A Church of One's Own
John Patrick Shanley's Woolfian Project
Martha Greene Eads

John Patrick Shanley’s op-ed essay in the February 11, 2013 issue of the New York Times leaves no doubt about the dramatist’s attitude toward Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down from the papacy. Good riddance, harrumphs Shanley, charging that Benedict “was utterly bereft of charm, tone-deaf and a protector of pedophiles. In addition to this woeful resume, he had no use for women.” After launching his essay with that provocative and highly personal attack, Shanley articulates his more generalized complaint about the Catholic Church:

I have little reason to hope that the Church of Rome will suddenly realize that without women, the Catholic Church is doomed and should be doomed. I think of those good nuns who educated me, of their lifelong devotion and sacrifice. They have been treated like cattle by a crowd of domineering fools. In Benedict, the Catholic Church got the pope it deserved.

If fans of Shanley’s clerical drama Doubt ever wondered, they now know for sure: the playwright is fed up with the Catholic Church’s exclusion of women from the priesthood.

doubt While few newspaper readers look to editorial pages for subtlety, ambiguity is the selling point for Doubt, first produced on stage in 2004, adapted by Shanley himself for film in 2008, and more recently performed as an opera (with a score by Douglas J. Cuomo) at the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis on January 26 of this year. Shanley’s various cagey comments over the years about Doubt’s message have fueled viewers’ appreciation for its whodunit quality and sparked debate about his view of the Church’s handling of childhood sexual-abuse cases, but his op-ed letter helps clarify the script’s theme. In Doubt, Shanley is not dismissing the Church out of hand, nor is he focusing specifically on abusers within the Church or on those who have protected them. Instead, Shanley is interrogating Catholicism’s longstanding tradition of patriarchal theology and practice, hinting that sexual abuse and cover-ups are its bitter fruits. In dramatizing this argument, Shanley echoes Virginia Woolf, whose book-length essays A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) explore links among the oppression of women and other forms of injustice and violence.

The apparent conflict in Shanley’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is, of course, over childhood sexual abuse, a topic as timely as this morning’s headlines. Shanley set Doubt in 1964, however, and he acknowledges that its plot emerged from events that occurred during his own Bronx boyhood. The child of Irish immigrant-New Yorkers, Shanley attended St. Anthony’s in the Bronx, a parochial school that served as the model for St. Nicholas’s, where Doubt is set. Donald Muller, the boy whom Sister Aloysius accuses Father Flynn of abusing, is St. Nicholas’s first African-American student, and Shanley remembers the arrival of his first black classmate at St. Anthony’s. One of Shanley’s cousins accused a clergyman of sexual abuse, and Shanley revealed in a 2004 interview with Robert Coe that he himself benefited from being championed by teachers whose interest in him may well have been other than academic. “Did that make them bad people?” he asks. “Not to me. Not to me at all” (21). In interviews and in the preface to Doubt, Shanley cautions against the temptation to judge others and advises an openness to the perspectives of those accused of wrongdoing. The example of rushing to judgment to which he points most often is former-President George W. Bush’s insistence that Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction, a judgment that led the US to war with Iraq.

Audience members who are aware of Shanley’s use of this historical situation to illustrate his point about over-certainty initially found themselves tempted to view Doubt as a thinly veiled political thriller. Could Sister Aloysius, the play’s accuser, be George Bush, with the alleged abuser, Father Flynn, as an innocent (at least in terms of possessing weapons of mass destruction) Saddam Hussein? Or is Sister Aloysius a conniving Dick Cheney, manipulating a naïve young Sister James (as George Bush) into seeing dangers that don’t really exist? In light of Shanley’s extra-textual commentary, the political pairings are almost irresistible. In “Evil, Sin, or Doubt: The Dramas of Clerical Child Abuse,” Elizabeth Cullingford calls Sister Aloysius “a metaphorical spokeswoman for the Bush doctrine of preemptive war,” observing that “although there’s nothing in the play itself to compel this allegorical reading, the disastrous consequences of Bush’s determination to see in Saddam what he wanted to see haunt the margins of interpretation” (258).

