Weighing Doubt: One Playwright’s Measured Look at the Crisis in the Catholic Church

Faced with the lurid, tragic landscape of the Catholic Church’s child sex-abuse scandal, some of the laity have posed the question: Where were the nuns when this was going on? Playwright John Patrick Shanley offers a rich, multi-layered response to this and many other related matters—theological, psychological, and moral—in Doubt, a Parable. Shanley’s critically acclaimed off-Broadway production is now playing on Broadway after a successful run at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

Doubt’s success rests on the playwright’s ability to transcend the tired formula of the “issue play.” It turns the audience’s expectations upside-down, forcing a reassessment of a subject that has left most American Catholics spiritually exhausted and embittered.

In this stirring meditation on the scandal’s roots, Shanley introduces us to the stock character beloved of all Catholic dissenters: the zealous, brittle, parochial school principal who presides over her school like a latter-day Captain Ahab, scanning the horizon for ominous signs of evil. Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas Church School, shuns the complacency, subjectivity, and informality that have drifted into the Church with the “spirit of Vatican II.” “Satisfaction is a vice,” Sister Aloysius grimly observes in a mentoring session with a younger Sister of Charity, the naïve Sister James, who teaches the eighth grade. “Innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil,” she avers. Yet this sharp-eyed principal seems almost equally disturbed by the decline in penmanship standards as with a new priest who shows a special interest in male students. Is Sister Aloysius revealing a wacky paranoia or articulating deeper truths born of experience? Does her self-appointed role as judge and jury render her vocation worthless, or does her hard-edged Christian realism offer the only hope of defense for her charges?

Set in a 1964 Bronx parish on the cusp of the Second Vatican Council, Doubt churns with theological combat, forcing different generations and opposing genders to take to their battle stations. As a new current of moral ambiguity swells against this rock of certitude, will Sister Aloysius prevail or be washed away? Her nemesis is Father Flynn, the new, hip assistant pastor of the parish, a guy who welcomes the modernist breeze that has entered the Church. Like Sister James, Father Flynn yearns to be liked and accepted by the kids. Sister Aloysius, on the other hand, insists that clergy and nuns should maintain their distance with the laity and accept the burden and social isolation of moral authority that accompany their vocations.

 

At the start of the play, Sister Aloysius meets with Sister James and urges her to be vigilant in her supervision of the eighth-grade students. The principal’s insistence puzzles the younger nun, but she agrees to watch her charges more closely. Before long, Sister James is back in the principal’s austere office to report some disturbing news: Father Flynn invited one of her students—the school’s only African American—back to the rectory. When the boy returned to the classroom, Sister James noticed that he was unsettled and had alcohol on his breath.

Sister Aloysius doesn’t seem surprised by the news. But she does express some dismay that she hadn’t anticipated that this clerical predator would target the school’s sole minority student. Sister James wonders at the older nun’s certainty. Sister Aloysius reports that her suspicions were first arroused when she observed a student pull away after the priest placed his hand on the child’s wrist. The trusting Sister James refuses to believe that the priest “interfered” with the boy. Indeed, she recoils from making such judgments, of assuming the worst of another person, of violating the bond of trust that holds the parish community together. Sister Aloysius tries to set her straight, but she doesn’t convince the younger woman, nor does the principal convince the audience, which has been schooled to dismiss tough-minded nuns like Sister Aloysius. The relaxed, well-intentioned Father Flynn—never loathe to express his feelings and demand a little empathy—is more to our culture’s taste.

During the particular evening I attended the show, the audience literally gasped in dismay at Sister Aloysius’s dark suspicions and warmly applauded Father Flynn, as if he were more than an actor playing a part. But the narrative still lingered in Act Two. By the denouement, Shanley had turned the tables on his audience, providing a mirror for our modern biases and approved stereotypes.

