Doubt the Movie

Doubt the Movie December 12, 2008



It is December, 1964. At St Nicholas Parish in the Bronx, Fr. Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) celebrates Mass. He is preaching about “doubt” and  Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the mother superior of the Sisters of Charity and principal of the school is in the congregation. She is not pleased with Fr. Flynn’s sermon. 

Sister James (Amy Adams) is a young sister in her first year of teaching. One of her students, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster)  is the only African-American student in the school. Fr. Flynn takes an interest in him. Donald is also an altar boy.

One day, Fr. Flynn calls Donald to the rectory. The boy acts strangely when he returns to class and Sr. James reports this to Sr. Aloysius. “And so it begins,” she says. She puts Fr. Flynn on notice that she is going to expose him. He is shocked at her insinuation that he has molested the boy. He demands evidence, but all she has is her “certainty.”

Sr. James is a young, inexperienced religious caught in the middle of a vortex: between Sr. Aloysius claims to certainty, the child, seeing Fr. Flynn sneak a piece of clothing into Donald’s locker, and her own insecurity and lack of life and faith experience. 


Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in DOUBT

Sr. Aloysius tries to speak with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis). She wants her son to stay at St. Nicholas until the end of the year so he will be safe from public school bullies; she admits to being abused by her husband. She also demands proof.

I went to a screening of Doubt a few weeks ago. Afterwards, the writer/director John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck), Meryl Streep, Hoffman, Adams and Viola Davis came onstage and spoke about the film.

The acting in the film is superb; Shanley, Streep, Hoffman, Adams, and Davis, will all attract award notice

Shanley spoke about “doubt”  in broad terms; the certainty of the faith of his childhood,  and the place of doubt in human experience. He alluded to the certainty of these past several years in the U.S. (I took it to be a political reference; my companion at the screening disagreed; I was happy to read in Shanley’s introduction to the play that was just published, that he meant certainty in all aspects of life) and that doubt and the questions it prompts, can be a sign, the beginning, of wisdom.

Shanley, who adapted his play for the screen, has given us a parable rooted in the recent clergy abuse scandal that broke in 2002.  The film is definitely a statement against pedophilia. He also references domestic abuse and the unspeakable lengths that people go to so they can survive.

In the film Doubt no evidence is ever offered that would condemn Fr. Flynn, though his responses read like a checklist of the behavior of a pedophile (giving gifts, special attention to a child, isolating the child, and that piece of clothing…, etc.) No one even asks the child if something happened, though Fr. Flynn gives a plausible, but not necessarily ironclad, explanation. Is his confusion real? Is he guilty? Only you can decide, and maybe not even then.

The Sister James character, Shanley told the audience, is based on his own 1st grade teacher –  Sister Margaret McEntee, SC. Early on when Doubt was on the stage,  he was surprised to learn was still living.  The film is dedicated to her (as is the published version of the play) and he hired her to be a consultant to the film. I think she has done a wonderful job of presenting religious life just as Vatican II was ending. I entered my community in 1967, and everything in the film about convent life, from the small kindnesses to the hubris, is credible. After all, religious life is a microcosm of humanity, women struggling to be who we say we are: disciples of Jesus.

Is Fr. Flynn guilty? He could be; but he might not be. Perhaps he is just imprudent or dumb. Sr. Aloysius’ decision to go contrary to God to find the truth, as she explains to Sr. James, is morally troubling.  

Sr. Aloysius accuses Sr. James as wanting the security of simplicity again, like she had before this episode; yet I think Sr. Aloysius is speaking to herself, and to everyone who has ever doubted.

The atmosphere of the film is cold and stark: December in a frozen, urban landscape is bleak. The emotional, rational, spiritual state of doubt can be chilly: a dark night of the soul, the revelation or realization of doubt, that makes us take action and ask questions, that challenges the comfort of our certainty, is a cold, and at times, lonely journey.

As the writings of St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and Mother Teresa attest, doubt happens, and however painful, can be a source of honesty and ultimately, spiritual growth.

Shanley uses the suspicion of very real clerical pedophilia as a way to explore the certainty of faith. As such, Doubt is a powerful film that will evoke questions and, hopefully, launch a thousand conversations about things that matter.


Please see for the review of the USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcast.

