National Catholic Register


Doubt and Douthat

BY Tom Hoopes

| Posted 11/2/08 at 12:07 PM


Coming in December to a theater not necessarily near you (it has a limited release) is Doubt, a movie version of the John Patrick Shanley play. The movie stars Meryl Streep as an angry nun and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a sunny (and possibly abusive) priest. It’s from Miramax, and that can’t be good for the Church.

But the excellent Ross Douthat saw the play, and had this to say: “Doubt won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, and after seeing it this weekend (the last weekend with the original actress, Cherry Jones, in the lead role, unfortunately) I think it richly deserved the win.”

“The play deals with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and what’s particularly remarkable about it, in this year of hectoring works of art (most of them involving George Clooney), is its steadfast refusal to filter its story through an ideological lens. Set in 1964, Doubt follows a nun who suspects that a priest in her parish is molesting students, and given that description, it’s easy to imagine a bad, fashionable play about a heroic feminist nun taking down an evil, repressed, pre-Vatican II priest.

“But the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, is smarter than that: he makes the nun a tough-minded, old-school Catholic who sees the world in black and white, and the priest a young, hip, progressive figure who embodies all the ideas about religion that a Broadway audience is likely to find appealing.

“She seems heartless, tyrannical, and prejudiced; he’s questing, broad-minded, charismatic. But over the course of the play, the audience is invited to recognize the virtues contained within her old-fashioned attitudes, and the weaknesses at the heart of his charm. ...

“Not that the priest ever entirely forfeits the audience’s sympathy, or that the nun is without her faults — again, the play is too intelligent to fall into a schematic view of its protagonists. What it does instead, more effectively than any work of art I’ve seen, is dramatize both the weaknesses of old-fashioned, pre-Vatican II Catholicism — the legalism, the occasional cruelty, the seeming heartlessness — and the ways that the 1960s reforms went so quickly wrong, good intentions and all.

“It dramatizes, as well, the central paradox of the entire sexual abuse scandal, which is that it partook of the worst of both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Catholics — the former’s sexual permissiveness and contempt for time-tested traditions, rules, and safeguards; and the latter’s clericalism, its insistence that the hierarchy knew best and the laity should just ‘pray, pay, and obey,’ its willingness to use authority as a screen for irresponsibility. In the name of freedom and progress and experimentation, priests justified their own sins and those of their fellows; in the name of order and tradition and obedience, their superiors protected them.”

It was Father Richard John Neuhaus who spotted the Douthat quote and expounded on it here.

The movie’s trailer seems to make the priest the good guy and the nun the bad guy the way Douthat says the play doesn’t. But you know how trailers can be.

— Tom Hoopes