National Catholic Register


What ‘Doubt’ Is About

BY Tom Hoopes

| Posted 1/1/09 at 2:28 PM


As others have noted, the Catholic-school movie Doubt (like the play) is kind of a Rorschach test that leaves audiences forming conclusions based on their preconceptions. The film, set in 1964, pits a disciplinarian nun (Meryl Streep) against a “the-Church-needs-to-change” priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) over his abuse of a child.

But having seen it, I think the movie version is open to several interpretations:

1. It might be a “Gay message movie.” (Spoiler alert!) We meet a boy who is misunderstood and abused because of his homosexuality (“God made him that way,” explains his mother. “We’re talking about actions, not inclinations,” answers the nun, sensibly), and the priest character in the film, who is hinted to be homosexual, and abusive to boot, is treated sympathetically. All of this hyper-awareness of homosexuality strikes me as anachronistic in a movie set in 1964, but I wasn’t around then so who am I to say?

2. It might be an “anti-organized religion” movie. The film is sympathetic to benign Christian concepts but every character who takes seriously the hierarchical Church gets twisted by it. The priest alternately thwarts and exploits the system. The older nun describes the importance of the “chain of command” from the Pope on down, but goes around it because the men who run it are corrupt. A younger nun is struggling to live in it, but finds she has to truncate her heart in order to do so.

3. It might be a movie justifying perpetual intellectual adolescence. The movie’s thesis statement is delivered in a sermon at the beginning — “Doubt can be a bond as sustaining as certainty” — and reinforced in the closing scene of the film. The problem: That’s nonsense. Doubt is isolating, not uniting. Compare your local Unitarian church to your local Assemblies of God church and see for yourself. Doubt can be a powerful force for deepening faith when it leads us to discover why we believe what we believe, but to wallow in doubt is to avoid reality — or, likely,  to avoid having to break with some sin.

My answer to the Rorschach test: Doubt shows the deep corruption of 1950s and early 1960s Catholicism. Some want to pretend Vatican II is the root of all upheaval in the Church. To make that case, they employ a post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc argument that points to the numbers of priests and nuns and Mass attendees before the Council and after it.

The numbers do make the Council look suspicious. But the elephant in the room is the state of pre-Vatican II Catholics. If they were so wonderful, why did they respond to a pope and Council’s decrees by walking out en masse?

In fact, externalism — moralism and duty untethered from charity and faith — had already rotted the Church behind the facade. Vatican II didn’t drive people away so much as it ripped off the facade and exposed what was underneath. And, for all the problems in the Council’s implementation, that was what it set out to do.

Too many in the older generations cringe and wince when you mention the school nuns of their childhood. They remember their cruelty, they take what they experienced to be typical of Catholicism, and are glad to be rid of it. Doubt dramatizes that 1950s Catholic experience: A little of its sweetness and power, and a lot of its subtle perversity.

Catholics of my generation grew up in the 1970s and 1980s with a totally different experience of the Church. All that baggage isn’t ours, and frankly, we’re not interested in carrying it around anymore.

— Tom Hoopes

Doubt and Douthat

Meryl Streep Doesn’t Doubt Nuns