Meanwhile, Sister Aloysius confronts a serious obstacle to her goal of evicting Father Flynn from the parish: She simply has no firm evidence that he harmed the boy. Certainly, the beleaguered student will not raise his voice against the priest. Further, the principal knows that the pastor, a saintly but naïve man, would never believe her accusation if Father Flynn denied it. In a previous parish, the pastor did remove an offending priest, but that pastor was a different sort of man. In the diocesan chain of command, she notes, the school principal is junior to the pastor and his assistant. She must operate with care, mindful of her vulnerable position.

Sister Aloysius plots to invite Father Flynn to a meeting under some false pretext and then trap him into a confession. The two nuns confront the priest, but he denies the charges and questions the principal’s mental stability. He explains that he caught the boy drinking sacristy wine and let him off the hook so that he wouldn’t lose his altar boy position. Later, he meets with Sister James and persuades her to believe in both his innocence and in his flexible—and thus more charitable—brand of discipleship. Surely, the rigid Sister Aloysius and her kind are on the way out.

So the principal calls in for reinforcements: She invites the boy’s mother to a meeting and repeats the accusation. But the meeting doesn’t go according to plan. The boy’s mother appears disinclined to join the posse, worrying that her husband will beat her son senseless if the accusation is made public. Besides, the boy is “that way.” He had trouble making friends at his last school, and no one at his present school will have anything to do with him. Father Flynn stands as her son’s sole friend and defender, giving the boy some reprieve. Her son will soon graduate; the mother just wants to get through the school year. “I don’t know that you and I are on the same side,” she tells the stunned principal.

Sister Aloysius may lack allies, but not stamina. When Father Flynn returns to threaten her with expulsion, she retrieves another round of ammunition from her cache. She tells the priest that she called his previous parishes and learned that he was forced to leave them after similar accusations were leveled against him. The priest buckles and calls the bishop, asking to be reassigned. Later, Sister Aloysius reports the less-than-satisfactory denouement to Sister James: The bishop has appointed Father Flynn pastor of another parish with full authority over the attached school. The principal now reveals that her remarks about the priest’s past record were a fabrication—she never called Father Flynn’s previous parishes. Still, she believes that the priest’s decision to depart without a fight confirms his guilt.

Sister James asks Sister Aloysius if she really thinks she did the right thing. “Oh, Sister James, I have doubts,” Sister Aloysius replies, her lowered voice shaking.

The principal’s doubts, of course, go beyond a nagging question of her strategic lie. After all, Sister Aloysius has already explained that, “When you take a step to address wrongdoing you are taking a step away from God, but in His service.” The playwright doesn’t clarify his protagonist’s state of mind. But the audience is left to ponder the uneasy soul of an upright woman whose determined battle for justice is dismissed by Church authorities, leaving her friendless and unlovely to behold.

The gifted actress, Cherry Jones, played Sister Aloysius in the recent New York production at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Dressed in the austere, full religious habit instituted by Mother Seton, Jones’s Sister Aloysius begins the play as a variation of the nightmarish, monster nun who originally surfaced in Christopher Durang’s 1979 off-off-Broadway satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Since audiences first applauded Durang’s screeching caricature, the theatrical world has declared open season on women in floor-length habits holding fast to moral absolutes that impose debilitating guilt-trips.

Shanley doesn’t embrace this development. He dedicates Doubt to “the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?” Thus, Doubt begins with a stereotype, and in the course of the play, Jones slowly peels back the self-protective layers that obscure the humanity and sense of justice that animate Sister Aloysius’s soul. Perhaps this woman remains imprisoned in her cage of vigilance. But she does not shirk her responsibilities, even when they’re distasteful and dangerous.

Buried in the playwright’s notes for the audience, Shanley offers three literary citations that underscore the burden of moral authority that Sister Aloysius carries with awkward grace. The first is The Bad Sleep Well—the title of an Akira Kurosawa film. A passage from Ecclesiastes follows: “In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.” Finally, Ptolemy’s aphorism: “Everything that is hard to attain is easily assailed by the mob.” The Kurosawa reference directs us to a reassessment of our tendency to mistake the “well-adjusted” individual—beloved of therapists—for a truly good person. Sister Aloysius may not qualify as well-adjusted, but is she true?

