I missed Doubt when it
played on Broadway and was late to see its movie translation. Now I can’t get it out of my head. John Patrick Shanley has written a
powerful and timely parable.
The storyline, if you’ve not seen either version, echoes the now
infamous sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church and about which I
wrote in a recent post, Where
was God. Its main characters,
a nun parochial school principal and the parish’s priest, are oil and water in
a contest of wills and of credibility.
They are imperfect souls and each, expressed powerfully at separate
times of naked candor, has doubts.
Each is also the accuser of the other; Sister Aloysius pointing her enraged
finger at what she believes to be a “child molester”, Father Flynn suggesting
that she is holding the school back, out of touch with modern times and needs. The film version pits Meryl Streep
against Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Need I say more?
The script is one of accusations, but leaves us to draw our own
conclusions. How we come out may
be colored by what we know today and what was not known (or revealed) in 1964, the time in which the story is set. It is Shanley’s genius of not providing the answer that
keeps our minds turning and, of course, forces us to join the protagonists in
To me the strength, and perhaps the larger message, of the drama is
not so much doubt as it is ambiguity.
We’re faced with two characters, a dour aging schoolmarm nun who is
disciplined to the point of cruelty and an affable priest who easily wins
the hearts of his flock. Both are vulnerable
though Flynn more transparently so.
The accusations made are not of moral equivalence, being mired in the
rigid past holds no candle to child molestation. Yet the potential purveyor of the lesser evil is painted
with a very dark brush while he of the alleged much greater wrong shines in the
light. We instinctively
dislike her and are attracted to him.
So the parable here doesn’t relate so much to what we now know about
the goings behind the veil of professed piety in any given church, but in how
many of us view religion and, for that matter, much of our society. It isn’t so much that we have doubts,
though that is also true, but that we are confounded by the ambiguity. We are torn between promise and
repeated disappointment. What
should be good, what we expect to in fact be perfect, falls short, often
terribly so. What’s projected to
be extraordinary is transparently human and flawed. The recent “falling from grace” of a number of high profile
politicians didn’t disturb us because they “violated” their marriage contract
(not that we condone it), but because they had been so publically sanctimonious
about their own morality and so judgmental, even accusative, of others. So, too, when we see “pious” mullahs
send out goon squads to beat up citizens with different views (much as brown
shirts beat up Jews in Nazi Germany), we see a larger and wider ambiguity about
professed piety in other places.
That poses a serious problem, one that we are all being forced to
consider. Our world is an
ambiguous place and that can be unnerving, even more unnerving than doubt.