A Man of God: The Apparent Guilt of Father Flynn

Is a presumed man of God really to be trusted? In the play Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius become entangled in a conflict that casts doubt on Father Flynn’s innocence. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of dishonest behavior and accuses him of sexually abusing a young school boy named Donald. When Sister James reports the smell of alcohol on Donald’s breath, Sister Aloysius is convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt. Based on the evidence in Shanley’s play, Doubt: A Parable, it is most likely that Father Flynn is guilty based on his suspicious behavior and his defensive actions.

From the moment that Sister Aloysius accuses Father Flynn, he shows discomfort and acts suspicious. Father Flynn notes his discomfort and steps into defense mode when Sister Aloysius questions him about being alone with Donald in the rectory: “Happened? Nothing happened. I had a talk with a boy. It was a private matter” (Shanley 32). When Sister Aloysius points out that having a conversation with a twelve-year-old boy can’t possibly be private, Father Flynn immediately becomes argumentative over Sister Aloysius’ tone. In addition, Father Flynn attempts to contain his guilt by controlling his facial expressions. Later, Father Flynn attempts to deflect the conversation with Sister Aloysius when she is not satisfied with his reasoning for holding a private conversation with Donald: I don’t wish to continue this conversation at all further. And if you are dissatisfied with that, I suggest you speak to Monsignor Benedict. I can only imagine that your unfortunate behavior this morning is the result of overwork. Perhaps you need a leave of absence. I may suggest it. (Shanley 33)Father Flynn is superior to Sister Aloysius as the priest of St. Nicholas, a Catholic church and school, and Father Flynn uses his power of position to quell the conversation with Sister Aloysius. By directing Sister Aloysius to speak with Monsignor Benedict, Father Flynn ends the interrogation before Sister Aloysius can catch him in anymore lies. When Father Flynn suggests to Sister Aloysius that she may need a leave of absence, he again imposes power over Sister Aloysius’ position by threatening her with the suggestion of a leave of absence.

Another reason Father Flynn is guilty is because he leaves the church to defend his reputation even though Sister Aloysius has no physical proof. Sister Aloysius uses the false testament of a nun from Father Flynn’s previous church to push him to transfer to another parish. Sister Aloysius confronts Father Flynn and supports her accusations with fabricated proof: “This morning before I spoke with Mrs. Muller, I took the precaution of calling the last parish to which you were assigned … This is your third parrish in five years” (Shanley 53). Although Sister Aloysius’ story is untrue, Father Flynn appears distressed and he becomes defensive again. Moreover, just the fact that Father Flynn has been in three parishes in five years is disturbing. Father Flynn further implicates himself when he responds to Sister Aloysius’ accusations. Instead of standing firm in his story and position, Father Flynn argues that he can’t tell Sister Aloysius everything: I can’t say everything. Do you understand? There are things I can’t say. Even if you can’t imagine the explanation, Sister, remember that there are circumstances beyond your knowledge … That child needed a friend! (Shanley 56-57).It is clear that Father Flynn is protecting himself or someone else, but no matter what, Father Flynn is guilty of some type of inappropriate relationship with Donald. Father Flynn’s guilt ridden conscience drives him to leave St. Nicholas, rather than question Sister Aloysius’ falsified statements.

Others may argue in favor of Father Flynn’s innocence. They may agree with Sister James that Father Flynn is protecting Donald. As a matter of fact, Sister James is convinced that Father Flynn is a good man: “You were trying to protect the boy … I might have done the same thing!” (Shanley 34). In her desire to believe in the greater good, Sister James accepts Father Flynn’s plea of being kind to Donald and protecting him so he is not singled out. Since Donald is the only negro student at St. Nicholas and Father Flynn is the priest, Sister James trusts that Father Flynn is acting in Donald’s best interest. On the contrary, I still believe that Father Flynn is guilty and playing on Sister James’ naivety. For instance, Father Flynn also uses his power to subdue Sister James: Have you forgotten that was the message of the Savior to us all. Love. Not suspicion, disapproval and judgement. Love of people. Have you found Sister Aloysius a positive inspiration? (Shanley 41)Father Flynn sees an impressionable opportunity with Sister James to persuade her that Sister Aloysius is a cruel person after her humanity. By making Sister James feel vulnerable for believing in anything but love, Father Flynn plays on Sister James’ own guilt for being judgemental, as in the eyes of the Lord, such behavior is sinful.

