John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” is a great play — both sturdy and subtle, and as open to interpretation as the title suggests. Set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, it never quite spells out whether likable, open-minded Father Flynn is as guilty as fusty old Sister Aloysius suspects he is of taking an inappropriate interest in a particularly vulnerable 12-year-old boy, the only black student in the place. And that ambiguity is the power of the piece.
There’s no such shading in Shanley’s New York Times op-ed this week. In it, he voices at the top of his lungs the popular view that Benedict XVI personally implemented the coverup of predator priests. I understand the anger in his column and others like it; if the rape of children doesn’t make us scream, nothing will. Yet it’s so wrong in the particulars that it misses some of the most important lessons of the scandal.
In our all-or-nothing, right-or-left, with-us-or-against-us opinion culture, taking any issue with the way Shanley and others view Benedict will be seen by some as defending the pope — or, worse, as defending the abuse itself, though I’ve been writing about the horror of it for years.
But it’s because we can’t afford to bungle the takeaway that we shouldn’t pin so much of the blame on Benedict. “Pope Benedict XVI quit,” Shanley begins. “Good. He was utterly bereft of charm, tone-deaf and a protector of priests who abused children. He’d been a member of the Hitler Youth. In addition to this woeful résumé, he had no use for women.”
Though I won’t argue for his charm or pitch, and have no idea whether he loves or loathes women on a personal level, it’s simply not true that he protected predator priests. While I fault Benedict for many things, his record on abuse is far more mixed than that. When many others in the Vatican were still writing off reports of abuse as an anti-Catholic media plot, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke publicly of the need to remove clerical “filth” from the church, in reference to predator priests. Then, as pope, in a move that upset the accused man’s many powerful friends, he did the almost unthinkable by moving against Marcial Maciel Degollado, the abusive priest who founded the Legion of Christ.
Benedict also installed an American in his old post as the chief watchdog of orthodoxy, a move widely seen as an acknowledgment that someone who understood the seriousness of the abuse issue — and inside the Vatican, that has long been the Americans — needed to be in that job.
Shanley’s “Hitler Youth,” reference is technically true but completely unfair; that wasn’t his choice, his family opposed the Nazis, and his whole worldview was formed in opposition to Hitler, and then to communism.
In fact, the always charming, tonally impressive John Paul II bears far more responsibility for refusing to recognize the seriousness of the threat posed by predator priests. In the communist Poland of his youth, if you wanted to get rid of someone, you whispered that he was gay or a child molester — and tragically, for too long, John Paul saw such reports in that light, and dismissed them.
But seeing the coverup of these scandals as an operation run from some central command center in the Vatican misunderstands how the church works — to an under-appreciated extent, local bishops run it. And that mistaken view allows us to hope that changing the guard might correct any and all problems.
Instead, it’s crucial to realize not only that Benedict didn’t head the conspiracy to cover up abuse, but that there was no such conspiracy. The truth is even worse than that, actually, because the culture of clerical deference and the instinct of self-protection were such that bishops across the United States and elsewhere didn’t need any marching orders, or any secret plan, to know what to do. And in their eagerness to hide the terrible truth, the bishops themselves hurt the church more than their critics ever could.
Seeing “Doubt” against the backdrop of what we now know did happen, in Catholic schools and rectories across this country and others, Shanley didn’t have to tell us how the story ends, either. In fact, the tension in the work depends on the strand of possibility that the priest’s accuser is the one in the wrong.
Either way, though, Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence is not the point of the piece — which comes near the end, when Sister Aloysius admits she lied about getting confirmation of her suspicions from a nun in another school. In her zeal to do the right thing, it’s Aloysius herself who’s been corrupted.
“In the pursuit of wrongdoing,” she says, “we step away from God.” Or put another way, there is nothing easier than becoming what we hate.