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Movie Review: Doubt    (Special Feature)

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 Movie Review: "Doubt"

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Title: Doubt | Rated: PG-13

Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Director: John Patrick Shanley


Always cautious of "Catholic" movie reviews, I was surprised to learn of a movie - recently released to DVD - entitled "Doubt" that Catholic reviewers claimed could be suitable viewing even despite its dealing with the topic of clerical abuse. After having been "burned" by "Catholic" movie reviews in the past, I decided to see for myself if this movie could really be suitable for youngsters (or adults for that matter). The following is my "amateur best" attempt to review this movie. I hope someone may find it helpful. Please keep in mind that I am not concerned with whether or not I "give away" too much of the movie, but rather if the movie should be viewed at all by those who love the Church.

First of all, it should be noted that the movie is set in 1964, shortly before the sweeping reforms of Vatican II were unleashed on the Church.

The movie primarily revolves around the following characters:

* A young black altar boy who expresses interest in the priesthood, who has an abusive father

* A seemingly friendly, kind-hearted priest with a bent towards modernism

* An older "dragon" sister who inspires fear in students (and others) and who becomes "hell bent" on getting rid of a priest she is convinced (based merely on her conjecture & suspicions) had an inappropriate relationship with the altar boy

* A sweet young sister who is still "finding her way"

I will start with what I liked. I thought the acting in this movie was very good. It was easy to be sympathetic to the sweet younger sister and to (initially) like the friendly, compassionate priest. At first, the "dragon" sister reminded me of the sisters of old who kept the youngsters in line and probably saved many souls. Her behavior later, of course, I have reservations about (see below). Also, I liked that the priest reiterated the Church's good message about the irreparable harm caused by gossip for which he used the famous example of the feather pillow. I also liked the priest's comment about something that a person didn't miss for months after Lent would probably not be a very worthy item to give up as penance (how many of us dig into our Easter candy just after midnight? I admit I'm guilty of this).

Secondly, I'll mention the items that I'll "keep an open mind" about. This includes the priest jesting to young boys that the priesthood is for boys who can't get a girl. This was meant as a joke, so I will not make a big issue about it. However, the "joke" still makes me uncomfortable. Next, on a purely natural level, I thought some incidents were out of character. For example, I found it hard to believe that the young "sweet" sister would snoop around in a locker not belonging to her. Nevertheless, I will "keep an open mind" about this, as it is certainly possible.

Lastly, I will get to what I didn't like. Unfortunately there was much. For example, I didn't like:

* The offensive previews occurring before the movie (definitely not suitable viewing)

* The scandalous behavior of the "dragon" sister - she lied about another sister's vision problem (to "protect her" from being removed) and also lied elsewhere, she acted hypocritically, she acted disrespectfully to the priest and used inappropriate language (e.g. she even called him "a cheat" at one point), she made rash judgments, she made serious accusations to others without proof, she made threatening statements (e.g. "I'll bring him down"), etc.

* How the priest clearly favored modernization ("the Church needs to change", his reference to being "in the dark ages", his insulting claim that the sister was "single-handedly holding [the school & parish] back... from a progressive education and a welcoming Church"). He also behaved in ways during Mass that would have been rejected by orthodox Catholics in the 60's (e.g. not genuflecting, turning his back to the Tabernacle, leaving the Sanctuary to shake hands with the laity)

* How the "sweet" sister publicly apologized for rebuking a misbehaving student, as if it was wrong for her to raise her voice to the child [especially consider this in light of what Scripture says about discipline & child rearing - e.g. "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him takes care to chastise him." (Prov. 13:24), "Withhold not chastisement from a boy; if you beat him with the rod, he will not die. Beat him with the rod, and you will save him from the nether world." (Prov. 23:13-14), "Bend him to the yoke when he is young, thrash his sides while he is still small, Lest he become stubborn, disobey you, and leave you disconsolate. Discipline your son, make heavy his yoke, lest his folly humiliate you." (Sirach 30:12-13)]

* How the priest criticized the (pre-Vatican II) Church for not being friendly (e.g. "We should be friendlier"), as if the Church's duty was to be friendly rather than to save souls. Was St. Paul worried about being friendly when he told the Corinthians to "Purge the evil person from [their] midst" (1 Cor. 5:13) or when he instructed Timothy to "Reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid" (1 Tm. 5:20)? Was St. John (the "apostle of love") worried about friendliness when he said not to even greet heretics (see 2 Jn. 1:10-11)? Was Jesus worried about friendliness when he called persons vipers and 'sons of the devil'? Was "friendliness" the overriding concern when Jesus called Peter "Satan" in Mt. 16:23? If you could ask those in heaven who were saved from a mortal sin due to another's "toughness" would they really prefer a "friendliness" that could have led to their perdition? The saints for thousands of years were loving, but not always "friendly" - friendless isn't necessarily a virtue. (If it were, how could "admonishing the sinner" be an act of mercy?)

