streep than you were, I found his perspective on the film purpose interesting (if only for the comparison):

    Faith exists not in counterpoint to certainty but to doubt. And those in religious institutions who wish to commune with their fellows must never lose sight of the fact that doubt defines and binds us. Few of us have the capacity to defend a position of uncompromising certainty. Doubt asks questions about faith. It acknowledges the importance of vigilance yet, at the same time, cautions against embracing certainty because such an action curtails the search for truth.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • The Dane, you may be right. Anyone else feel the same way about the bolding of sentences?

  • Ben P


    I have not yet seen the film. I did have the pleasure of seeing it on Broadway with Cherry Jones playing Sister A. I had the chance to talk to her after the show and asked about this and other characters she has played. And she said, “I just love everyone of them.” Her performance was terrific and really made you wonder about Fr. Flynn (also excellently acted). She appeared tough and maybe even ruthless, but her wisdom, dedication and even love were unmistakably present in Ms. Jones’ performance. My overall impression was that if you had to side with one of them, Sister A.’s protective mother bear approach was a better bet than Fr. Flynn’s suspiciously fun uncle approach.

    I was very much impressed by the balance in the play, and was told that in order to keep it fresh the actor playing Fr. Flynn would switch the “facts” each night, playing it as though he were guilty one night and as though he were innocent the next. It holds up well under both readings.

    I am disappointed to hear that Ms. Streep did not do justice to the subtlety of her character and opted for a caricature instead. I would have expected more from her.

    Thanks for the review.

  • While I haven’t seen the play and have no frame of reference to compare to, I thought Meryl Streep’s performance was wonderful. By the end of the movie I partly hated her but still managed to feel sorry for her. Though credit could be given to the script, I think Steep’s performance, especially juxtaposed with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, complements the role quite well. Hoffman’s performance, on the other hand, was, without a doubt, phenominal.

    But whether you think Streep’s performance is good or not, the film is definitely worth seeing. It will spur thoughts and conversation after.

  • Carissa

    The Dane, that comment relating faith, doubt, and certainty is certainly the approach Father Flynn takes (in fact, Berardinelli seems to be almost paraphrasing a sermon Father Flynn gives in the movie about how doubt unites us all) . . . but I’m really not sure if that’s the perspective of the film/play as a whole. Maybe I’m just more focused on the Sister James character, as someone of faith who doesn’t know who to believe (between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn), who becomes somewhat disillusioned with both, but who still doesn’t leave “the faith.” I suppose that’s the position of not only many Catholics around Vatican II, but also of anyone who’s felt hurt or betrayed by the church, Protestant or Catholic.

    Ben, I’m jealous that you got to see Cherry Jones! Interesting tactic with the Father Flynn role . . . was Brian O’Byrne still playing him when you saw it? Interestingly, Entertainment Weekly reviewed Doubt and Frost/Nixon together, since both were stage plays adapted for film by the original playwrights, and their conclusion was that Frost/Nixon succeeded better perhaps because it preserved the play’s cast, while Doubt recast movie stars in the roles. You’d think that the stage actors would have had a harder time adapting their performance to the film medium, but of course Frank Langella and Michael Sheen aren’t exactly strangers to film-acting either. Perhaps a more significant factor was that Shanley was directing the film he had first directed as a play, while Frost/Nixon switched directors (rather than actors) between play and film versions. I’m not a big fan of Ron Howard’s directing in general, but maybe it helped that he had some distance from the play.