The line from Ecclesiastes develops this point further with its insight into the crippling weight and the distorting effects of our exposure to the dark side of human nature. Shanley understands that moral combat wreaks psychic damage on those charged with prosecuting crimes. This fact is one among many reasons why our society’s authority figures—including the Catholic bishops—may shirk from exercising their responsibilities. Finally, Ptolemy’s observation suggests that in our race to embrace the new, we must reconsider our tendency to tear down individuals and institutions that represent hard-won, but inconvenient, truths.

But Shanley’s interest in probing the moral dilemmas associated with the prosecution of clerical predators goes deeper than merely constructing a parable devoted to a hot subject. He has a personal stake in this, too. A cradle Catholic who graduated from a Bronx parochial school, he subsequently placed his own children in a California parish school (attended by some of my own relatives). Subsequently, he learned of the victimization of a family member at the hands of the notorious Rev. John Geoghan. As the Church scandal spilled onto the front pages of American newspapers, Shanley recalled his childhood as a Catholic student in the Bronx, concluding that sharp-eyed nuns running parish schools were undoubtedly responsible for the exposure of some perpetrators.

In an interview published in American Theater magazine, Shanley traced his creation of Sister Aloysius to his new appreciation for the smart, savvy martinets who once ran church schools and now seem to be a dying breed. “Because nuns were the ones who were noticing the children with aberrant behavior, in some cases they had to be the ones who discovered what was happening,” Shanley observed. “But the chain of command in the Catholic Church was such that they had to report it not to the police but to their superior within the Church, who then covered up for the guy. This had to create very powerful frustrations and moral dilemmas for these women. It was very shortly after that that they started to leave the Church in droves.” Indeed, the playwright makes a veiled reference to the nuns’ mass exodus during a dialogue between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. The priest asks about an elderly nun who fell earlier that day. Sister Aloysius wants to protect the nun, who is losing her vision, from being replaced.

Father Flynn: Is she all right?
Sister Aloysius: Oh, she’s fine.
Father Flynn: Her sight isn’t good, is it?
Sister Aloysius: Her sight is fine. Nuns fall, you know.
Father Flynn: No, I didn’t know that.
Sister Aloysius: It’s the habit. It catches us more often than not. What with our being in black and white, and so prone to falling, we are more like dominoes than anything else.

The dialogue above provides an excellent example both of Shanley’s ear for terse verbal combat, and for his ability to enrich mundane communication with echoes of deeper matters.

Our litigious society generally views the clerical sex-abuse scandal as an open-and-shut case, solely a problem of priestly criminals and irresponsible bishops. But Shanley says he also wanted Doubt to reveal the complexity of navigating the moral and legal minefields that exist when hard evidence remains elusive. This often-unacknowledged reality deeply interests the playwright, who told American Theater that he was enthralled by “the cathartic, philosophical power of embracing doubt…. [Y]ou may never know…the truth or falsity of a story… and yet actions must be taken if you feel the imperative, if you feel that you have the clarity of… thought and know what should be done.”

As Doubt suggests, sex-abuse cases can be difficult to prosecute, despite media stories that assume culpability. The recent criminal trial of Paul Shanley (no relation to the playwright), the former Boston priest accused and ultimately convicted of child rape and assault, underscores the challenge such cases pose for prosecutions. Father Shanley emerged as a central figure in the Church scandal—his case contributed to the resignation of Bernard Cardinal Law, following the public disclosure of archdiocesan records detailing both persistent allegations against Father Shanley and administrative laxity in curtailing his contact with children.

This paper trail, confirming the archdiocese’s slack supervision of both Father Shanley and Father Geoghan, surfaced in last year’s off-Broadway production of Michael Murphy’s Sin (A Cardinal Deposed). Murphy’s characters read letters from anxious parents seeking the removal of clerical abusers as well as excerpts from depositions given by Cardinal Law. Reviewers argued that Sin’s reliance on documentary evidence produced a damning portrait of the prelate as arrogant and irresponsible, but critics questioned whether Murphy’s approach succeeded artistically.