Shanley readily acknowledges that Doubt originated during the debates surrounding the US invasion of Iraq in 2004. In an April 2005 interview, television host Charlie Rose asked Shanley whether he situates his plays in contemporary reality. Shanley agreed that he often does. Rose asked if he had in mind individuals within the Church while writing Doubt, to which Shanley replied:

...the invasion of Iraq was a stimulus…., and that there was what I felt to be a rush to war and that people who expressed doubts were being depicted as unpatriotic, and I thought that was bizarre and telling [about that…. It seemed] symptomatic of what’s going on in our society.

Shanley asserted that living in uncertainty is far superior to thinking that one knows all the answers. Sounding like the poet he originally aspired to be, he told Rose, “To live in a state of doubt is to live in a present-tense way rather than to rest on a couch of convictions.”1 But Shanley also insisted to Rose that he was “not writing a play that takes a political stand; that’s a polemic of some kind.” He elaborated, saying, “I’m not interested in writing a play that says the Nazis were bad…. I’m not preaching to the Republicans, I’m not preaching to the Democrats…” He writes in the script’s preface, “There is no last word” (ix).

Even so, he gives the play’s last word to Sister Aloysius and dedicates his drama 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?” (v). In so doing, and—even more strikingly—in altering his original script to champion Sister Aloysius in the 2008 film, which he also directed, Shanley tips his hand to reveal the real subject of his critique: not George Bush but the Catholic Church. As his New York Times op-ed essay argues, the Church’s refusal to heed and even to cultivate female leaders has resulted in inward rot.

The subtlety of Shanley’s approach in the play is striking, prompting Cullingford to observe that “Doubt confounds the expectations of audiences prepared for straightforward anti-clerical satire” (246). Had the playwright’s outlook been stereotypically progressive, he would have likely celebrated Father Flynn unequivocally as the representative of a liberal, post-Vatican II Catholic perspective. Had it been stereotypically reactionary, he might have vindicated Sister James for her initially rosy view of the Church and its leaders. Instead, Shanley situates his drama in a middle ground where all the characters have flaws but where one of them, Sister Aloysius, emerges as an agonistic figure, doomed to failure yet ­nevertheless heroic. Her role is remarkably complex. Conrad Ostwalt asserts in “No Easy Answers: John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt” that “in this film, Sister Aloysius represents the tradition-laden pre-Vatican II church, while Father Flynn is a progressive pastor intent on bringing reform to the congregation and school he serves.” Despite the love of tradition that Ostwalt rightly attributes to Sister Aloysius, the play and—more pointedly, the film—reveal through her plight the sin of the Church. Although Shanley insists that his goal is more to promote debate and reflection rather than to make a point, Doubt does make a sharp point: that the toll of the Catholic Church’s institutionalized subjugation of women extends beyond those women themselves.

Recognizing Shanley’s case against the Church’s treatment of women is even more difficult in the play than in the film because most stage productions balance their treatments of Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Cherry Jones, who won a Tony for her role as Sister Aloysius in the original New York production and a subsequent tour, told Washington Post reporter Nelson Pressley that Doubt is “the most dependable play I’ve ever been in, as long as you keep the balance honest—make it really hard for the audience to choose between the two main characters.”2 Shanley also told Earnshaw that he worked hard in shooting the film to be even-handed: “As a storyteller, I didn’t know whether Father Flynn was guilty so I know that nothing I shot would definitively answer that question. Having said that…, we had to be very careful in editing not to overload the narrative one way or the other.” In a voice-over “extra” for the DVD of the film, however, Shanley says, “When Phil[ip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn] says ‘no,’ I believe him. I gave Phil the back story, but sometimes I didn’t know what he was playing.” Although he says he aimed to direct a balanced film and has, according to Cullingford, only revealed Father Flynn’s history to Hoffman, O’Byrne, and the first stage production’s director, Doug Hughes, Shanley clearly has his own verdict in mind (259).

The National Catholic Reporter’s Kevin Doherty thinks he knows what that verdict is, writing that in the film Shanley “seems to tip the scales against Fr. Flynn through the selection of his shots and details, including the priest’s fastidiousness about cleanliness and the length of his fingernails. Particularly effective is the stained-glass eye of God in the rectory that Fr. Flynn stops to stare at as it looks down on him.” Doherty does not, however, discuss the film’s most damning scene: Father Flynn’s dinner party with a fellow priest and their monsignor. Shanley wrote this scene and three nuns’ meal scenes in expanding the script for the film. Especially when viewed alongside the nuns’ austere meal scenes, the priestly dinner contains several disturbing elements: the bloody meat on the men’s table, hinting of predation; indulgence not only in decadent-looking food but also in tobacco, beer, and hard liquor; and contemptuous conversation about women. After the scene’s initial shot of very rare beef at the center of the table, the camera cuts to Father Flynn, who raises a quivering, bloody bite to his mouth as he speaks to his fellow-clergy:

FATHER FLYNN: Clippity clomp, clippity clomp…. like a herd of elephants!

