This was originally a stage play by John Patrick Shanley, and four years ago, he turned his play into a movie that he even got to direct, and “Doubt” the movie has without a doubt (no pun intended) the best performances of that year. Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and a breakthrough performance by Viola Davis (who will be competing with Streep this weekend for the Best Actress Academy Award—mark my words, one of them will get it) made this probably the most well acted film of 2008. And while it’s not a perfect movie, I can still say that it’s definitely worth watching. And best of all, there’s some spiritual lessons that I can take from it as well.
Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier (have fun pronouncing that one), the widowed principal of St. Nicholas Catholic Church and School in the Bronx in the mid-1960’s. She’s a very strict woman, as evidenced often by the way she interacts with a young teacher at the school, Sister James (Adams). James is one of the more innocent nuns at St. Nicholas, and Aloysius warns her to be on the lookout for trouble at the school: trouble in the form of Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman). Flynn hasn’t been a priest at St. Nicholas long, but to Aloysius, he doesn’t seem strict enough. He almost seems… too friendly.
Aloysius’ suspicions are confirmed when James tells her what happened to Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). Miller, the first African-American student at the school, is an altar boy who looks up to Flynn as a sort of father figure. But one day, in James’ history class, Miller is called down to visit Flynn in the rectory. When he comes back, James is confused. Miller looks as though he has been crying. And worse still, she smells alcohol on his breath. James is quick to believe that this is not what it seems, but Aloysius, claiming she has “experience” with these situations, knows that something must be done, and since the men higher up in the church will probably not believe that Flynn has done something wrong to Miller, she says that she and James has to bring him down themselves.
So one day, the two nuns get Flynn to come to Aloysius’ office to discuss something, only for that conversation to slowly turn to what happened in the rectory. Flynn is reluctant to talk, but eventually he realizes that Aloysius will not let him go without an answer, and so he tells her: Donald was caught drinking altar wine, and Flynn told him that if no one else found out, he would be let off the hook. Now that the secret is out, Flynn has to remove him, and after he expresses his displeasure with the two nuns, he leaves. Aloysius is not satisfied. James starts to believe that Aloysius is just trying to bring him down because he’s too different, because she doesn’t like him. And eventually, after a talk with him, James believes Flynn’s story.
Soon after that, Aloysius talks with Donald’s mother (Davis), holding with her a conversation that leaves her more confused than satisfied. Mrs. Miller ultimately tells her that whatever Flynn has done, he is showing love to her boy, a boy who she knows would get killed in a public school because of his race, and she becomes even more troubled than she already was. And when Aloysius goes back to her office that day, she is confronted once and for all by Flynn, and the two of them partake in a shouting match that serves as basically the climax of the film. Aloysius will not believe Flynn, and Flynn will not give Aloysius any other answer, so Aloysius leaves her office and calls the monsignor.
However, Flynn ends up leaving the church, most likely to prevent a bigger scandal, and Donald Miller is heartbroken. After James talks with Aloysius about what happened, she learns that Aloysius never had any proof that Flynn did what he did to Donald Miller—but he must have proved it when he left St. Nicholas. And as the movie ends, Aloysius becomes more vulnerable than ever before, tears coming down her face as she confesses:
ALOYSIUS: Oh, Sister James…
JAMES: What is it, Sister?
ALOYSIUS: I have doubts… I have such doubts!
In “Doubt”, we never find out whether or not Flynn really abused Donald Miller. But that’s good! We don’t need to know. That’s not the point of the movie. The point of the movie is that we can’t let our own biases and suspicions of other people get in the way of what is really true. And for all we know, Flynn may indeed be guilty of a great sin. But if Aloysius was to confront Flynn about it, she couldn’t go to him biased—that would be her own sin!
A few times on this blog, I’ve cited Jesus’ analogy about hypocrisy that can be found in Luke 6:41-42: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” This passage definitely applies here. If we do not check ourselves and our own sin before confronting others about theirs, are we not hypocrites? As Jesus says a couple verses earlier in verse 39, “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?”
My prayer for you today is that if you see trouble, or if you see someone struggling and you want to help them along through it, check yourself first. Get yourself right with God, and get rid of your own sin before you confront someone else about his or hers.