Saturday, January 10, 2009


Spoiler Alert: I'm not going to give anything away in this review/entry, but I also am not going to hide my "read" on the events portrayed in the film. So if you want to go into it with an open mind, best to skip this entry perhaps. But whatever you do, go see this film!

I saw many, many excellent films this year, but my votes for Best Screenplay and Best Actress go to John Patrick Shanley and Meryl Streep for Doubt. I had to talk Steve into going, because he feared it would "set the church up as a straw man," paint a bad picture of the Catholic Church. The premise and the commercials did seem like a set-up. Pedophile priest, or maybe just really mean bitter nun who wants to accuse him. It was possible we'd have to suffer through all the stereotypes.

I had hope for better things because the Sisters of Charity of New York, whose habit is used in the movie and whose schools Shanley attended as a child, endorsed the film and participated in its making. For a link to their web page on the movie, click here.

The movie, I believe, is a brilliant account of one way that many pedophile priests in the United States escaped prosecution within the church. Their crimes could not be proven, and although people within the church knew what was going on and did heroic things to try to stop them, the hierarchy, but more particularly in this case the gender prejudice within the church structure, protected them. They could use the clerical structure of the church to hide what they were doing—to deny what they were doing. The character of Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has the script of this “Vatican II” priest down, the caring, reaching out priest, and uses his authority and the language of change within the church to identify and take advantage of the most vulnerable member of the school. This is most clear in the way he takes his authority for granted and in one breath talks about “opening” the Church and his care for the community and in the next breath scolds Sister Aloysius for not following “proper form” (i.e., chain of command) in her complaint against him.

The thing I'm afraid is lost on the general audience, including the people sitting behind us in the theater, is the heroism of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and the way in which that heroism comes out of her cultivation of her world view. I wonder if it’s possible to see this defense of her austere and rather rigid ways. What we as a culture condemn her for-- her seeming harshness in raising young boys in "the virtues" and her focus on the corrupting influence of ball point pens on handwriting--is exactly what makes her able to do the right thing in this movie.

The softer, and much more sympathetic character, Sister James (Amy Adams), who wants to see only the good in everyone, and wants to believe in the goodness of Father Flynn is naive, and would let him get away with his actions by believing in his explanation. She is the spirit of Vatican II openness, but also reveals its limitations. Vatican II did nothing to strike down the gender inequality in Church structures or the clerical culture. When I consider it in this context, I think: No wonder so many women religious left the Church. It may have “opened the window” and let in the fresh air of the times where laypeople were concerned, but when it came to women religious or the absolute authority of priests, the window, and the door, remained shut.

I am as critical as anyone of "absolute certainty," which is at the heart of S. Aloysius' character. However, I don't think it is fair to use her certainty about Father Flynn’s character against her. Basically, I think she has ample evidence of what she believes, and she will not be pressured to believe otherwise on the basis of Church authority or on pleas for sympathy. This Father Flynn is a fox and a rat, and she's right about him! To have the courage of her convictions means she "fights the power" using the only tools she has at her disposal. It's heroic. And it's an excellent defense of the Church, because she does not forget her charge and responsibility, her primary purpose. At the same time, she is not a caricature. She is shown to be kind and loving to older Sister Ramona who is losing her eyesight, and she is loving and open to young Sister James. With her Sisters, she shares power, she loves-- but not at the expense of what is right. In the end she has more bravery than the child's mother, plenty of compassion for those who deserve it, and moral high ground to boot.

The doubt she expresses at the end brought me to tears. It is not doubt in herself, or doubt in the truth, but doubts about God and the Church that is the natural response of someone who sees a criminal abusing children rewarded instead of taken down. And for a woman religious, someone with her complete conviction, her lifelong dedication, her commitment to her vows, those doubts about the Church must be crushing. They threaten the very thing that makes her heroic.

I see with the Sisters I work with the way they have found to be Church, to work within the Church and to work for their vision of the Church, despite grave injustice regarding gender equity. It has made them humble, and it has made them truly equipped to take the Church forward. Here is one example. There is a story in our current magazine about The Sophia Program, a program for women in ministry run by our Spirituality Center. In the rationale, Sister Kathryn Casper gave the shifting numbers of women in ministry. In 1990, 41% of parish ministers were women religious. Now the percentage of lay women is 64%, lay men 20%, and women religious, whose numbers are shrinking drastically, 16%. If we were talking about the priesthood, the interpretation would be: This shows a lack of men hearing and/or answering the call to the priesthood. This is a sad situation and marks increasing burdens on the Church. But S. Kate's interpretation of these numbers is quite different. In these numbers she sees "a true movement of the Holy Spirit in response to the signs of the times," lay women called to serve in ministry. She sees great possibility, and an important moment in the life of the Church. It's not a clerical reading of the situation. It is one that Sisters like those portrayed in this movie-- and I absolutely include S. Aloysius in this group, who wanted her students to grow up "different" and grow up well in the Church-- make possible.

For those interested in reading a critique of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that takes on exactly this question of how a clerical culture made the abuse and cover-up possible, and that offers hope for taking on that culture and moving the Church away from clericalism, I highly recommend the book Clericalism: The Death of the Priesthood by George Wilson, SJ. I worked with George on this book for Liturgical Press (and he wouldn’t want me to call him Father Wilson). I challenged him on many points, and we reworked the book (he did all the real work of course) three times before publication. It’s a wonderful piece of work that went into a second printing in the first year. He is the kind of priest who fully understood Vatican II and has worked to truly open the church. He is also in his 80s, and I know several other priests his age who are like him. Recent movement in the church, however, has moved not just toward more conservative liturgical expression (which I have nothing against except when it alienates the congregation-- as in un-singable Latin chants and inscrutable, arcane homilies), but also toward more emphasis on male hierarchy and more distance between congregation and clergy. I fear the church will not see the like of his generation of priests again. And if the church insists on moving away from the people, it will not solve its child abuse problem, and it will in fact lose even more parishioners than it is currently losing.

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