MONSIGNOR BENEDICT [chortling as he waves a burning cigarette]: You

are wicked!

FATHER FLYNN: [gesturing with his knife] I told her, “You’re her mother; you

raised her; you fed her. You tell her she’s fat.”

FATHER SHERMAN: [laughing incredulously] Wait—How fat is she?

FATHER FLYNN: The mother or the daughter?

FATHER SHERMAN: The—­the ­daughter.

FATHER FLYNN: I never met the ­daughter.

FATHER SHERMAN: What about the mother?

FATHER FLYNN: She’s fat! [laughing]

This exchange does not, of course depict Father Flynn with his literal pants down, but it does reveal him to be remarkably repellent: self-­indulgent, crude, disrespectful, misogynistic—the alpha male in a rectory Animal House.

Shanley is not alone in comparing the Catholic hierarchy’s mindset to that of fraternity men. In an April 2010 Newsweek article on sexual-­abuse cases, Lisa Miller asserts: “Studies show what we intuitively know: without checks and balances, insular groups of men do bad things” (40). She quotes historian Nicholas Syrett, who acknowledges that priests are not socialized as fraternity men to pursue sex but concludes that both groups of “men are encouraged to believe that they are in positions of power for a reason…. [I]f the hierarchy of the Catholic Church doesn’t discipline these people because they are concerned about reputation, they create a space where [abusers] are led to believe that whatever they do is OK.” Miller also quotes former-priest Richard Sipe, who researches Church doctrine and clergy practice: “Clergy… are a group that are very privileged in their own mind. They have a sense of entitlement. Think about it. What other culture do you know of that’s all-male, theoretically and practically?” (40). Shanley’s clerical dinner scene depicts that air of entitlement and a resulting raunchiness.

The nuns’ meals, in contrast to Father Flynn’s dinner with his colleagues, are anything but rowdy. In an early dinner scene over which Sister Aloysius presides, the women drink milk, and their plates hold unappetizing-looking meat, over-cooked vegetables, and what appears to be Wonder bread. The meat proves to be gristly; young Sister James removes a bite to the edge of her plate until a pointed stare from Sister Aloysius prompts her to put it back in her mouth and resume chewing. Not until Sister Aloysius rings a small bell does conversation begin, and even then, she directs it to the topic of Father Flynn’s most recent sermon and its subject: doubt. Grilling Sister James about her perception of the sermon, Sister Aloysius asks, “Is Father Flynn in doubt?” When Sister James suggests that someone ask him about his message, Sister Aloysius disagrees sharply. “That would not be appropriate. He is my superior. And if he were troubled, he should confess it to a fellow priest, or the monsignor. We do not share intimate information with priests.” The separation Sister Aloysius describes here is illustrated by the fare the two different groups consume, and a subsequent school lunch during which one of the nuns raves about the cafeteria’s chow mein underscores the difference almost comically. In a third brief scene in which the nuns eat together, the silence contrasts sharply with the popular music playing during the priests’ meal just before it.

Moreover, while Father Flynn’s churlishness first becomes apparent during his dinner, a softer side of Sister Aloysius becomes evident in her first two meal scenes in the film. During each, she assists Sister Veronica, an elderly nun whose failing eyesight must be kept secret from the male clergy, who would send her away if they knew. Sister Aloysius sums up the situation for Sister James in both the film and the play, but the film not only depicts Sister Aloysius helping Sister Veronica with her cutlery and sleeve but also has her informing Sister James in more sensitive language about Sister Veronica’s failing eyesight.