Given these points, Father Flynn is most likely guilty of sexually abusing Donald. Father Flynn is a priest and his behavior is unorthodox for a man of his age having a private relationship with a young boy. Father Flynn’s questionable behavior and self-justifying actions are indicative of his guilty conscience. If Father Flynn is innocent, he would never have left his home of God, because a man of God has nothing to hide and nothing to fear.

Persuasion & Credulity in Institutional Conflicts

Theatre has always been an outlet for the articulation of opinion and the careful expression of controversial or uncomfortable topics. It may be easy to forget in this current age of trigger warnings and hypersensitivity, but some of the theatre’s many roles in society are to provoke thought, to discuss relevant subject matter, and to explore what it means to be human. Two examples of plays that unashamedly succeed in fulfilling these roles are Oleanna (written in 1992 by David Mamet) and Doubt: A Parable (written in 2005 by John Patrick Shanley). Both deal with controversial themes—sexual exploitation and pedophilia—and are focused on conveying the power struggles between opposing forces. In the former, it is between a well-meaning college professor and a manipulative political activist group; in the latter, it is between the head of a patriarchal religious system and a female principal with societal limitations.

The institutional forces present in these two plays are so strong that—in an attempt to vie for support in the intellectual battle—they are able to bend certain weaker-minded characters to their will with relative ease. One character in each work of drama gets caught up in the middle of the struggle between two incompatible ideologies, and is used as a tool by the author to indicate the severity of the conflict. It is Carol in Oleanna and Sister James in Doubt—who, throughout their character arcs, flip back and forth between the opposing ideas presented to them. In essence, both Carol and Sister James fall victim to the powerful compulsions of their respective institutions and, as evidenced by their intellectual inconsistencies throughout the two plays, are ultimately unable to think critically for themselves or seize any real authority of their own.

In 1992, playwright David Mamet puts to use a minimalistic style (in both cast size and scenic conceptualization) to pose the question, “How dangerous is political correctness?” His play Oleanna depicts Carol, a struggling college student totally lacking in power over her education, who turns to manipulation and deceit in order to take vengeance upon perceived wrongs committed by her professor, John. She begins the play in John’s office discussing her inability to succeed in her class with John and, after finding their recurrent meetings fruitless, she joins a political activist group on campus. This group encourages her to accuse him of sexual harassment and threaten to charge him with rape if he does not meet her demands. In the furious final moments of the play, John loses his temper and assaults Carol.

A modern-day, progressive reading of Oleanna may lead the reader to sympathize with Carol and read John’s actions as atrocious; however, as it is likely the author’s intention to vilify Carol’s manipulation and portray John’s aggressive Act-III actions as justified, I will, for the purposes of this essay, contend with Mamet’s original intent. It stands to reason, then, that John is the sympathetic character and the one meant to be the play’s protagonist. Therefore, despite the fact that the group Carol mentions joining nor its members ever make a physical appearance in the play, I would argue that the activist group is the play’s true antagonist.

It is first introduced in Act I that Carol has trouble understanding concepts and it is hinted at that she perhaps isn’t so intelligent. When she and John are discussing his class lectures, she says, “I’m doing what I’m told. It’s difficult for me. It’s difficult . . .” (Mamet 6). Then, a few pages later: “I don’t understand. I don’t understand what anything means . . . and I walk around. From morning ’til night: with this one thought in my head. I’m stupid” (12). It is crucial to note that it is her herself admitting these things, even despite John’s statements to the contrary: “You’re an incredibly bright girl . . . You’re an incredibly . . . you have no problem with the . . . Who’s kidding who?” (7). It is clear here that Carol has poor study habits and is doing poorly in class due to her inability to comprehend certain concepts.

It is also suggested several times that she lacks the skill to effectively articulate herself. When she asks for clarification on a certain topic discussed in class, she pulls out her notes in reference. John then says, “Tell me in your own . . .” but she insists, because she wants to “make sure that [she has] it right” (27). Later in the conversation as well, she begins to take notes on what he is saying. “You don’t have to take notes, you know,” John says, “you can just listen” (34). She again maintains that it’s the only way she can remember the information. This dialogue is important, as it furthermore mirrors her behavior in the second half of the play as well. At the beginning of Act II, John is reading the report she submitted to the tenure committee:

Carol: Then you . . . [Points]

John: “Consult the report”?

Carol: . . . that’s right.

John: You see. You see. Can’t you . . . You see what I’m saying? Can’t you tell me in your own words?

