To some Doubt is about the sex scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church. But a close watching of the film will relieve that it is actually about doubt. John Patrick Shanley based on his Pulitzer and Tony-winning play of the same title directs the film.
The setting is St. Nicholas catholic grade school in the Bronx in 1964. The school is ruled by its principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Under her supervision is Sister James (Amy Adams). Sister James is more naïve and innocent than Sister Aloysius. As a result, Sister Aloysius is more harsh and, well, scary. When Donald Miller, the only African-American student at the school, is called down to the rectory alone, Sister James can’t help but be suspicious.
After the boy returns to class, there is something different about him. Sister James reports the event to Sister Aloysius, who seems to think she knows what happened. The implication is clear – Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) took advantage of the boy sexually. Father Flynn eventually leaves the parish to avoid any controversy.
The main issue is not sexual morality, the main issue is doubt. Vacation II, and the changes it brought, was underway in the Roman Catholic church at this time. Father Flynn is a more progressive priest, while Sister Aloysius is a rule follower. And as the principal, that makes sense. She is in charge of the nuns and the children. Without the rules, chaos will break through.
But sometimes the rules do not allow change to occur. Change feels like chaos. Change happens. It is a way of life. It is built into the very fiber of creation. But, change is hard. But even those of us who have claimed being “born again,” must be “born again.” John Wesley understood that the Christian is going on to perfection. What he meant by that is that, even though we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are still on a journey of faith. And on that journey will be little conversions, moments of transformation and change.
Father Flynn preaches on doubt in the first sermon we hear. Sister Aloysius clearly feels like talking about doubt has no place in the church. While Sister James, much younger, thinks it was a good thing for Father Flynn to talk about. And, let’s face, doubt gets a bad rap. Poor Thomas missed out on the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, questions what the disciples are telling him, and he is forever dubbed “Doubting Thomas.”
Is there anything wrong with asking questions of our faith? Father Flynn would say no. We need to be in conversation with our theology and the changing world we live. Sister Aloysius on the other name, would say yes, there is something wrong with it. The rules are there for a reason.
When we doubt, we raise questions. Questions demand answers. Doubt has the potential to send the Christian on a journey seeking answers. This journey moves the Christian beyond the way things have always been to the new possibilities in Christ.
The closing scene of the film is, honestly, an odd way to end a film. For those who like movies with a happy ending that provides closure, this is not the film. The two nuns are sitting outside on a bench. Sister Aloysius finally confesses that she doubts. And she falls into the arms of young Sister James and cries. The organ music swells playing “The First Noel.” And then the credits begin scrolling while a choir sings, “Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth.”
Even Sister Aloysius, with all of her rules, needs the Redeemer to come to her.