COMMENTARY: Doubts about `Doubt’

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(UNDATED) I have doubts about “Doubt”, the new Meryl Streep/Philip Seymour Hoffman movie that wonders whether Father Flynn (Hoffman) seduced a student in St. Nicholas Catholic School headed by the iron-fisted Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep).

In some ways, the film is a historical and cinematic cliche. The nuns are dour old maids. The priests are boorish bachelors. Light bulbs burst as evil hovers in the air. Leaves swirl when conscience and belief collide.

I mean, enough is enough.

The original play by John Patrick Shanley is better. Its doubts are not lined up like 1960s Catholic school children. The play’s four actors don’t get far beyond the church, the principal’s office, and the courtyard between the rectory and the convent. We learn the story through their eyes. Young Sister James sees and senses what she does not quite believe, or even understand. Sister Aloysius, meanwhile, has seen it all. She senses, without a doubt, that Flynn is a pederast creep going after the sole black eighth grader afloat in a sea of Irish neighborhood kids.

The implications are too terrible to behold. What is church? What is religion? Whom to trust? When the play ends, you’re just not sure.

No so with the movie, where the back story-a cartoon of Catholic school life-takes over the plot. Nuns sneak up behind sniggling boys in church and box their ears; girls are publicly reprimanded for wearing contraband hair ornaments.

The mid-1960s Catholic Church is also painted with a broad brush. The suspect priest is soft around the edges and has long (clean) fingernails. His loutish condescension masquerades as character. The principled principal nun is cornered by life. She silently resents the old-boy networking going on across the courtyard.

Like every caricature, there is just enough reality to make a point. One wonders if the point of the movie is a larger criticism of Catholicism than is really necessary. Without a doubt, there are plenty of horror stories in the U.S. Catholic Church. I once reported a professor priest from another diocese who was trading “A’s” for sexual favors. The local acting bishop said: “That’s a problem for his bishop, not for me.”

We’ve all heard the gory details of too many individual tragedies. We’re angry that the bishops looked the other way. We’re sick that some folks try to justify their actions: oh, you know, the bishop felt the priest had sinned and repented, and that treatment would cure him of his problem.

Hello? Did anyone ask a woman? Did anyone ask what it means for a so-called “man of God” to molest a child?

I think that’s where real doubt begins. Such doubts form the trajectory of the play, and less so of the movie. If we cannot trust the good order and discipline of the church, then what of society, and what of life? If what they say is not what they mean, if all they are is lying thieves of innocence, then how can what they say of God be true?

That’s where the story line of “Doubt” hits home, and hits home hard. The doubts upon the surface will resolve one way or the other: Flynn did it or he didn’t; he’ll either be caught or he won’t.

But, what about the church? What about religion? And, what about God?

Smoldering like the wick of a blown out candle-it’s the biggest doubt of all.

(Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of several books in Catholic Studies.)

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