While her behavior toward Sister Veronica during meals helps establish Sister Aloysius as an increasingly sympathetic character, the film’s entire trajectory moves in that direction. Unlike Father Flynn, who first appears affable but takes on a menacing air as the film continues, Sister Aloysius makes her worst appearance at the film’s opening, when she strikes a child for misbehaving in church. She continues to be a curmudgeonly character, but the surprises the film delivers about her are positive: She serves as the school’s “bad cop” because she is committed to providing students with disciplinary structure; she’s as enthusiastic a radio baseball fan as the pupil whose transistor radio she confiscates; she is not the stereotypically repressed virgin-nun but a war-widow; she is willing to risk not only her position in the school but even her very soul to rid the school of a predator. Surely, Sister Aloysius knows that antagonizing her male superiors puts her in danger of being excommunicated from a Church that holds forth no possibility of salvation outside its walls, yet she continues pursuing a priest she feels certain is a predator.3

About midway through the play, Sister Aloysius explains to Sister James how the Church’s “old boy network” necessitates their taking great care to gather evidence against Father Flynn:

SISTER ALOYSIUS: Eight years ago at St. Boniface we had a priest who had to be stopped. But I had Monsignor Scully then… who I could rely on. Here, there’s no man I can go to, and men run everything. We are going to have to stop him ourselves.

SISTER JAMES: Can’t you just… report your suspicions?

SISTER ALOYSIUS: To Monsignor Benedict? The man’s guileless! He would just ask Father Flynn.

SISTER JAMES: Well, would that be such a bad idea?

SISTER ALOYSIUS: And he would believe whatever Father Flynn told him. He would think the matter settled…. If I tell the monsignor and he is satisfied with Father Flynn’s rebuttal, the matter is suppressed.

SISTER JAMES: Well then tell the bishop.

SISTER ALOYSIUS: The hierarchy of the Church doesn’t permit my going to the bishop. No. Once I tell the monsignor, it’s out of my hands. I’m helpless. (22–23)

Sister Aloysius continues, warning Sister James that if they take insufficient proof to Monsignor Benedict, they will be dismissed: “Monsignor Benedict thinks the sun rises and sets on Father Flynn. You’d be branded an hysteric and transferred” (23).4 As troubling a situation as this exchange outlines, the film’s depiction of it is even more disturbing. While Sister Aloysius in the play describes Monsignor Benedict as “seventy-nine,” “oblivious,” and “otherworldly in the extreme” (19), the film drops that language and shows Sister Aloysius watching through a window as the monsignor slaps Father Flynn on the back conspiratorially. Rather than seeming naïve, he guffaws through the “fraternity” dinner scene while Father Flynn speaks derisively of his fat parishioner and her daughter.


The meal scenes are, then, central to the film’s characterizations, but they serve another function, as well. They provide the thematic key to Doubt. Their similarity to the men’s and women’s college meals that Virginia Woolf describes in A Room of One’s Own reveals Shanley’s impulse to critique the Church for its treatment of women, much as Woolf critiqued British academic society in the 1920s. For both, the use of food exemplifies what Harriet Blodgett characterizes in Woolf’s oeuvre as the writer’s “persistent endeavors to capture the solidity of life for her fiction and use that as the basis for less tangible ideas” (58). Like Father Flynn and his male colleagues in Doubt, the young men of Woolf’s Oxbridge savor the finest meats and wines at their college luncheon: soles, partridges “with all their retinue of sauces and salads,” potatoes; sprouts, “foliated as rosebuds but more succulent,” a decadent dessert, a succession of wines. No wonder, Woolf asserts, that these undergraduates are cocky about their futures:

And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance,… but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. We are all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the company—in other words, how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind, as lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window seat. (11)5

In contrast, their female counterparts at Fernham women’s college eat an unappealing supper: “plain gravy soup…. beef with its attendant greens and potatoes—a homely trinity, suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge… prunes and custard” for dessert, cheese and crackers, and water (17–18). Instead of prompting lively discussion, the women’s abstemious meal results not only in a conversational lull but also in existential crises for those present:

The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes. We are all probably going to heaven, and Vandyck is, we hope, to meet us round the next corner—that is the dubious and qualifying state of mind that beef and prunes at the end of the day’s work breed between them. (18)

Woolf’s Fernham students’ meal signifies their marginality in a male-dominated academic world; Sister Aloysius’s recognition of her own marginality leads to the “dubious and qualifying state of mind” that yields her confession to Sister James in Doubt’s gripping moment of last suspense: “I have doubts! I have such doubts!” (Shanley 58).

