Monday, April 8, 2013

Catholic School As War Zone: John Patrick Shanley on Slippery Belief

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 13
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt: A Parable

In his preface to his Pulitzer-winning play, John Patrick Shanley writes: “We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict.” Deep down, we know what he means. Schoolteachers cannot hug students for fear of liability lawsuits. Hired firebrands analyze television sitcoms for covert political import. Distrust of church, government, and pop culture leave individuals feeling radically adrift.

In an America shaken by President Kennedy’s assassination, a Bronx priest tries to keep his newly integrated Catholic school on course. But Sister Aloysius notices the attention Father Flynn pays one beleaguered boy and wonders. So two nuns undertake a forbidden investigation, determined that right trumps hierarchy. If only the truth proved as easy to grasp as the sisters’ fervor; but each new revelation only compounds their doubts.

Doubt is set in 1964, a time when Americans liked to claim Oswald’s rifle had stolen our national innocence. Yet as a people, we still had innate trust in forms of authority, including the Church. Secular leaders joined professional religious in the effort to sweep clerical sex abuse under the rug. In such an environment, a nun openly challenging her priest’s sexual mores, upsetting the mandatory hierarchy, required profound depth of faith.

But “truth” is slippery. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius begin an intricate dance around the balance of power, one in which facts take no part. Shanley’s characters shift suddenly, and our loyalties shift with them—Father Flynn seems like a predator one moment, an avuncular schoolteacher beleaguered by harpies the next. Sister Aloysius goes from dirty rumor-monger to champion of the afflicted, and back, so fast that we almost cannot see it.

Shanley, a Catholic school graduate himself, openly admires the candor nuns and priests demonstrate in their devotion to schoolchildren. Yet this candor has a dark side: in caring for children, we must remain vigilant against all threats, even ourselves. This bleak duality is further compounded by Catholic hierarchy, in which directives begin up the chain, and everyone lower, whether professional religious or ordinary laypeople, is expected to obey.

If these exigencies aren’t enough, the mother whose boy gets caught in this conflict seems willing to make horse-trades. She wants her son to remain in Catholic school because “he has a better chance of getting into a good high school. And that would mean an opportunity at college.” Back when few black men had a chance for higher education, and thus economic prosperity, the stray rumor seems a small price to pay.

This “real world” we hear so much about harbors great moral compromise. If we pursue one moral principle at all cost, we risk violating another. And if we judge people by one category of transgression, we strip some portion of their humanity. Yet we must draw the line somewhere. We cannot permit all things, nor forbid them, so we find ourselves performing moral contortions just to remain afloat.

In this environment, we find ourselves clinging to the one character most like ourselves. Sister James, a novice who still believes God sorts everything out, contends between two charismatic leaders, each of whom, considered alone, makes a persuasive case. She has no landmarks to guide her steps; the novitiate has even taken her name. This unfolding case proves a stark education in the moral vagaries of following God’s call.

In the final scene, Sister Aloysius says: “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God.” Having kicked over one moral code to defend another, she ultimately leaves us with the question: is vindication the same as justice? Is my white lie less wrong than your gaping moral chasm? Even in the final scenes, Shanley refuses to give us easy answers, and we exit this play as darkly confused as when we entered.

Shanley himself directed a big-screen adaptation of this play in 2008. Though beautifully designed and acted by an all-star cast, its realistic sets and army of extras loses some of the play’s muscular austerity. With few sets and only four actors, the play reflects the relative isolation each character feels. Even the boy at the nexus of the controversy never appears onstage, heightening our dislocation and lending urgency to the mystery.

This parable highlights the risks of winning, the perils of defending a creed beyond the point of reason. Because it doesn’t wrap up neatly, it stays with us long after we exit the theatre. Sister Aloysius’ doubts become our doubts. And like her, we wonder if we can ever believe again.

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