Why Sister Aloysius "Doubts"

 Film asks: Can Faith endure amidst a Modern Sea of Doubt?     By James J. Murtagh, M.D.

    Warning:  spoiler alert. If you have not seen Doubt, do not read further. The film contains a major plot twist, which is discussed in this Op- Ed.

The best (and last) line of the Pulitzer-prize winning play (turned Blockbuster film) Doubt exposes the moral squeeze on its main character Sister Aloysius. In a final and complete reversal of roles, the starch-collar, old school, Catholic nun reveals to her innocent protégé Sister James that she, the hard line absolutist, now has “doubts.”

What! Sister Aloysius, the ruler wielding, never-had-a-doubt-in-my-life dogmatic, now a doubting Thomas? To catch a pedophile, Aloysius told a lie. True Catholic dogma (or Kantian dogma, etc) would never allow such a lie, even to defeat evil. In the service of God, the nun finds herself forced into Machiavellian relativism. Does the end really justify the means?

Sr. Aloysius doubt encapsulates the last century of humanity’s doubt: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...”, “What but design of darkness to appall?-If design govern in a thing so small.

The nun abandons absolutism, violating her vow of obedience to the Church to catch the pedophile. When the hierarchy fails to act, she becomes prosecutor, judge and jury, stepping onto the slippery slope of moral relativism. If even Sister Aloysius cannot defend moral absolutes, can anyone? Then, how will we recognize evil? Can we stop evil without absolutes?

Seemingly, this film examines crisis in the Catholic Church. In reality, it speaks to the crisis in our world.

Doubt is a Rorschach test in the culture wars. What can we know, and when can we know it? Matthew Arnold wrote that faith is gone, and doubt now reigns supreme. Faith once girdled the earth like a sea, and “Sophocles long ago . . . Heard it on the Ægæan” But now “Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath”

Are there any boundaries? Aloysius “case” against the pedophile is mainly on intuition. Her “evidence” is more flimsy than the evidence of WMDs in Iraq. She may have gotten the right result, but if so, she was lucky.

History is filled with evildoers acting from fierce conviction:  Mullahs, witch-hunters, Inquisitors and suicide-bombers. More often than not, they all act from the conviction that they are protecting children. Aloysius states, “In the service of God, sometimes one must take a step away from God.” Aloysius even has the hubris to act before she knows evil has been done. She launches a pre-emptive Jihad based only on suspicion. Such Jihads will be wrong more often than they are right.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre, we are all part of ignorant armies, clashing by night.  In the absence of true moral authority, must individuals take matters into their own hands? How do we avoid creating a world of vigilantes, if we apply the principle of Universality? There is no difference in using a lie to stop evil than using a lie to go to war.

When the leaders of moral standards break these standards, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed.

The worst villains do not appear. If the bishops had done their job and held evil accountable, it would not have fallen to Sr. Aloysius to launch her one-woman campaign.

Hell’s best-kept secret is that we create it for ourselves. Aloysius connived, threatened, and lied to get the pedophile removed from her parish, only to see him promoted. It is nothing but a Dantean existential nightmare.

Job sat surrounded by three friend, wondering why God allows evil. The relativistic devil serves for the amusement of God himself. Job’s story contradicts the rest of the Bible, a kind of minority report.

The author of Doubt is doubtless of the company of the devil. Clearly, the author relishes doubt, declaring doubt a part of the “bond” that links all huto man beings. The wisest men in history were those who knew they knew nothing. Universal doubt may have seemed like death to Matthew Arnold and Yeats, yet Socrates and Shakespeare reveled in doubt. The skeptics thought they had the upper hand, at least until Hitler. Then it became clear that relativists would not keep us safe from evil.

One wonders: are the doubters or the faithful more likely to inherit the earth? Possibly, we need both to make the world run.

Dostoevsky believed that punishment was essential to redemption of the human soul. Aloysius knows she is guilty of lying and breaking vows, but is not caught and not punished. Instead, she lives in frozen silence, without that most dear to her, her faith.

Aloysius no longer dwells in a world of precision and grandeur of divine justice. Now, she is in the relativistic company of Nietzsche, Kafka, Orwell and worse. Hamlet, and Aloysius lived in worlds “rotten,” full of secrecy, topsy-turvy and despair that they were born to set things aright. To be or not to be? It’s a legitimate question when you awake in a dark wood of doubt.

In the film’s final ironic twist, the seemingly simple-minded innocent protégé Sister James turns out to have the only durable faith of the characters. Sister James had wished for the certainty and ram-rod faith of Sister Aloysius.  But appearance is opposite of reality. It is left to James to comfort Aloysius on a frozen bench, in the winter of Sister Aloysius’s doubt and despair.

 

James J. Murtagh Jr.
jmurtag@mindspring.com\