If she spots a child talking with another one, she steps behind him and thwacks him on the back of the head. One stern look, one word of rebuke, and all the children snap to attention. Obviously, she’d rather be feared than liked. She feels that it’s her solemn duty to maintain order, discipline, and the air of seriousness required for a good Catholic school, and accompanying parish. She’s so no-nonsense that she doesn’t even tolerate ballpoint pens, firmly believing that the convenient departure from the traditional fountain pen is merely laziness, and will set a bad precedent. Yes, she seems perfectly joyless, quite a stark contrast to Sister James (Amy Adams), who is always smiling, seems to prefer to treat the students with kindness and compassion, and is reluctant to report every small infraction, believing that allowing a little latitude is a more comfortable approach.
That’s why, when she sees Father Flynn inappropriately hugging a boy in the hallway, she is very reluctant to perceive anything untoward. But she remembers the time when that particular student was called to the rectory, and returned looking stricken, putting his head on his desk. She remembers seeing the priest quietly return an undershirt to the boy’s locker, and, seeing that she spotted him, tried to nonchalantly get a drink of water. Sister James wants to believe the best about everybody, but considers her vows of obedience to have such primacy that she feels she must report her suspicions to the Mother Superior, Sister Aloysius.
The Mother Superior is at first mortified, but quickly becomes angry, and determined to get at the truth of the situation. She calls in Father Flynn, on the pretext of talking about the Christmas pageant, and manages to steer the conversation, in the presence of Sister James, toward the priest’s special interest in the Miller boy. At first, he’s verbally sparring, not answering their questions, then he’s indignant, huffy at being accused of anything by them when they have no proof. His next sermon, with the nuns present, of course, is to deliver a scathing attack against gossip. But the angrier he gets, the more Mother Superior is convinced that she has hit a nerve. She even makes an appointment with the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) to register her concern, but what follows is an astounding exchange only possible in a socially and racially repressed environment.
The final confrontation in her office begins with Father Flynn threatening to fire Mother Superior, by writing down as evidence the things she is saying against him. But she is far too clever to allow him to make this about her. Through confessing foibles of her own, and shedding a few strategic tears, she is able to maneuver him into letting his guard down enough to admit that he has things to confess to his priest, as well. That was the opening she needed. She then informs him that she has spoken to a nun at his previous parish, where he was asked to leave for exhibiting similar behavior, and demands that he resign immediately, as well as take a leave of absence before accepting his next assignment. She leaves him stewing in his own juices.
The next thing we know, Sister James has returned from a visit to see her sick brother, and Mother Superior is sitting in the courtyard, in the cold, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, but her iron visage is coming apart. She tells Sister James that in her absence, Father Flynn indeed resigned, but was merely reassigned to a larger parish, a promotion, really. She knew the “boys” would continue to protect each other. And then her stern face begins to melt, as she breaks down and confesses that she, too, has doubt. And we wonder if her crisis is spiritual or emotional or both, but we end with Sister James offering her comfort, and when the credits roll, we find that the film is dedicated to the woman formerly known as Sister James, and then we know whose story it is.
“Doubt” is written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his successful Broadway play. It takes us back to places that are uncomfortable for everyone, but we have to admire how the supposedly subservient nuns go about doing what’s right for the children under their care. True, their mealtimes are silent and joyless, like much of their lives. But now that they’ve mostly disappeared from the American educational landscape, we suddenly find that we miss them.
Questions For Discussion:
1) How has Catholic education changed in the last generation?
2) How has the revelation of clerical impropriety changed the cultural context for Catholic priests?
3) What do you think of celibacy as a spiritual value?
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas.