Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Movie "Doubt"

I watched the movie “Doubt” in which Meryl Streep plays the formidable Sister Aloysius. The movie is set in 1964 during a time when priests were being exposed as pedophiles. The priest in this case is Father Ryan played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

There might be doubt about whether Father Ryan was an active pedophile, but he was fairly well exposed by Sister Aloysius who accused Ryan of having improper thoughts about the altar boy, Donald.

Sister Aloysius bluffs him by pretending that she spoke to a certain nun at his last parish who knew what he did. She then demands that he ask for a transfer and he does. Before that Father Ryan seemed resolved to fight her.

Perhaps people question whether he really was a pedophile because Sister Aloysius breaks down at the end of the movie and confesses to Sister James (played by Amy Adams) that she has serious doubts. But note that she doesn’t identify them. She tells Sister James that Father Ryan got a promotion to a larger parish. The only regret she has about what she did was that the Church didn’t back her up. It gave Ryan a promotion. It was clearly moving away from all the things she revered.

Amy Adams in an interview gushed about how provocative the movie was because everyone could come to a different conclusion about what the movie meant. I liked her better as a nun. If we eliminate the question of whether Ryan was a pedophiliac then we are left with the doubts Sister Aloysius has about the Church and perhaps about God Himself. She tells Sister James something to the effect that when you go after evil you move a step away from God. That seems to be the root of her doubt. She doesn’t doubt the traditions of her organization. She still opposes ball-point pens and secular music. But Vatican II instituted some changes that many in the church were reluctant to accept. Sister Aloysius is depicted as one of those who resisted the changes. In her mind the Vatican II changes included the acceptance of the pedophiliac Father Ryan.


Isaiah Berlin in his essay “the Pursuit of the ideal” writes, “. . . I came across Giambattista Vico’s Scienza nuova. . . Vico seemed to be concerned with the succession of human cultures – every society had, for him, its own vision of reality, of the world in which it lived, and of itself and of its relations to its own past, to nature, to what it strove for. This vision of society is conveyed by everything that its members do and think and feel – expressed and embodied in the kinds of words, the forms of language that they use, the images, the metaphors, the forms of worship, the institutions that they generate, which embody and convey their image of reality and of their place in it; by which they live. These visions differ with each successive social whole – each has its own gifts, values, modes of creation, incommensurable with one another: each must be understood in its own terms – understood, not necessarily evaluated.”

I have noticed that it has been easier to get along with and relate to Catholics since Vatican II. Catholics became less dogmatic, more worldly. When we say such things, if we are believers, then we find it almost impossible not to evaluate this process. Christians are not supposed to become “more worldly.” They, whether they are Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox are supposed to be “in the world but not of it.” But of course that principle is abstract and perhaps capable of some of Amy Adams interpretations.

Most of us modern Christians would probably think that we can use ball-point pens and sing Frosty the Snowman without losing our salvation. We think that if our spiritual beliefs are oriented toward Christ rather than the world that we are okay. But critics of Sister Aloysius’ stripe would refer to this in such terms as “easy believism.” She would want more evidence that we were holding true to our traditions. She would like to see more asceticism.

But Vico and others note not only that there are many different cultures and traditions, but that all that still exist are in a state of change. Change has occurred and will continue to occur, regardless of what it is we believe. Vico suggests that we probably shouldn’t evaluate this change, just note that it occurs. If Sister Aloysius read this, we would expect her to snort and roll her eyes. Can’t fool her.

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