* The overall message that discipline was bad, kindness & compassion good. Of course kindness & compassion are often good, but sometimes apparent kindness & compassion can actually be detrimental. They must be kept within a certain limit - remember that God Himself has prepared a hell. I have a problem with a movie that implies that kindness & gentleness alone is necessary for rearing children. I personally think that many of the problems we suffer from today can be traced to parents who were too "kind" and "gentle" and too afraid to discipline. As. St. Paul says in Heb. 12:8 "If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards." In the same vein, I also did not like the priest's subtle implication that the those in Church have forgotten the Savior's message of love when they act "harshly". Remember that love often hurts - look at the Crucifix! God is one - therefore Jesus is the same God who spoke in the Old Testament which referred to "sparing not the rod"; the same God who threw our First Parents out of Paradise for a transgression, the same God who flooded the earth due to sin; the same God who burned alive the entire city of Sodom for their sins. Jesus Himself warned frequently about the possibility of going to hell and referred more than once to the punishment of eternal fire.

* How the "dragon" sister rushed to judgement in breakneck speed, even calling in the boy's mother and telling her that the priest had given her son altar wine and had an inappropriate relationship with him. I also didn't find her readiness to believe this evil had occurred believable as it was supposed to be set in the 1960's, before the clerical abuse scandal had unfolded.

* I found it equally offensive (and perhaps even more unbelievable) that the boy's mother so easily wrote off the charges - she didn't express any concern at all about possible advances on her son by a priest ("maybe he's doing some good too", "let him have" her son, "thank God" the priest showed him kindness, etc.) She showed serious lack of judgment about what was "good" for her son. She showed no concern that other boys might also be harmed by the priest. She would sell her son's innocence for a false compassion & interest in her son. Talk about giving your child to the wolves! How many perverts would "protect" a young boy and act "friendly" to him if they could actually obtain the parent's consent to molest them! Purely ridiculous! Totally offensive!

* I found it upsetting how they tried to present the priest as being so kind & compassionate throughout most of the movie, but then they mentioned suspiciously how he had been in 3 parishes in 5 years. Are we supposed to assume that this "problem priest" was transferred around due to an abusive past? Is this a "subtle" dig at the Church or is it just to create suspicion? Also, the priest seemed overly concerned about the "dragon" sister's discussing him with someone at his last parish. He makes reference to sins in his past and then quickly resigns his position. It is hard to believe that he could be innocent but yet resign so easily. I realize this was used in the movie as a tool to create doubt, but why would anyone resign in the face of a mere accusation if they were truly innocent? If someone - without any evidence - accused you of a serious crime that you didn't have any involvement in would you simply resign? That would make you look guilty. Wouldn't an innocent person protest that he was innocent? Wouldn't he want to see his name cleared? Or would he simply resign?

* That the movie gave the message that the Church transferred the priest to another location with children even though there was a suspicion that he harmed a young boy. Granted that this horrible situation has been a reality in some recent cases, this movie is not a documentary so it was not necessary to include it - rather, they chose to do so. It also left me with the impression that the "dragon" sister cared only that the priest not do this in her school. Where was the concern about the children in the new school he was transferred to?

* I found it unsettling how the "dragon" sister was so certain of everything until the very end, after it was too late. Then she had "doubt". If she had "doubt" all along rather than her certainties, the movie would not have played out as it did.

* I disagree with the movie's message that doubt can be a strong bond. I think most people don't like being in a state of doubt and are uncomfortable with that feeling. We prefer to progress to certainty rather than be "bonded" with others in doubt. This is my personal opinion only, of course.

* I did not like the fact that I felt this movie lost an opportunity to actually benefit the Church. The movie could have pointed out how the tough sisters of the past helped so many, sacrificed greatly, sought holiness, engaged in much prayer, etc. rather than a cheap attempt at making sisters look like malcontented sinners bent on serving their own purposes. They could have vindicated the priest and shown that many accusations of abuse have been unfounded. They could have shown the Church's role in advancing the civil rights of black persons rather than giving the suspicion that the priest purposely sought out the black child to harm.

