Father Brendan Flynn: You haven't the slightest proof of anything!
Sister Aloysius Beauvier: But I have my certainty! And armed with that, I will go to your last parish, and the one before that if necessary. I'll find a parent.
What are the consequences of Doubt?
“Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley is the film adaptation of the Tony awards grand-slam winner con Pulitzer Prize winning fictional stage play “Doubt: A Parable”. Shanley was born in The Bronx, New York City, to a telephone operator mother and a meat-packer father. He is a graduate of New York University, and a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre. The film was dedicated to Sister Margaret McEntee of the Sisters of Charity of New York who taught John Patrick Shanley in the first grade. He based the character of Sr. James on Sr. Margaret McEntee, who was known as Sr. Marita James when she was his first grade teacher.
Set in the 1964, the film focused in the events in St. Nicholas School, a private Catholic school, where Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) plays the staunch conservative Catholic principal. She is tagged as the “dragon lady” and knows the secret as to why teachers are mistaken (and feared) to have eyes behind their heads. On the contrary, the school also has Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a priest that promotes progressive ideas for the school – such as playing a secular song (Frosty, the Snowman) in their Christmas pageant. And seemingly employed to preempt the eventual clash of the two is the young and innocent Sister James (Amy Adams) who loves teaching and looks up high at Sr. Aloysius as her model.
After being intrigued by Fr. Flynn’s sermon about doubt (“Doubt can be a bond as sustaining as certainty…”) Sr. Aloysius ordered Sister James to watch out for anything unusual involving Fr. Flynn after seeing him in several occasions that have made her doubt about him. After being requested to pull the only African American student, Donald Miller, out of the class for a meeting and after seeing Fr. Flynn stuffing back the same student’s undershirt into his locker, Sister James suspects that there's something odd about Father Brendan and Donald’s relationship. Although Sister James didn't witness any inappropriate behavior, her observations fueled the fire of suspicion already burning in Sister Aloysius.
Sr. Aloysius eventually became successful in forcing Fr. Flynn to resign from the school by her made up phone calls to the latter’s previous schools regarding his “alleged” dark past. She then concludes that one also pays a price in pursuing wrongdoing. Finally, she broke down in tears in the last scene of the film and told Sister James: "I have doubts...I have such doubts."
One of the major themes of the film is the unending battle between conservatism versus change and progressivism. Conservatism, which was first used by François-René de Chateaubriand in 1819 following the French Revolution, promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society. While some conservatives aim to safeguard things as they are for stability and continuity, the others dispute change and pushes for returning to the way things were. In political science, it was introduced by Edmund Burke. On the other hand, progressivism is a political attitude favoring or advocating changes or reform through governmental action. The movement for progressivism began in the 19th-20th century when workers and reformers aimed to help those who are in harsh conditions at home and at work.
Taking the film literally, the film suggests apology to the issues attached to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC): sexual abuse issues, being one, and conservatism, another. Clearly, Sr. Aloysius was the personification of conservatism in the film while Fr. Flynn, of progressivism. This is particularly true in the 1960s when Pope Paul VI succeeded the deceased Pope John XXIII. The whole RCC was in the state of transition. From being more on the elitist side, the Church in 1960s reached out to the people, to the masses. He then introduced a lot of changes, hence pastoral progressivism. He reduced the Leviathan-like bureaucracy of the RCC and streamlined the positions; he reduced the eligibility age of the candidates for the papal elections; and he replaced the Papal Coronation with Papal Inauguration, among many other reforms.
Another theme that can be deduced from the film is the sufficiency of doubt to make judgments, or better put it, the politics of doubt. The film boasts Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Sr. Aloysius’ stronghold of certainty despite a lack of evidence and despite the fact that it only came from one thing, doubt. From this doubt, she was so paranoid to bring about preemptive actions partly because she “says” she’s concerned about the African American boy’s welfare and partly because he wants Fr. Flynn out of her toes.
Historically, or rather recently, we could recall that the Bush Administration of United States had done a similar thing, a preemptive strike (read: WAR) against Iraq which they have casted their doubts regarding the perpetrators of numerous terrorist attacks against them. This doctrine – the doctrine of Preemptive strike which replaced the doctrine of Cold war – aimed to pulverize the possible threat to their security before they become strong enough to proceed with posing and enacting the threat on them. The anthrax scare, the possession and production of nuclear weapons and othe weapons of mass destruction, the 9/11 bombing plus the minor “terrorist attacks” on the US: these were all blamed on the alleged conspiracy of the Iraqi government led by Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. This led to an all-out war, exemplifying unilateralism and militarism against Iraq, and thus killing Hussein in 2006, bin Laden recently and other Iraqis, yes, including innocent lives. However, the judges at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders posed that “to initiate a war of aggression is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulative evil of the whole.”
After this paragraph a line from the story seems to echo, “Doubt can be a bond as sustaining as certainty.”
As a result to the discussion about doubt, if doubt is so powerful that it leads to people claiming their doubt as the truth, that it has its own brand of politics, we face the question how far is doubt from truth? This brings the question as to what defines the Truth. Or rather under what circumstance and indicators –who, what, where, when, how—defines the Truth?
John Patrick Shanley has genius-ly written “Doubt: A Parable” that it won numerous theatre awards, was adapted into film “Doubt” and was nominated several times in prestigious award-giving bodies. Now, we are probably facing the most relevant consequence of the film; for a setting not so distant from the viewers of today, we are bombarded with grand issues and themes that practically encompass much of our daily lives, thanks to the film.
You think Doubt doesn’t have consequences? I doubt it.
- Franco Oliva