January 09, 2009

When my wife suggested that we go see Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of his Tony-award winning play, I was skeptical. I never saw the play, but I knew that it was about a priest suspected by a nun of molesting a teenage boy at the parochial school she ran, and I didn’t want to waste two hours on the type of ham-fisted attack on the Catholic Church that Hollywood seems to enjoy making these days. But there is nothing ham-fisted about Doubt, a superb movie that deals with timeless issues of the human condition in a thoughtful, reflective way. Far from being an attack on the Catholic Church, it honors both the vanished world of pre-Vatican II Catholic America and the women who held that world together, often by embracing values that have largely disappeared not just from Catholicism, but from American life in general, to the detriment of us all. And traditional conservatives will often find themselves nodding in agreement with the stern principal of St. Nicholas school in the Bronx, Sister Aloysius, as she begins to suspect that the new, friendly, liberal priest at the parish, Father Flynn, has taken advantage of one of the eighth grade boys.

Catholic schools and the men and women religious and lay teachers who staff them still do enormous good in America. But the particular world depicted by Shanley—the parish church and school at the center of a cohesive neighborhood, where well-dressed neighbors who know each other well walk to a Mass unchanged for centuries—has largely disappeared.  At the center of that world was the parish school, staffed by nuns. Despite the universality of Catholicism, this particular world was largely an American creation. The American bishops determined that their flock would not be lost to the Faith, and mandated that each church have a grade school. And so people who had been peasants in Europe managed to create the largest private school system in the world, entirely by their own efforts. It was a remarkable achievement, and Shanley depicts the fruit of their efforts with considerable affection. As Michael Tueth, S. J. notes in the liberal Catholic magazine America, “Catholics of a certain age might be tempted toward nostalgia by the film’s opening shots, showing a quiet Sunday morning in this Irish-American neighborhood. The altar boys prepare the cruets of water and wine and negotiate which one of them will light the charcoal for the incense and which will ring the altar chimes for the consecration in this pre-Vatican II Sunday Mass. The working-class parishioners, nicely dressed, with the women all wearing the prescribed head-coverings, gently greet each other as they walk to church. Maybe Sister Aloysius has a point. Catholic life seemed simpler and more reliable then, with none of the questions and changes that the Vatican Council and all the other forces of the 1960s would bring to the Church.”

Doubt is set in 1964, just as the changes brought by Vatican II are beginning to be felt within the Church and America as a whole is starting to feel the winds of change.  John XXIII famously said that, in calling Vatican II, he was hoping to “throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” But wind is not always a benign force.  Margaret Mitchell said of another vanished American civilization that it was “gone with the wind,” and the wind is always blowing in Doubt. In one scene, Sister Aloysius is shown gathering the papers strewn all over her office after Fr. Flynn left the windows open. In another, she is talking with the parish handyman after a storm had brought down tree branches all around the convent:  “The world is crashing, Michael.  I’ve never known a wind like it. The wind has changed.”

Indeed it had. And Sister Aloysius knows that what is on the wind is not good. She tells Sister James, the young, kindly nun modeled after Shanley’s first grade teacher, “Always the easy way out these days.  Every easy choice will have its consequence tomorrow.  Mark my words.”  Since that time, we have changed from a society marked by discipline, duty, self-restraint, and delayed gratification to one marked by license, desire, self-indulgence, and instant gratification, as Americans have consistently taken the “easy way out,” choosing cohabitation over marriage, debt over savings, and slovenly dress and coarse speech and manners over decorous dress and decent speech and manners.  We have all become very good at making excuses for ourselves. These changes have affected all of us, in part because figures like Sister Aloysius, a stern disciplinarian who brooks no nonsense, have largely disappeared from the American scene. And when a character like Sister Aloysius shows up in our books and movies, it is generally as an object of horror or a figure of fun.

Sister Aloysius is neither. Although the first time we see Sister Aloysius she is disciplining children for not paying attention at Sunday Mass, and some of her concerns seem petty, we slowly begin to learn that Sister Aloysius’ behavior is motivated by a genuine concern for those in her care. She is protective of an elderly nun who is going blind, because she fears that if the priests who run St. Nicholas learn of the nun’s blindness she will be sent away.  She asks Sister James if anyone has hit Donald Miller, the school’s first black pupil, and instructs Sister James, “when that happens, send them right down to me.” The viewer knows that Sister Aloysius will make sure the first time Donald Miller is hit will be the last. When a frustrated Sister James at one point compares the school to a prison, Sister Aloysius asks if she is serious. Sister James says, “No.  Actually, they all seem fairly happy. But they’re all uniformly terrified of you!” To which Sister Aloysius replies, “Yes. That’s how it works.” Sister Aloysius shows both the depth of her concern for those in her charge, and the usefulness of her formidable mien, when she confronts Father Flynn over what she believes to be his abuse of Donald Miller.

Shanley dedicates the movie to Sister James, now Sister Margaret McEntee, who is still teaching as a Sister of Charity. The dedication of the play was broader: “€œTo the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?”   As he told one interviewer about the women who taught him, “It was evident from the way that they talked that they were not engaged in a popularity contest; they were not trying to charm their students, and they were not interested in being adored. That’s something I saw a great deal of later on in various educational settings, where the teacher wanted to be loved. It takes a real adult to teach the way that the Sisters of Charity taught, which was very selfless. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about getting the work done.”  So it is no surprise to read Shanley say of Sister Aloysius, “I love Sister Aloysius.  And I think she’s right about a tremendous amount … And I agree with her that something beautiful is lost in these kind of changes.”

Shanley is not a conservative, but, in the midst of addressing the broader philosophical issues that interest him, he has done a magnificent job of showing what was lost in the tumult of the ‘60s.  Thankfully, we have not forgotten how to appreciate the Sister Jameses of this world. And if Father Flynn is innocent, we know how to value his friendliness and openness.  But we have forgotten the value of someone like Sister Aloysius. Come back, Sister Aloysius. America needs your kind again.


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