Jonathan Lebolt interviews
Katherine Thorn and David Morrissette
about our upcoming MAGPS Cinema Series film,
Jonathan: Hi, Katherine and Dave. It’s a pleasure to interview you for the MAGPS Cinema Series. What made you choose this film?
Katherine: I had a powerful experience at the MAGPS Spring conference on cultural competence and spirituality with Alexis Abernathy. It stirred up my own issues with my religious background, which I’ve continued to process this year. This movie fit that theme for me by beautifully exploring how complicated our connections to God, community, and spirituality are.
Dave: One big reason we chose this film is because you, Jonathan, recommended it! As Katherine said, the struggle with faith is a key theme. Secondly, the struggle with an allegiance to a religious system that alternately welcomed and shunned us.
I remember stumbling over my words when I admitted to my older brother that I didn’t believe in God. It felt like a betrayal of him and the family somehow. I was raised in a very religiously Catholic family. We said the rosary every night together, and all three boys went away to board at a minor or high school seminary to study for the priesthood in rural Maine.
While child abuse is the main plot, we hope that our evening’s discussion can examine other threads that each of us deal with every day in our own lives and as members of community faith itself, system hierarchies including the paternalism of many religious hierarchies, integration of faith system within the family, and how systems protect themselves from change.
Jonathan: Doubt was made in 2008. How do its themes dovetail with contemporary concerns, such as the Catholic Church’s response to revelations of sexual abuse by priests and the Me Too Movement?
Dave: I remember one priest at the seminary I attended. He was one of the smartest people any of us kids had met in our young lives and an excellent teacher. Nevertheless, rumors flew about his interests in us boys. Ironically, he oversaw the infirmary. I remember one joke about a boy that went to the infirmary. The priest had him lay down on a cot and gently squeezed his leg asking “does this hurt?” Replied the boy “But father, I told you I had a cold”. A much more serious rumor held that a boy was sent home because of some sort of sexual encounter with that priest. Whether true or not, the rumor reflects badly on the seminary because in it, it was the boy who was punished, not the priest.
How do you separate the good memories, the decent and loving religious leaders, the beautiful ritual, the life changing beliefs, from the sordid, scurrilous, abusive duplicity of the very same system? Turns out, most people can’t. Catholic churches where I’m from in New England have been closing for the past 10-20 years as parish membership dwindles. A sad loss for many of us, whether current or former Catholics, to have one less honorable institution to look to for guidance.
Katherine: The movie is set in a Catholic school in 1964. The themes of abuse of power and the sense of powerlessness seem just as relevant over fifty years later. I like to believe that today’s movements are working to change the systems and paradigms. In the film, Sister Aloysius did what she could without any institutional support.
Jonathan: Viola Davis gave a magnificent performance, for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination, as the mother of a Black boy of a low socioeconomic status, who may have been abused by the priest, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was nominated for Best Actor. (Meryl Streep, who plays Sister Aloysius, was nominated for Best Actress.) Disturbingly, Davis’s character suggests that even if her son was abused, at least he got some semblance of love from an adult male. What are your reflections about this?
Dave: One can’t help but observe the similarities between Father Flynn, the priest in the movie and Theodore McCarrick, the defrocked Cardinal who was admired and beloved by so many in the Washington area. We see someone who speaks of love, forgiveness, kindness. Compare that with the rigid, punitive, and unforgiving head nun (Sister Aloysius). Father Flynn’s approach invites thoughtfulness, participation and personal growth for those around him to flourish. Is that all bullshit? We are like the young novice nun, Sister James, pulled in both directions – we want the priest’s loving and forgiving god, much more than we want the head nun’s god who smites us for any and all transgressions.
Katherine: The scene you describe was so moving to me. It was horrifying to think that this mother’s preferred choice would be the worst nightmare for most people. It was a reminder to me of how my assumptions are shaped by my own experience and privilege. I say privilege because the mother knew what she was choosing and believed that having her son stay at the school was her best option.
Jonathan: What could we learn from this film about group dynamics and leading therapy groups?
Katherine: I think of Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius, and Sister James as their own small group. Each one of them holds different roles and energy within the group. The struggle of that group ends up destroying it. I also see their small group existing within circles of powerful, larger groups, such as the Catholic church and the broader American culture of that time. As group leaders, it’s important that we recognize how those larger groups impact, shape and limit the group’s work. We also need to be aware of our own religious/spiritual values, beliefs and biases.
Dave: I just wanted to add one more thought about the joyless faith of Sister Aloysius. She evoked restraint and fear to maintain order and discipline that left her isolated and cheerless. She reminds me of the lyrics to a song popular around 2005, I will Follow you into the Dark, by a band called Death Cab for Cutie:
In Catholic School
As vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles bruised
By a lady in black.
And I held my tongue
As she told me “Son,
Fear is the heart of love”
So I never went back.
Jonathan: Thanks so much for the interview, Katherine and Dave. I look forward to watching the film with you on April 13!