Though the Boston archdiocese reportedly made individual payments of $500,000 to several men who accused Paul Shanley of abuse committed decades ago, only one plaintiff proceeded with a criminal case against the defrocked priest. This January, in court testimony during the criminal trial, the defendant’s attorney exposed discrepancies in the plaintiff’s statements, raising questions about his repressed memories of abuse. Defense testimony also reported that the plaintiff came from a troubled family and suffered from substance abuse, casting doubt on his argument that the accused held sole responsibility for his accuser’s present emotional troubles. Court testimony further revealed a more complex picture of the perpetrator. Witnesses that frequented the Boston parish church at the time the abuse reportedly occurred described Father Shanley as a popular cleric. Ultimately, the prosecutor got a conviction, but media coverage of the trial concluded that the jury accepted the plaintiff’s testimony only because he had no apparent reason to lie in court—he had, after all, already received the $500,000 payment from the archdiocese.

The once charismatic Father Shanley might well have been a model for the playwright’s Father Flynn: Decades ago, as a hip “street priest” who aided runaways and other troubled youths, Father Shanley captured the media’s attention and was hailed as a sign of the dynamic Church of the future. Indeed, the complicated record of Father Shanley fits in with the playwright’s own understanding of the ambiguous motivations that propel the pastoral outreach of such men. In his American Theater interview, he makes this observation:

When I was growing up, at certain points I was championed by homosexual teachers who were the only people watching out for me. And why were they doing it? They were really into boys. They were really into my problems. Did they do anything to me? No. Did they want to? I don’t know…. Did I take advantage of the good things they were offering me? Yes, because I needed to, because I was isolated and there was no one else. Did that make them bad people? Not to me.

The playwright can thus acknowledge the contributions of such men while accepting the absolute necessity of prosecuting those who commit crimes against children. Doubt hints that some Church authorities could not themselves straddle the position—perhaps out of a misguided sense of charity or gratitude. Critics vilified Cardinal Law for writing a letter to Father Shanley that offered the perpetrator warm encouragement. Yet Doubt shouldn’t be seen as a justification for witch hunts against priests. Sister Aloysius’s willingness to force Father Flynn’s expulsion, despite the dearth of hard evidence, underscores the dangers of zealotry in such matters. Anyone who follows a season of television’s Law and Order knows that while the checks and balances designed to protect the accused may be deeply frustrating, they’re absolutely necessary. Exoneration in a court of law often comes too late to repair the damage of shattered reputations.

Our age resists moral judgment, except when the accusation involves child sex abuse—the last sin to survive the soft corrosion of moral relativism. Walker Percy noted this tendency in his 1987 novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. The mob demands the heads of accused pedophiles and thus gives witness to its dormant conscience. But competing taboos challenge even this holdover. Tolerance demands the suppression of moral judgments, and so we disdain those who cling to moral absolutes. Father Flynn, accused of sex abuse of a minor, strikes the right easygoing tone, ingratiating himself with the students and the audience. Sister Aloysius, accused of nothing but excessive vigilance, disturbs the mindset that finds excuses for tolerating immorality.

In 1964, American society stood at the crossroads, poised between waning traditional patterns of thought and behavior and the shock of the new. Doubt crystallizes this era. The playwright’s own family has suffered from the narrow clericalism, moral weakness, and bureaucratic passivity that drove the Church’s erratic supervision of men like John Geoghan. John Patrick Shanley has every reason to condemn the corruption of a graying hierarchy that permitted Geoghan to roam freely, and thus to condemn the Church itself. Many have done so. Instead, he dives deep into the paradoxes of a Church that remains spotless like its Founder, even as its human leaders demonstrate a tragic fallibility. Shanley’s imaginative, balanced treatment of such matters, articulated in his perceptive approach to each character’s vulnerabilities, makes Doubt a haunting, thoroughly engrossing theatrical experience.

Joan Frawley Desmond

By

Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

MENU