Carol: Those are my own words (49).

Even when Carol is asserting herself, making an attempted appeal for power, it is ironically still communicated through the voice of another—as there is little doubt that the entire report was conceived by her “group” as a means to further its agenda. Therefore, it stands to reason that after she joins the group, she merely becomes their puppet as opposed to John’s—leaving her still, even in her moment of apparent victory, powerless.

After viewing John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, an audience member is meant to be unsure of who or what to believe. It tells the story of a priest in 1964 who may be molesting a Catholic school student and the principal who is convinced of his guilt—and intent on proving it. It is written in such a way that no definitive answer is supplied; therefore, it is likely the intention of the playwright that viewers leave the theatre intellectually divided—or, at the very least, compelled to discuss the events they just saw unfold.

As the title suggests, uncertainty is a key thematic element of this play. The character that best represents these ideas in human form is Sister James, one of the school’s teachers and Sister Aloysius’s subordinate. A dramatic foil to Father Flynn’s and the principal’s unwavering confidence and determination, Sister James is malleable, naïve, and credulous. Sister Aloysius even says it directly in the second scene: “You are a very innocent person, Sister James” (Shanley 8). Much like Mamet’s Carol, none of the statements she makes seem to come from her own mind; she always makes an assertion or sides with another character immediately following a particular piece of persuasive rhetoric.

A subtle example can be found in Scene 2, when Sister Aloysius warns her not to show so much interest in history because it might sway the students to value it above the other subjects. Sister James responds, “I never thought of that. I’ll try to treat my other lessons with more enthusiasm” (10)—which establishes her automatically obsequious nature. Sister James is completely under her command throughout the play; this explains why she accepts the idea that Flynn might be behaving inappropriately with Donald Muller without much critical thought. As soon as Aloysius expresses her own reservations, James finds suspicions in the one-on-one talk Flynn had with Donald in the rectory—suspicions she didn’t have until this moment: “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. It never came into my mind that he . . . that there could be anything wrong” (21).

When this behavior is compared to her dialogue with Father Flynn later in the play, it becomes clear that Sister James assumes a similar demeanor when presented with a strong argument from the other side as well. When she inquires if his sermon about gossip was directed at anyone in particular, he responds “What do you think?” She immediately changes the subject, asking instead about whether or not he made up the parable of the feather pillow (38). He soon comes back around, however, asking if she is convinced of his guilt. The following occurs:

Sister James: It’s not for me to be convinced, one way or another. It’s Sister Aloysius.

Flynn: Are you just an extension of her?

Sister James: She’s my superior.

Flynn: But what about you?

Sister James: I wish I knew nothing whatever about it (39).

These two exchanges demonstrate that even when questioned directly and encouraged to think for herself, she would rather avoid the issue and instead allow others’ opinions to influence her.

It happens later in that very scene. Father Flynn waxes poetic about love, humanity, and how the “light in your heart” is not a weakness—essentially manipulating what he knows are her values to make a pathos appeal. She then confides that he is right, that Sister Aloysius has taken away her “joy of teaching” and that the principal is not a positive inspiration (41). She leaves the stage, but not before exclaiming “I don’t believe it!” (42). It is at this point that she is completely under Flynn’s spell, and the audience realizes James is merely a pawn to be moved to and fro.

The Failure to Resist Persuasion:

The key stylistic difference between these two plays is the portrayal of innocence versus guilt. While Oleanna is clearly written as more of a one-sided debate than that of Doubt (i.e., the audience is meant to side with John unwaveringly while the guilt of Father Flynn is more ambiguous), both of these plays are effective in conveying a character’s inability to resist the persuasive voices of opposing ideologies. The authority figures in Oleanna and Doubt are strong-willed and self-assured, which ultimately proves too much for Carol and Sister James; in the end, neither of these two characters are able to conceptualize and act upon an original thought. Each and every actionable step they take as their stories progress is at the whim of another character—whether they be present in the play like John and Father Flynn or merely mentioned like Carol’s progressive political group. While the primary focus of the plays may be to preach of the dangers of extreme progressivism and to demonstrate the limitations a nun faces in the Catholic Church, Mamet and Shanley also include the consequences of blind obeisance and subtly advocate the merits of critical thinking—despite strong institutional compulsions.

Works Cited:

Shanley, John Patrick. Doubt: A Parable. Theatre Communications Group, 2004.

Mamet, David. Oleanna. Vintage Books, 1992.