Streep Amidst the Wolves
Doubt has fine performances and an unpredictable take on Catholic scandal.


Thomas S. Hibbs

The film version of Doubt, directed by John Patrick Shanley and based on his celebrated play, is set in a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964. At the center of the plot are two characters: the tough and assertive Sr. Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principal of the parish school, and a progressive priest, Fr. Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The tensions between the two escalate when Sr. Aloysius comes to suspect that Flynn is conducting an inappropriate relationship with twelve-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the only African-American student in the school.

With a terrific cast, Doubt is a well-acted and, for the most part, engrossing film. Despite important flaws–including the near-elimination of doubt itself as a dramatic factor–the film is to be praised for bringing to the screen a common, yet seldom noted, phenomenon of the late-20th-century Catholic Church: liberal clericalism.

Unlike the stage version of Doubt, the film fails to weave uncertainty skillfully into the plot. The play is more of a thriller in which the priest’s culpability remains questionable. The film sets things up in such a way that viewers are led to conclude that Sr. Aloysius’s suspicions are well founded. Guilt is not absolutely established, but there is powerful circumstantial evidence, most of which is provided by the priest himself as he responds to the nun’s increasingly explicit accusations. Instead of using doubt as a dramatic device, the film uses it as a philosophical and theological theme.

Early in the film, Fr. Flynn preaches a sermon about uncertainty caused by world events–citing the Kennedy assassination–or by “private calamity” and personal sin. While the experience of doubt is often accompanied by a feeling of isolation, it can–Fr. Flynn urges–be a “powerful bond.” As the camera cuts back and forth between Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius, we are led to conclude that Flynn’s target is the sanctimonious and inordinately confident nun. Later, he extols the virtue of tolerance and preaches an even more obviously pointed homily on gossip.

The exchanges between the nun and the priest are the dramatic heart of the film; for the most part, these are quite gripping. Through them, we learn that neither character is as one-dimensional as we might initially have believed. Sr. Aloysius in particular is complex, capable of great kindness and generosity as well as indignation. Although approaching at times the histrionic, Streep’s performance is splendid, as is Hoffman’s.

Both characters would be even richer had not the filmmakers neglected to explore the surrounding world of the school in any great detail. At one point Sr. James (Amy Adams), a young, personable nun, complains to the principal that the students are “all uniformly terrified of you.” Sr. Aloysius responds, “That’s how it’s supposed to work.” There is something to be said for the way authority functions to keep children happy and learning, but the film never lets us even glimpse how this works. The world of the Catholic Church is presented as regimented and repressed–and not much more.

The film builds a sense of impending radical change. Characters speak of the “winds of change,” and the wind itself figures dramatically in a number of scenes–too many. But it is never clear in what direction the winds are blowing. Given the rigid, repressed church that the film depicts, one might suppose that change should bring about the demise of the entire hierarchical, organized structure. In the Catholic Church of 1964, change was indeed imminent. But Hoffman’s character, the film’s advocate for a more open church, presents a sinister twist on some of the changes wrought in the name of Vatican II. The one who preaches doubt and toleration has deeply self-interested motives for doing so. Moreover, intentionally or not, the film argues that a welcoming attitude is entirely insufficient to protect the innocent from the predators.

Completely apart from the issue of sexual abuse in the church, Hoffman’s Fr. Flynn is a fascinating study in the phenomenon of post–Vatican II liberal clericalism. Whereas clericalism, which is to say the aggrandizement of priestly power, was once associated with conservative elements in the church, that has changed. Fr. Flynn embodies a familiar priestly character type of the past 40 years: the liberal who preaches a more democratic church but resorts to the most authoritarian expressions of clericalism to extract obedience when it suits him. A flawed film in many ways, Doubt manages, in its best moments, to transcend conventional stereotypes.

– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.