What do you do when you’re not sure....” So begins Father Flynn’s sermon near the beginning of Doubt. Father Flynn delivers his sermon to a largely blue collar Catholic congregation in the Bronx in the year following President Kennedy’s assassination. Flynn’s sermon builds upon a story of a sailor lost at sea who has doubts about the course he has set. The sailor’s doubt becomes a metaphor for the community who has lost its certainty—a traditional community disillusioned by the loss of the nation’s first Catholic president. It was in collective doubt, proclaims Father Flynn, that a sense of community and security was forged. “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”
The sermon sets parameters for this provocative movie. The story addresses doubt as a loss of certainty and security on a variety of levels. The main plot revolves around the suspicions held by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal of the parochial school that serves as the setting for the story. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), based on circumstantial evidence, of abusing the first African American male student at the school. Aloysius recruits an innocent, young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), to collect evidence and to confront Flynn. Sister Aloysius harbors no uncertainty that Flynn is guilty, and Flynn insists that he is innocent. However, Sister James waivers and is caught in a web of doubt over her faith in Flynn’s innocence.
While the “doubt versus certainty” issue drives the main plot surrounding the allegations against Father Flynn, doubt also drives a deeper and more complex subplot about the American Catholic community in the early and mid-1960s, especially in the blue collar neighborhood of this film. The conflict that might be easily missed by the viewer hinges on Vatican II reforms and the effect of these monumental changes on traditional Catholic communities of the 1960s.
The two protagonists, Flynn and Aloysius, battle over her claims of his alleged improprieties. On a grander scale, these two characters represent a battle waging in the Catholic Church in the midst of Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) brought revolutionary changes to the Catholic Church, challenging traditional liturgy, theology, and authority within the church. Vatican II could be seen as a struggle of tradition versus innovation. In this film, Sister Aloysius represents the tradition-laden pre-Vatican II church, while Father Flynn is a progressive pastor intent on bringing reform to the congregation and school he serves. One wonders how much of Sister Aloysius’s allegations might be motivated by her disdain for the progressive reforms Flynn represents. In any event, the struggle between these two strong characters represents the larger struggles of the church of that time and the doubt those struggles created in Catholic communities. The typical blue collar Catholic community represented by Flynn’s congregation in 1964 must have been struggling: the tradition built on certainty and continuity was changing; the most powerful Catholic in America had been assassinated; certitudes had been questioned; innocence had been shattered; questions of race and gender surfaced in the film and society. This is the doubt the film captures and investigates.
Sister Aloysius has no use for the “new” church of innovation. One of the recurring symbols in the film is the wind that continually swirls around Sister Aloysius. More than once, Sister Aloysius closes windows to shut out the winds that she complains have “changed,” that she describes as peripatetic, that buffet things around and about. But the winds of change that Sister Aloysius despises are embraced by Flynn, who alludes in his final and farewell sermon to the winds that push us along through life. So the winds of change that threaten the church from Sister Aloysius’s point of view are the winds of fate that propel us to progress for Father Flynn and, perhaps, the church. Is it a coincidence that wind is also a symbol for the Holy Spirit in Christian thought? Can the wind (Spirit) be trusted? Throughout history the church has sometimes viewed charismatic movements with suspicion, especially when they challenge authority. Here the wind symbolizes a challenge to authority in the form of progressive reform, and the Spirit unsettles and disrupts. Perhaps the Spirit, like the wind, is peripatetic.
The “winds of change” that upset Sister Aloysius appear throughout the film. From the ballpoint pens that Sister Aloysius despises because they ruin penmanship, to the secular elements that Father Flynn wants to include in the Christmas play, Aloysius rejects the new for the traditional. At one point, Sister Aloysius visits Sister James’s classroom. She pulls a picture of a pope from Sister James’s desk and recommends hanging it on the wall so James can see the class in the reflection of the glass when her back is turned. Sister James points out that the photograph is of a dead pope, but Sister Aloysius retorts that it does not matter and hangs it anyway. The photograph is of Pope Pius XII, the last pope prior to the Vatican II Council. The pope who opened Vatican II and who was most responsible for the reforms that followed was Pope John XXIII. But the pope at the time of the movie would have been Pope Paul VI. The subtle irony should not be lost. As Sister Aloysius hangs Pope Pius XII’s photograph, she appears to pause with hands raised and head bowed to the pope’s image. Is this a subtle homage to the last pope prior to the Second Vatican Council? Is this Sister Aloysius’s homage to tradition? It is interesting that shortly after hanging the photo, Sister James becomes less patient with her students and more authoritarian in the classroom. Perhaps the change in demeanor reflects her growing frustration with being caught in the middle between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, but her stricter attitude is expressed when she spies on students by watching their behavior in the reflection of Pius XII’s photograph.
