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Anti-Catholicism: a double standard that deserves doubt

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This is the full version of the article from the March 12 edition of The B.C. Catholic.
Amy Adams and Maryl Streep talk with writer-director John Patrick Shanley on the set of the movie Doubt. Shanley has successfully adapted his stage play to film, recreating the Catholic milieu of the era. Photo Miramax/CCN
"This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who have 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?" (John Patrick Shanley).

Doubt is fascinating because it allows me quickly to find out from people who have seen the play (or the movie version with Oscar winner Meryl Streep), what they really think of Catholic priests and nuns.

I am frequently surprised at the firm certainty, at the sheer lack of "doubt," with which many people express their condemnation of the priest character: of course Father Flynn was sexually abusing that young boy! Of course Sister James is shocked to discover the hypocrisy of the system she serves! Of course Sister Aloysius learns to doubt Catholicism by the play's end!

This is fascinating, because the play, by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Ron Reed, is crafted precisely to deconstruct such cynical anti-Catholic prejudices.

The play contains undeniable formal indications (visible to experienced readers sensitive to subtleties) that the priest is innocent, that he is a chaste man with a homosexual orientation, who is befriending a young African-American boy with a homosexual orientation, a boy who is being bullied by others in a way he himself has no doubt once suffered.

The key scene for decoding the play's content is the one in which the mother of the boy laments to Sister Aloysius how her son is being bullied by the prejudice of his own father. And Father Flynn's pillow parable condemning gossip is the key formal clue, thanks to the play's full title, Doubt: A Parable.

For me, the unusual merit of Doubt is that it deconstructs the most familiar anti-Catholic prejudices about "lustful, abusive, predatory priests" and "stern, frustrated, sexually repressed nuns."

It does this not just by allowing us sympathetically to inhabit the lives of the priest and nun characters. It actually uses the "stern nun" stereotype (in the form of Sister Aloysius) to deconstruct the "lustful priest" stereotype (when we eventually come to understand Father Flynn).

And then it humanizes Sister Aloysius by allowing us to see her "better self" as mirrored in the younger Sister James. Just as Sister Aloysius admirably helps an older nun going physically blind, Sister James ends up helping Sister Aloysius, who is going spiritually blind.

In order to overcome (to come to "doubt") one's own prejudices about priests and nuns, one has imaginatively to engage with the drama of these characters as real, fully dimensional human beings. In this way, we can understand that older Sister Aloysius focuses on externals and thinks in stereotypes in order to attain moral certainty.

Young idealistic Sister James, in contrast, is open to human beings as human beings. Sister James rightly wishes to cultivate kindness and warmth by giving people "the benefit of the doubt" about their hidden inner nature and character.

Sister James begins to lose sleep by the play's end, however, by being tempted to think only in stereotypes and to focus only on external certainties.
But it seems she will not give in to this temptation in the long run, because Sister Aloysius provides a salutary negative example, confessing to her that hardening oneself to think heartlessly about human beings as reductive caricatures does not bring any lasting certainty or real peace.

The emotional intelligence of Pacific Theatre's production of Doubt is found in how it understands the all too often unnoticed philosophical truth at the heart of Doubt. It offers a superbly executed dramatization of this brilliant play by using stereotypes only to subvert them and to challenge us to be more human. Don't miss it.

Don't miss it, because the talented actors remain true to the drama throughout, as all of them appropriately win our sympathy for their respective characters. This sort of artistic sensitivity is especially praiseworthy because reductive caricatures of priests and nuns abound today.

It is common knowledge, at least among educated people, that "lustful priests" and "pregnant nuns," for example, are a gross anti-Catholic stereotypes, so it is worth exposing the prejudiced way of thinking behind these stereotypes.

Thankfully, in the Internet age, this has never been easier. To complement this play, there are many resources at your fingertips.

If you type into Google the words "examples of anti-Catholicism," the first thing that comes up is the Wikipedia entry, "Anti-Catholicism." Under the "In popular culture" section it lists such stereotypes about priests and nuns.

More important, it cites Patrick R. O'Malley's study, Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2006), which on page 151 quotes the classic bigoted argument that attempts to justify the stereotypes.

"The doctrine of celibacy has never been literally followed except by those individuals who were suffering from religious mania, a disease which is almost always co-existent with disturbances or irregularities of the sexual system, and which like them is a manifestation of a morbid state, proceeding from the same pathological modifications in the condition of the brain."

In other words, depicting a pregnant nun in a comic sketch, for example, is an iconic, shorthand way of communicating a bigoted stereotype.

What the image says is: "These people are not only all hypocrites, and thereby targets for comic abuse; but also they are all mentally and physically ill, and therefore what they represent, as diseased specimens, should be held in contempt."

Philip Jenkins, in his book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (Oxford University Press, 2004), gives a detailed account of the double standard prevalent today whereby such anti-Catholic bigotry is tolerated, in stark contrast to other forms of bigotry.

He begins with a post-September-11 example in Massachusetts: "As the school prepared for its 2001 Halloween celebration, teachers were instructed to watch carefully for any costumes that might indicate anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment. Fortunately, no such issues arose, allowing teachers to relax and enjoy the event.

"A panel of teachers then gave the 'most comical costume' award to a group of three boys, two of whom were dressed as pregnant nuns, the third as their priest and impregnator.

"The fact that high schoolers can behave obnoxiously need surprise nobody, but what is amazing about this affair is that no adult thought that the display might conceivably be taken as offensive or bigoted."

Jenkins's publisher notes that anti-Catholicism, "this virulent strain of hatred, once thought dead, is alive and well in our nation, but few people seem to notice, or care."
Standing bravely against the heartless tide, Doubt offers hope, thanks to its noble example of human empathy.

C.S. Morrissey is a professor of Latin and Philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 March 2012 07:59  

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