I wrote this reaction to the movie Doubt on another blog that enjoys more popular readership. That is, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of the reading level.
A little over a week ago I saw the movie Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. My wife and I both liked it – but the purpose of this post is less about recommending the movie than it is about reflecting on a theme that emerges from the movie’s conclusion. Specifically, I have in mind the final scene, which powerfully illustrates the damaging effect that an erroneous theological belief can have upon a person.
(Those planning to see this movie should stop reading right about now).
In the course of the movie, Sister Aloysius (Streep) comes to believe that Father Flynn (Seymour Hoffman) has had inappropriate sexual relations with one of the boys attending the school which is attached to the church. The audience is meant to ask themselves, Are the allegations true? Is he guilty? In the end Flynn tacitly admits his guilt by resigning. It is also revealed that in the last five years he has been removed and reassigned from one church to another three different times. The circumstances surrounding these prior “reassignments” are not given, but viewers are led to make the connection.
After Flynn’s resignation, Aloysius – who was instrumental in forcing Flynn to resign – decides to speak to the monsignor (the ecclesiastical authority presiding over the church and school) to inform him of the real reason behind Flynn’s resignation. She figures that unless she tells the monsignor of Flynn’s illicit sexual relations with one of the children attending the school, he’s just going to do it again the next place he goes. We don’t get to see her meeting with the monsignor, but afterwards, in the film’s final scene, Aloysius admits to another sister that the monsignor did not believe her allegations, not even after Flynn had implicitly confessed his culpability through his resignation. What is more, Aloysius tells the younger nun, the monsignor awarded Flynn with a promotion, giving him control of an even larger school and church.
At this point, Sister Aloysius, whose rigid and forbidding character has revealed little emotional registry throughout the movie, breaks down into tears and appears to be inconsolably shaken. Weeping as she says it, she reveals to the fellow nun that she “has doubts.” The movie ends on that note.
This is very revealing about Roman Catholicism, which sees itself (the Roman Catholic Church) as the continuing presence of Jesus on earth – or said another way, as the mystical extension of Christ’s actual body advancing over the earth. The teaching office of the church – the magisterium – is officially acknowledged as the only agency on earth which can authentically interpret the Bible. Priests themselves enjoy a mediatorial position between God and the laity – being the only officers entrusted with the task of dispensing God’s sacramental grace to common members and even forgiving their sins.
Is it any wonder, then, that when a member of the Roman Catholic Church becomes aware, firsthand, of an insidious corruption among Roman Catholic superiors – that this awareness can become absolutely crippling? Remember, Roman Catholic superiors are not like the spiritual superiors of a Protestant believer. The former are mediators of God’s grace to the common members. The latter are tentatively-acknowledged spiritual authorities whose power resides in the proper exposition of the Bible.
For this reason it is entirely legitimate, given Roman Catholic ecclesiology, for Sister Aloysius to experience doubts. The system that is supposed to represent God to her has not simply let her down, but has appallingly exacerbated, indeed, promoted a practice so despicable that the only logical reaction is: “This is the system in which I have placed my trust to instruct me about God? These are my authorities? Men who, despite identifying themselves and the Church as God's abiding presence on earth, fail in such disastrous ways?” It is not only that they fail, but that when they've been presented with the opportunity to reform, the Catholic Church has chosen time and again to suppress their corruption and perpetuate their broken system.
The difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant ecclesiology reduces to a question of authority. For Catholics, authority is found in the magisterium (what the church teaches today) and tradition (what the church has taught in the past). Scripture’s meaning can only be authentically explained by the Church. For Protestants, Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith. This is the principle of Sola Scriptura. So when someone like Ted Haggard is caught buying drugs and sexual favors from a male escort – that isn’t something that affects my faith. Ultimately, my faith is affixed to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Only he forgives my sins. If Ted Haggard were my spiritual “Father” – the one from whom I’d receive forgiveness of sins – then that would send my world into a spiral. But measured against Scripture, Haggard is no authority of mine – or any Christian’s for that matter. He has invalidated himself.
Roman Catholicism sets its adherents up for massive disillusionment. Not even the greatest apostle the church has been given pronounced a wholesale endorsement of his entire life but rather stressed that he is to be imitated only as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). That is, insofar as he fails to imitate Christ he no longer “represents God” to the people. The truth is that Jesus is the only person that can never let us down. Those who fix their eyes solely on him experience an invincible faith. For faith is only as good as the one upon whom it is placed.