The Bronx, 1964. Suspicions surface at a parochial school about a charismatic young priest’s interest in a Catholic school’s first and only Black student. Absent hard proof, Sister Aloysius, the school’s starched and self-assured principal, tries to protect the innocent—but is she doing God’s work or is her certitude actually pride? Anchored by Studio mainstay Sarah Marshall, Doubt is John Patrick Shanley’s masterpiece about faith, ambiguity, and the price of moral conviction.
Although the plot of Doubt hinges on an uncorroborated sense that Father Flynn may have molested a child at the parish school where he serves, the Catholic Church has a proven pattern of both abuse and the covering up of that abuse.
The abuse of power and ongoing patterns of unchecked sexual assault of minors by members of the Catholic Church has traumatized individuals and communities worldwide for centuries—accusations of improper contact between a priest and the schoolchild in his care, as well as subsequent cover-up of these accusations, dates to at least 1629. In the United States alone, a 2004 study reports 10,667 complaints of sexual abuse against 4,392 priests and deacons between 1950 and 2002. Before widespread scrutiny, beginning in 2002, many of these accusations were dismissed without investigation. Many priests and bishops accused of sexually assaulting youth were routinely reassigned to a new parish with or without required rehabilitation or retired without being reported to legal authorities.Read More
In Roman Catholic theology, the sin of Pride is the assertion of the self to a point of excess. It is an antisocial action, and an irreligious one. As the motivating vice that led Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Pride is considered by Catholics to be the original and most serious of the seven ‘deadly’ sins. St. Augustine of Hippo (254-430 CE) wrote that “Pride is the commencement of all sin…for the serpent, in fact, only sought for the door of pride whereby to enter when he said, ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” The seven ‘deadly’ or cardinal sins are a classification and ranking of human vices that entered Catholic teaching through Pope Gregory I in the late sixth century, based on an earlier list of wicked human passions drawn up by the Greek monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus.Read More
“What do you do when you’re not sure?” This question, posed by Father Brendan Flynn, the new progressive priest at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in the Bronx, NY, in 1964, has seldom crossed the mind of Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the stalwart principal of St. Nicholas’ adjoining Catholic school. Sister Aloysius is fierce in her convictions and devoted to running a well-functioning school, even if that includes harboring a mistrust of the children who attend it. Her no-nonsense leadership soon comes into conflict with Sister James, an enthusiastic young nun, new to the school, who teaches history as if she is performing on a Broadway stage. Sister Aloysius warns Sister James that her desire to please puts the discipline and education of her students at risk and stresses the importance of paying attention to the happenings of her eighth grade class.Read More
Like the young pupils of the fictional St. Nicholas Church School, John Patrick Shanley grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s, misbehaving his way through a Catholic school education. While Shanley drew on his working-class neighborhood and personal history for Doubt, the play’s real catalyst was his fascination with America’s collective resistance to uncertainty. When he started writing in 2003, in the wake of the United States-led invasion of Iraq, Shanley was transfixed by the volatility of clashing political commentators on television and the erosion of intellectual debate. “Everyone had a very entrenched opinion, but there was no real exchange, and if someone were to say ‘I don’t know,’ it was as if they would be put to death in the media coliseum,” he recalls. “There was this mask of certainty in our society that I saw hardening to the point that it was developing a crack—and that crack was doubt.”Read More
After Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck announced from the podium that John Patrick Shanley had won the 1988 Oscar for Moonstruck, the writer ascended the steps of the stage, grasped the statue, and said, in his thick Bronx accent, “Oh, wow!...I’d like to thank everybody who ever punched or kissed me in my life, and everybody who I ever punched or kissed.” Those acknowledgements for his screenplay award reflect in miniature the impetus for and style of Shanley’s writing, whether for stage, television, or film: he oscillates between poignancy and raw intensity that hits audiences like a punch to the gut. His work bears a hallmark dedication to both tenderness and toughness. As fellow playwright Tony Kushner notes, Shanley is “in pursuit of why people behave as badly as they do along with having great compassion for them. That’s an unusual and interesting combination.”Read More
The second Vatican council opened in October 1962, under the leadership of Pope John XXII (1958-1963), with the goal of bringing the church into the modern world. John Patrick Shanley sets Doubt two years after this momentous project, amid a clash of ideas and generations. Sister James and Father Flynn represent the new progressive postures of the church, embracing modern ideals of education and the reforms proposed by Vatican II. This comes into conflict with the more conservative Sister Aloysius who believes that the church must be the strict moral backbone of the community. While Sister Aloysius might seem apprehensive towards embracing this “new” Church, her actions and pursuit of truth embrace a revolutionary spirit that many nuns found post-Vatican II.Read More