* I was especially offended by the "dragon" sister's lying to try to trap the priest (she had also lied previously in the movie) and her twice claiming that "in the pursuit of wrongdoing" one "steps away from God". Of course this completely disregards the Church's fundamental teaching that it is never licit to do evil so that good may result. The fact that this was never corrected in the movie is special cause for concern that some uneducated Catholics who see this film might feel that the ends justify the means.

* I also did not like the feminist/anti-men undertones in the movie (e.g. the comment that "men run everything", how the sisters were portrayed as abstentious while the men laughed heartily and were indulgent).

* I did not like how the sister who tried to preserve what was good was portrayed as the "dragon" sister who was stuck in the past. Although she was terrible in many of her actions, her attempts to preserve what was good merit respect. In the movie, however, she was treated as though she were simply a "fuddy duddy" out of touch, rules-oriented person - and not as if there was any merit to her good actions (e.g. protecting a girl's purity, preservation of good penmanship).

* How the "compassionate" priest & "sweet" sister wanted to secularize a Christmas pageant. They tried to make the inclusion of a secular song in the Christmas pageant seem "harmless" or "beneficial" somehow, but really there is no point for Christmas other than Christ's birth and it is a Catholic school. Instead, they portrayed it as somehow "wrong" (or at least "out of touch") to reject adding a secular song to a Catholic Christmas pageant.

* I did not like the bad message in the movie that "no one" really cared for the youngsters - not the mother, not his father, not the priest (possibly), not the "dragon" sister, not the Church. This was a rather sad (and unfair/untrue!) message.

Overall, I think this movie sends many bad messages. It does not help the Church. It does not help vocations. It does not help the cause of tradition (it portrays the old ways as "bad", "unenlightened", not compassionate, the new ways as better & "more compassionate"). It portrays religious of the Church as blatant, hypocritical sinners who seem to care little for God's laws. In sum, I would not recommend this movie for children or for anyone else. Others may not agree with me, but I still think it is well-disguised, but nevertheless harmful, anti-Catholic propaganda. Even if it was not intended that way, the effect is the same. People perhaps expected it would be so blatantly anti-Catholic that they don't see it as anti-Catholic because it is not "blatant". But a little drop of poison over time can also kill you.

I know my mostly negative review seems to run counter to the popular consensus regarding this movie, but I am not swayed by their arguments. Might someone who sees the Bells of St. Mary's be willing to convert (or at least consider) the Catholic Church? Who can say that about Doubt? Wouldn't it rather turn off persons or make them more cautious? Certainly it will not draw anyone into the Church.

Nevertheless, some don't see the movie as anti-Catholic because it doesn't label all priests as perverts, but rather focuses on the actions of one specific priest. But how does that help the Church? Maybe the damage is less if they don't paint the Church as full of perverted priests, but damage is still damage. One bad priest is a blot on the priesthood. Transferring a questionable priest to other parishes is another. Portraying a sister - a bride of Christ - as a rash judgment making liar certainly does not help the Church. Have our standards really gotten so low that we consider this movie not anti-Catholic? Where was the holiness? The prayer? The overriding concern for God's will? The concern for the welfare of all children? Would your grandmother have watched this movie and honestly thought it was good for the Church?

The movie purposely doesn't settle the question about the priest - whether he preyed on the boy or not - but it certainly leaves any reasonable person with a suspicion (who resigns over nothing?). It leaves one in "doubt". No one is better off. The Church was not well served. The movie serves to put the clerical abuse scandals on the minds of Catholics and anti-Catholics once again. Don't support this movie with your time or your money. Your time would be better spent in prayer or reading the lives of saints. Your money would be better spent helping worthy Catholic causes than fattening Hollywood's pocketbook. Reject this movie as anti-Catholic & demand that Hollywood return to portraying the Church in a favorable light as it did in the past.

+ Note: The reader is reminded that discipline of children should obviously be done within reason. One must  not abuse children.

We thank "A Catholic Movie-Watcher" for this review.

We make no guarantees regarding any item herein. Views of others do not necessarily reflect our views. By using this site you indicate agreement to all terms. For terms information, see "Important Notice" above and click here.

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