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.