For a copy of the Pultizer Prize for Drama play, go to:







 The following is the SIGNIS STATEMENT about the film Doubt, written by Rev. Peter Malone, MSH, who heads the film desk for SIGNIS. SIGNIS is the Vatican-approved international Catholic organization for communication:




2nd December 2008





Doubt is a film of strong Catholic interest. 


It can be viewed in the light of the current Church experience of sexual abuse by clergy.  However, this is not the central issue of the film.  Doubt is a film about Church structures, hierarchy, the exercise of power and the primacy of discipline and order.


Set in the autumn of 1964 in the Bronx, New York, the film focuses on the suspicions of the primary school principal, Sister Aloysius, that the local priest and chaplain to the school, Fr Flynn, is taking an unhealthy interest in one of the students, aged twelve.  There are some suggestions, several ambiguous clues, about what might have happened but the actual events remain unclear as the priest defends himself against the nun’ strong intuition against him and the nun discusses the problem with the boy’s mother.  As the title of the film indicates, the drama leaves the truth unclear because it is the stances of the two characters in conflict, especially the determined nun and the truth struggle, the power struggle, the conscience struggle, that is the point of the film.


John Patrick Shanley (Oscar for the screenplay for Moonstruck and a prolific playwright) has adapted and opened out  his Pulitzer-prize winning play for the screen and directed it himself.  Shanley has indicated that he is not so much concerned with the issue of clerical abuse of children as of pitting two characters against each other to highlight the uncertainties of certainty and the nature of doubt.  The drama is all the more powerful because of its naturalistic atmosphere, recreating the period and the life of the school, the convent and the rectory, and because of the powerful performances by Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Fr Flynn.  Amy Adams gives contrasting support as the gentle and somewhat naïve Sister James who teaches the children. Viola Davis is the mother of the boy.


It can be noted that the nun on whom the film’s Sister James was based and who taught Shanley at school in the Bronx has acted as a technical adviser.  The film, by contrast with so many others, represents the details of Church and liturgical life accurately – although there is a breviary in English, which was not the case in 1964, the children sing the Taize Ubi Caritas at Mass although it was composed later and Sister James is allowed to go to visit her sick brother which most nuns were not permitted to do at that time.  However, the film has a Catholic atmosphere which, while it might baffle audiences who were not there at the time, will ring true and bring back many memories to Catholics who lived through this strict period.


As with most organisations by the beginning of the 1960s, secular or religious, the Catholic Church was hierarchically structured.  Everyone knew their place, whether they liked it or not.  A pervading Gospel spirit of charity and service pervaded the Church but it was often exercised in a way that seemed harsh and demanding, especially by those who saw their authority being backed by a ‘grace of state’.  Many of those who left the Church in this era give anecdotes of the treatment they received from priests and nuns as reasons for their departure, even of their loss of faith.   When John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in January 1959 and it opened on October 11th 1962, in his phrase, windows were opened, and change began to sweep through the Church.  This coincided with the changes, especially in Western society during the 1960s and the widespread protests symbolised by the Vietnam War and the hippy movement.  In fact, this was also the decade of enormous changes in Africa and the moves for independence.  Independence was a key word of the 1960s.


This is the theme that Doubt takes up. 


Sister Aloysius


Sister Aloysius, who, we learn, is a widow, is a strong-minded superior of the strict, intervening school of religious life.   She sees herself as an authority figure and what she says goes.  This was the spirituality of God’s will spoken through the Superior – though, in retrospect, this often seems more the whim of the superior.  She believes in discipline and she does not expect to be liked.  She trusts her intuitions and assumes that they are correct.  She does show some consideration to the health and mental states of the older sisters and has moments of kindness to Sister James but, the kind of Church and religious life she has inherited mean that she is constantly on the alert, wants proper order everywhere and sees herself in the chain of hierarchical authority that goes up via parish priest, bishop, to Rome and to the Holy Father.


