Monday, January 05, 2009


It is sometimes difficult to bring an excellent play to the big screen, but John Patrick Stanley has successfully brought both his Pulitzer Prize winning writing skills and his Tony Award for this story to the big screen, with an Oscar worthy cast-- Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams to name the principals. The movie is set in 1964, not long after John Kennedy's assasination. These were tumultuous times, with major winds of change for the Catholic Church, as Vatican II had begun in 1962 and carried on into 1965. But none of those changes could have foreseen the scandal that would fall upon the Catholic Church with the major revelations about priests and pederasty especially in the U.S.A. which would come some decades later. This movie provides something of a premonition of those later revelations--- or does it? You will have to decide for yourself.

The movie is certainly aptly named as it is dealing with the issue of certainty and doubt, very important issues for Christian folk. And the movie allows these issues to simmer, percolate, bubble up, and then subside only to resurface as the movie moves along for its one hour and 44 minutes. Though the movie is rated PG-13, one can only imagine this is because of the delicacy and incendiary nature of the subject, and not for what is actually seen or heard in the film itself. Perhaps as well it is because of the incendiary nature of the performances of Streep (her best in many years) and Hoffman who is equally compelling as Father Flynn.

In regard to the plot itself, here is the Miramax summary---

"It’s 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A vibrant, charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Academy Award® winner Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to upend the schools’ strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Academy Award® winner Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the community, and indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James (Academy Award® nominee Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her guilt-inducing suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius sets off on a personal crusade to unearth the truth and to expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shard of proof besides her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn which threatens to tear apart the community with irrevocable consequence."

Though the issues in this film may appear to be black and white, the movie itself is presented to us in shades of gray, because of that small matter of doubt. Where does Sister's Aloysius' certainty which she says she has come from? She says it comes from past experience, and she even admits to Father Flynn in one compelling scene that she also has committed a mortal sin. Is it an experienced woman's intuition about male lust? Is because she herself had been previously abused by a priest? We are never told, and then when she takes a calculated risk or bluff to 'out' Father Flynn she still gets no confession from him. We are not told in the end what the priest did or did not do with young Mr. Miller. In short, we too are left in doubt.

But then, that is what the movie hopes to implant in us all. The film begins with a scene where Father Flynn is preaching a homily, and its subject is precisely on doubt, and how it unites us all. This already gets Sister Aloysius's suspicions going. What kind of priest sees doubt as a good or humanizing thing? At one point in the film it is said that certainty is a feeling, something one senses, without having an adequate cognitive basis to support it. And this is in part correct.

There is indeed a difference between cognitive certainty, and assurance of something, which can involve both cognitive and affective elements. The author of Hebrews reminds us that 'faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and conviction about things not seen'. Faith inherently then involves trust, and not intellectual certainty. This theme is played like a round in this movie, without any final denoument or resolution.

One of the more interesting themes in the movie is developed when Sister Aloysius admits that in order to pursue a matter like 'outing a priest' one has to 'step away from trust and from God'. This is an interesting point, and the character of Sister James is meant to provide the counterpoint-- the trusting, naive soul, who nonetheless has some few suspicions, but deeply longs to believe in and trust Father Flynn.

Of course when you have an authoritarian structure like exists in the Catholic Church, it is very difficult for a person like a sister Aloysius, not in a power position to have challenged authority in 1964. And in the end, even Sister Aloysius has to admit, she too has her doubts. Only the all seeing eye of God knows all, which is precisely why only God should be the judge of any human soul. In regard to behavior however, the Bible is clear that we have every right to call one another to account if there is good reason to do so.

A theme not developed in this movie of course is the problems created in the Catholic Church by a requirement for a priest to be celibate in order to be a priest at all, that is unless he was called to the priesthood after already being married, a distinct rarity.

This movie hit home for me because of having spent some time with a priest who was in limbo, and on the way to being defrocked because of being accused by a boy of pederasty. In fact, he admitted not only the inclination, but even some form of the activity, while arguing he was baited into it, by a boy flaunting his manhood in a gym locker room, trying to tempt him to do something stupid. It was a sad, indeed horrible story I listened to, and this movie reminded me of it all over again. The priest should never have placed himself in a position where he could be tempted to fall, if he knew he had such a weakness. But in fact he did so, repeatedly.

And herein lies the cautionary tale for all religious authorities in positions of power--- the onus is entirely on you to maintain the proper boundaries in an inequitable power relationship such as that between a priest and an altar boy, or a minister and a choir director, or a teacher and a student. It does not matter if there is no age difference between the two persons in the relationship, what matters is the power inequity in the relationship, such that one person has control, and the other will have a difficult time saying no, especially if they want to keep their job, their position, their relationship with the powerful person. A priest or minister must not only err on the side of caution, their behavior needs to be above reproach, and if possible above suspicion. And on this matter I have no doubts. Nor do I about this movie--- almost every adult Christian needs to see this movie, and ruminate on it.



Jc_Freak: said...

"It does not matter if there is no age difference between the two persons in the relationship, what matters is the power inequity in the relationship, such that one person has control, and the other will have a difficult time saying no, especially if they want to keep their job, their position, their relationship with the powerful person."

What is interesting in some cases the the one who has the objective authority isn't actually the one with the authority within the relationship. Your friend is a case in point, for he seems to have been at the mercy of the boy.

A person with that kind of position can also be trapped in that sin once it is committed, because of the fear of losing their position: the fear of being 'outed'.

This seems to be a rarity in the pedophilia among Catholic priests, but it does indeed happen.

Ben Witherington said...

I have to disagree with this comment JC Freak. It was not and is not the case that a child ever has the authority in such a relationship--- never, nor does the child have the same level of culpability. And a priest afraid of being outed had no business being in a position where he could plausibly be accused of such.


Jc_Freak: said...

Perhaps I need to rethink my comments. I have a tendency to overstate a thing as I discuss it and need to backtrack later.

To be honest, the cases in my mind that serve as a basis for my comment are all cases of 2 adults, not one involving children. It was really in the general idea of religious positions of power that I was directing my thoughts, irrespective of context.

Going back, I realize that I have failed to do that in my expression of my thought, and for that I apologize. I will attempt to think my comments out with more depth in the future.

Randy Barnhart, Atlanta GA said...

Great review; thx. I definitely plan to see it.

Just wondering, did you see Eastwood's "Gran Torino," and do you plan to review it?

I thought it was powerful and Clint's best by far.

Frank Bellizzi said...

My wife and I went to see Doubt last night. Our tastes in movies are quite different, but we both found this one to be riveting. Afterwards, we had a good conversation about ends justifying means, and that whole bit about moving away from God to do one's duty. It reminded me of Bonhoeffer's struggle to identify the will of God.