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Streep Doesn’t Doubt Nuns

BY Tom Hoopes

| Posted 12/14/08 at 6:46 AM

 

USA Today is an unlikely place to find a discussion of the virtues of nuns. But there it is, in Susan Wloszczyna’s article.

The story is schizophrenic. It keeps recognizing the virtues of habited nuns, then reminding the reader that we’re not supposed to like that kind of thing.

The story is about the movie Doubt, which opened Friday. Meryl Streep as the austere Sister Aloysius is “a primal force to be reckoned with in the film, based on the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama.”

I haven’t sent the movie and can’t vouch for it, but in Wloszczyna’s description, it pits a committed, caring nun against a smirking “don’t take life so seriously” priest.

Wloszczyna is interested in examining the phenomenon of nuns, but makes a critical error. She points out, rightly, that nuns’ “numbers are dwindling. A survey in 2004 found 71,486 nuns in the United States, half as many as there were during the decade in which Doubt is set. Average age: 70.”

But she fails to point out that among nuns who wear habits, the numbers of nuns per house is much higher, and the average age of the nuns is much lower.

Anyone who knows of orders like the Nashville Dominicans, the Sisters of Life and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist knows that congregations faithful to their habits are growing by leaps and bounds, not dying out like those who abandoned them.

In fact, the opposite of one claim made in the piece is true. Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun and author, is cited with the observation that “many people’s longing for the habit seems to be more about their own comfort than the good it would do regarding the sisters’ actual work.” The numbers of vocations suggest the opposite is true: The decision to lose the habit seems often to be based on some consideration other than the good nuns can do with or without it.

If you don’t believe me, ask the Missionaries of Charity.

Wloszczyna’s story does hint at the fact that losing the habit can seem like a capitulation to the worst in society.

“After nuns were allowed to wear street clothes in the late ‘60s, they lost much of their mystique as dramatic tools,” writes Wloszczyna. “In movies, they mostly have been relegated to comic relief (The Blues Brothers, Sister Act) or as objects of scorn and satire (Jodie Foster’s peg-legged version in The Secret Lives of Altar Boys).”

(The USA Today website has added a slideshow about movie nuns to the piece. If it doesn’t work, click on the story and find it there.)

Streep sings the praises of “the ritualized aspects of religious life” in the piece.

“Every single part of the day is subscribed,” she said. “From the prayer upon rising, there is a consciousness about what you are doing. … There is a serenity and real comfort in it.”

She understands why Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn appreciated playing nuns.

“They go beyond sexuality,” she says. “Unlike most women in films, it’s easy to imagine a male protagonist separate from a love interest. For nuns, their romantic relationships are not the most important thing about them.”

She considered her Sister Aloysius “like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men,” referring to a performance that almost turns that movie’s bad guy into its hero.
She even hinted at the importance of nuns in terms of women’s place in the Church. “If she were a man, she wouldn’t be thought of as prickly,” said Streep, “just commanding.”

The story ends with Streep’s astonishing homage to Sister Aloysius’ crusade against modernity in Doubt (she even opposes ball point pens, apparently).
“There’s not much I would disagree with,” says the actress. “The priest calls her a dragon. I see her as the protector at the gate. … Oh, I loved her.”

— Tom Hoopes