Shanley is giving us an image of this kind of nun and her ethos and religious motivations.  At its best and worst this can be seen in Fred Zinneman’s The Nun’s Story (filmed in 1958 while Pius XII was still alive and the assumption was that this is how religious life would be forever) but released in 1959 after John XXIII had called the Council which asked for renewal in all religious orders.  Sister Aloysius is experiencing the first signs of a more transparent church, a church where a more adult obedience and discernment would replace any blind obedience and any childish exercise of power. A year after the story of Doubt, the Council would issue its Constitution on the Church which would respect hierarchy but interpret the life of the Church as that of the People of God, with the principles of subsidiarity and shared responsibility.


Fr Flynn


This kind of Church is what Fr Flynn is foreshadowing in the film.  It is not as if there were not friendly priests – Fr Bing Crosby received frowns from Fr Barry Fitzgerald in the 1944 Oscar-winner, Going My Way, for being too open and relaxed – and got into some trouble with the school principal, Ingrid Bergman, in The Bells of St Mary’s, both films being interesting companion pieces to Doubt.


At the opening of the film, Fr Flynn gives a sermon on experiencing doubts.  This cuts no ice with Sister Aloysius.  Fr Flynn is already on her hit list because of his friendliness towards the children in the school.  He coaches basketball.  He talks with the children and affirms them.  This kind of pastoral outreach was about to be encouraged by the Council’s document on priesthood.


The film also offers a contrast between the silent, rather ascetical meals in the convent with the jovial conversation and joking at the priests’ parish table.


Certainties and doubts


The confrontations between Sister Aloysius and Fr Flynn become quite desperate for Fr Flynn when he realises that the nun is so certain and dominating and has taken investigations into her own hands rather than respecting him as a person let alone a priest. We see the conflict between the old authoritarian style and the new, more personable style of interactions.  While Shanley himself states that he has some sympathy for the old ways, rituals, silence and devotion, his drama clearly shows the inadequacy of the authoritarian hierarchical model of Church in dealing with human relationships.  Something had to change.  And it did.


The sisters in the film are the Sisters of Charity founded in the 19th century by Elizabeth Bayley Seton,canonised a saint in 1975, and they are still wearing her dress/habit and bonnet.  Within the decade, that would change, sisters wearing a less formal habit or ordinary clothes with an emblem indicating their religious order.  Community life would be less rigid as would the relationships between the sisters.  There would be different relationships between the parish clergy and the sisters would worked in the parish.


Doubt offers an opportunity to look at the two models of Church and to assess their strengths and weaknesses, especially in the light of subsequent events and the nature and life of the Church at the present day.


The film wants to create doubts in the minds and emotions of the audience by contrasting the two styles of pastoral outreach, Sister Aloysius as stern, Fr Flynn as amiable.  As regards the doubts about Fr Flynn’s behaviour, contrasting clues are offered: Fr Flynn’s manner and friendliness with the boys, his singling out Donald for attention, Donald’s drinking the altar wine in the sacristy and Sister Aloysius’ conclusion that Fr Flynn had given it to him, Fr Flynn’s calling Donald out of class to the rectory and Sister James’ wariness about this.  On the other hand, Fr Flynn has explanations of Donald being the only African American boy in the school and the antipathy and bullying he received and wanting him to remain as an altar boy despite the offence which required his being dismissed as a server, his drinking the wine because of his father’s beating him because he suspected his homosexual orientation.  This is complicated by the conversation between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother whose sole concern, irrespective of what Fr Flynn might have done or not done and her husband’s violent treatment of Donald, is that Donald remain in the school for the next sixth months so that he will graduate and have the opportunity to go to a good high school.


Shanley’s images of Sister Aloysius at the end indicates that he believes we should all have doubts and not take the moral high ground of untested certainties.


[There are several films that take up this transition in the Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.  At the time, there were some films about nuns handling the changes: The Trouble With Angels, Where Angels Go… Trouble Follows and Change of Habit.  The small-budget film, Impure Thoughts (1981) has some very funny scenes of reminiscences about sisters and prriests in a parish school of 1961; Heaven Help us (1985)is set in a Franciscan boy’s high school in 1965.  This was the year Paul VI went to New York and addressed the United Nations – an event which is part of the background of Polanski’s film of Rosemary’s Baby.  For a stronger focus on the changes for nuns at the time, the Australian mini-series, Brides of Christ, is probably the best.  A telemovie, starring Kate Mulgrew as Mother Seton,  about the founding of the Sisters of Charity is A Time for Miracles (1980).]



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