The Film Doubt

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Two years ago, Fr. Dan invited me to co-host a Lenten Film Series that explored the cinematic interpretations of the Catholic priesthood. This is the introduction to the second film in the series, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.

The most ubiquitous symbol of our faith, particularly our Catholic tradition, is the crucifix—the cross. We often speak about how we all have our crosses to bear and certainly that’s true. We speak of the woman with the sick child, the addicted son, the economically strained parent, yet rarely do we talk about the cross we all bear – namely, that of our beloved Church’s sins.

Based on his 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning play, John Patrick Shanley writes and directs the story of a Catholic school principal questioning a priest’s ambiguous relationship with a troubled young student. Set in an all-too-real time and place for some of us, the world of urban, pre-Vatican II 1963 Catholicism shows a world where the singular primacy of the Church in working-class ethnic neighborhoods takes precedence over all of daily life. The film catalogues some of the rituals, many of which we miss, and though I didn’t experience them myself – the wearing of suits to daily Mass, the bells, the adorned cruets, the Latin prayers, the packed churches – are very beautiful things to me.

Indeed, the film, while doing a wonderful job in acknowledging the many traditions and cultural elements we may have lost from our Church. It shatters the notion that “the good old days were always good.” No matter what milieu our idyllic memory conjures, we often try to hide what was just underneath the surface – what we didn’t, couldn’t, or refused to see. Make no mistake about it: This film is a horror film. Whether it is Roger Deakins’ cinematography with its dark tones and deep textural colors, or the pale faced performers behind windowpanes, the film sets up the uneasiness simmering just underneath the film’s surface. We look for clues, search for meaning in each close-up and every lingering shot, so we can ask ourselves, “Did he do it?” We are unsure, but one thing we are certain of is that something is going on here.

“Did he do it?” It is a question we will all be asking ourselves long after the film is over and, truthfully, my thoughts have changed on each viewing, but whether he did do it or didn’t do it is irrelevant. The possibility that a person could commit any crime to any of our children is all our fault. We knew something was going on here.

If we are to take Saint Peter’s charge seriously that we “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,”1 then the point of viewing and discussing this film is to hold ourselves accountable. All crimes against children are our crimes; the silence of a congregation is our silence. Therefore, as we should hold our clergy accountable, we too must hold ourselves accountable and say, “Lord have mercy.”

One of the great elements of the late and great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Father Flynn, who you soon will meet, is that he does not think himself a predator. To paraphrase from the film critic David Edlestien’s own review of the film, monsters never think they are monsters. So, how do we hunt for one? We change our environment by praying for a transparent Church, a Church that recognizes our common brokenness and our desire for our common holiness. We pray for a Church that will destroy the monsters of pedophilia, clericalism, patriarchy, self-righteousness, and consumerism.

Our sins have hurt us. Indeed, we have hurt ourselves. So, what consoles us? Why do we, the broken, continue to worship in our broken Church? My friend and professor of Literature at Seton Hall University, Nancy Enright, does good to inform us that the scandals of a beloved Church have happened before and indeed so did our faithfulness to that same beloved Church.

Dr. Enright often talks about the examples of the faithful and tells us that like the thirteenth century poet, Dante, we can be “fully aware of the sinfulness of members of the Church on earth – the Church visible – and, at the same time, deeply committed to the Church invisible, existing in heaven but including all the faithful members of the Church on earth, the Body of Christ.”3 We continue practicing our faith for the same reasons we were so hurt by our Church. Simply because we love it – we love our Church, we love our priests, our sisters and our brothers in the Church. Where our hearts break is where Christ shall find His opening. A broken human heart is the door for God. Like our Holy Father has instructed us, let us open the doors of our Church and, therefore, our hearts to Christ’s mercy!

So, with the hope of healing in our hearts, where do we go from here? We go where we did not want to go, but we must – into the scant and yet very real world of Doubt.

1 1 Peter 2:9 NAB.

2. David Edelstien, “Tis the Season” New York Magazine.

3 Enright, Nancy H. “Dante and the Scandals of a Beloved Church.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7.4 (2004): 17-36. [accessed February 18, 2016]

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