From an aesthetic perspective, the movie beautifully captures a particular place and time. The 1964 setting in the Bronx brings a working class, blue-collar Catholic subculture to the fore. Lighting and seasonal changes further enhance the stark and grim circumstances of the story as the plot progresses. The seasons progress toward winter until the final scene takes place in a snowy courtyard. The setting underscores the turbulence of Catholic life in the mid-1960s in convincing fashion.
Added to the effective setting is superb characterization. The movie lives up to its multiple Oscar nominations. Meryl Streep is eerily convincing as the strict disciplinarian and principal of the Catholic school. Her character is absolutely terrifying as she hisses her reproach to a young boy in church near the beginning of the film. But Streep’s portrayal goes far beyond a stereotypical presentation of a nun. While every former Catholic schoolboy might cringe when Sister Aloysius sweeps through the school, Streep’s character, with her concern over tradition and morality, also arouses compassion. Streep convinces the viewer that whatever her motives might be for charging Father Flynn with misconduct, she is at least partly concerned that children not be harmed. However, Sister Aloysius is overly zealous in her vendetta against Father Flynn, and it is this unrelenting attack, based on little evidence, that raises the specter that Sister Aloysius has some experience with abuse in her past. At one point she admits to Father Flynn with pained expression that she has some sin in her past but that she has confessed and been forgiven. Sister Aloysius’s sin is never explored, leaving in doubt what role this might have played in her certainty about Father Flynn’s guilt.
Likewise, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Father Flynn is multilayered and effective. Father Flynn is charismatic, popular, and sensitive. In a conversation with Sister James, Flynn accuses Sister Aloysius of sacrificing kindness for the sake of virtue. Is this a clue that Father Flynn’s new ideas and ways depart from traditional morality as well? It is not clear, and while Flynn’s character is kind and caring, he also raises some questions. He gorges himself with wine, rich food, and cigarettes, and tells unseemly stories at the dinner table while the Sisters eat sparsely and silently and discuss the meaning of Father Flynn’s sermon. Is Father Flynn’s character built on questionable virtue, and does this support Sister Aloysius’s suspicions of him? Flynn develops as a sympathetic character, and the viewer is caught between believing in his innocence and being horrified by his alleged crimes.
Finally, Amy Adams delivers a stunning portrayal of Sister James. She captures the kindness and innocence of the young nun without sacrificing believability. James is caught in the middle of a contest of wills, and she negotiates the difficult terrain with honesty and goodness. By the end of the film, it is James who has become the strong character. With Flynn gone and Aloysius in tears, James becomes the priest who hears Sister Aloysius’s confession and emerges as mature and confident, no longer the helpless innocent.
In that final scene, Sister Aloysius confesses to harboring “doubts.” Is it doubt in her certainty that Flynn was guilty? Is it doubt in her church that “promoted” Flynn when confronted with the charges of misconduct and that is changing in such a way that she cannot? Is it doubt in her God? The viewer is not told. What seems certain is that “doubt” is the price of Sister Aloysius’s actions—the burden for her conscience to bear. Sister Aloysius repeats a phrase from earlier in the movie, “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God... of course there is a price.” The price Aloysius pays is her certainty, and her doubt becomes her confession.
Doubt, the movie, was written originally as a play, adapted to a screenplay, and directed by the same person, John Patrick Shanley. It is no surprise then, that this film has a singleness of vision and purpose. The film is entertaining, engaging, original, humorous, and disturbing, thus defying easy categories. And the film is ambitious, taking as it does the question of faith—does faith arise from certainty or doubt—is faith destroyed by certainty or doubt? The viewer comes away with no easy answers, and that is, after all, the point of the film.
Conrad Ostwalt is Professor of Religion and Culture and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University. He has published widely on religion, film, and popular culture.