Idol Chatter

I heard a sermon on Broadway last night, and it wasn’t in the nearby Church of Scientology. It is the opening scene of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Doubt,” and it sets the tone for a powerful play that poses the questions: How far do we go in the pursuit of righting a (perceived) wrong? How do we balance our own inner certainty with an always-more-ambiguous reality?

The setting was the 1960s, but the scenario was achingly contemporary: At a Catholic grade school, a nun suspects a young priest of abusing at least one student. No doubt about what to do there, right? Protect the boy, do whatever it takes to separate the priest from his victims and potential victims. But it’s not so simple. The play sets up two alternate narratives, each with its holes but both equally plausible.

The first: A popular priest gets too close with a student and takes advantage of a boy who is in need of attention and love, especially from a male role model. A slick-talker, he’s been in trouble before, but managed to weasel out, and get transferred to a new parish without his new community knowing a thing. And in his new position, like his old one, the church hierarchy handles complaints by asking the accused whether it’s true and believing his denials. Faced with an institution unwilling to act, the individual must step up and do what she can to protect the children.

The second: It is normal–necessary–for a priest to befriend his flock members and to take a special interest in the needs of those shunned by friends or facing difficult, even abusive, family situations. Parishioners and school children can flourish if treated with warmth, friendliness, and a casual approachability, in contrast to the strict, aloof, law-and-order authority figures of past generations. Discipline must sometimes take a back seat to pity, and every gesture of compassion and friendship cannot be subject to dark scrutiny–or else the priest will feel a need to back off, leaving his charges confused, hurt, and vulnerable.

Which narrative is true? Caught in the middle of two strong personalities–the accuser and the accused–a young, naive nun switches beliefs in response to the stronger argument of the moment, and hopes more than anything for peace to return. My wife and I both agreed that through the play’s first half, the story didn’t present enough ambiguity, failing to achieve its titular doubt–but she thought Narrative 1 was obviously true, while I thought #2 was the clear winner. So maybe doubt was achieved after all.

I was sad to hear that this play is closing soon on Broadway, but New York’s loss is the rest of America’s gain: it’s hitting the road for a national tour. “Doubt” is a “Crucible” for our times–a plea to refrain from witchhunts, even in the pursuit of an unambiguously correct goal, and a reminder to question our own beliefs and motives at all times and not let ego and personal feelings get in the way of our morality.

“In the pursuit of wrongdoing, we take a step away from God,” the suspicious nun says twice. In one instance, she follows that remark up by saying, “But it’s in His service.” At another, she repeats the line but follows it with, “Of course there’s a price to pay.” We’d do well to remember both of those sentiments.

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