Although some viewers interpret these lines as Sister Aloysius’s admission of uncertainty about Father Flynn’s guilt, the object of her uncertainty is more serious still. She is not worried about having falsely accused Father Flynn; in revealing to Sister James moments before that she lied to Father Flynn about another nun’s confirmation of his having preyed on children in another parish, Sister Aloysius says definitively, “But if he had had no such history, the lie wouldn’t have worked. His resignation was his confession. He was what I thought he was. And he’s gone” (58). When Sister James expresses her own dismay and incredulity about Sister Aloysius’s having lied, Sister Aloysius tells her, “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God. Of course there’s a price.” It is Sister James’s reply, “I see. So now he’s in another school,” that prompts Sister Aloysius’s emotional outburst and confession of doubt. While she may indeed be troubled about having “step[ped] away from God” by lying, Sister Aloysius is even more likely devastated by the outcome of her investigation. The monsignor to whom she reported her suspicions brushed them off, and their bishop promoted Father Flynn, putting him in charge of an entire school. Not only has Sister Aloysius felt the sting of being dismissed (most likely, for being “an hysteric”), but she knows now that the leaders in the Church to which she has given her life and entrusted her soul are fully aware of the corruption they cultivate.

Such a link between the mistreatment of women and wider abuses would not have surprised Virginia Woolf. After outlining in A Room of One’s Own the way in which the systemic oppression of women makes it nearly impossible for them to fulfill their creative vocations, she went on in Three Guineas to show how that injustice creates conditions that devastate other innocent people, especially through war. In response to a financial appeal from a pacifist organization, Woolf invites her male petitioner to consider the world as men have run it. She describes a photograph of London’s religious, economic, legislative, and judicial centers and then takes him inside those buildings to observe their occupants’ apparel and ceremonies. This view, she says, will be from the women’s perspective, those “who see it from the threshold of the private house; through the shadow of the veil that St. Paul still lays upon our eyes; from the bridge which connects the private house with the world of public life” (23). Woolf then discusses the attire of bishops, kings, judges, and military leaders within these structures, linking them all and then concluding, “[Y]our finest clothes are those you wear as soldiers” (26). Men are educated, she asserts, to pursue war, and religion is a factor not only as one of the institutions men lead but also as justification for educating men and women differently. The “veil” Woolf attributes to St. Paul is an allusion to 1 Cor. 11:5–9:

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.

For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man.

Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

Woolf suggests that the men who lead the Christian West create conditions in which they may indefinitely cultivate war as “a profession; a source of happiness and excitement; and… an outlet for manly qualities, without which men would deteriorate” (10). At every level, from the home to the nation-state, Woolf suggests, the men in power perpetuate the condition.

Shortly after a discussion of the ways in which men’s attire reveals their appetite for war, Woolf discusses women’s exclusion from leadership circles in Western society:

[T]here are many inner and secret chambers that we cannot enter. What real influence can we bring to bear upon law or business, religion or politics—we to whom many doors are locked, or at best ajar, we who have neither capital nor force behind us? It seems as if our influence must stop short at the surface. When we have expressed an opinion upon the surface we have done all that we can do. (28)

Although Woolf’s discussion is of the range of cultural institutions, her mention of religion is, of course, particularly germane to Doubt and even to the contemporary clergy sexual-abuse scandal. Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article demonstrates the extent to which Woolf’s observations remain relevant:

In the U.S., 60 percent of Sunday massgoers are women; thus most of the contributions to the collection plate—$6 billion a year—are made by women. And yet the presence of women anywhere within the institutional power structure is virtually nil. The number of women who hold top-tier positions in any of the dicasteries, or committees, that make up the Vatican structure can be counted on one hand. Few women retain high-profile management jobs, such as chancellor, within dioceses. And though nuns dramatically outnumber priests worldwide, they are mostly so invisible that when a group of them speaks up, as they did recently on health-care reform, everyone takes notice.

      Eight years after the Boston scandals, “it’s just men listening to themselves” on sex abuse, says Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI official enlisted to study and remedy the problem of sex abuse in American dioceses after 2002. “To my knowledge, there’s no woman in the Vatican who’s involved in sex-abuse issues.” (39)

 Sister Aloysius could be paraphrasing Woolf and anticipating Miller when she tells Sister James: “The hierarchy of the Church doesn’t permit my going to the bishop. No. Once I tell the monsignor, it’s out of my hands. I’m helpless” (22–23).

Much as Sister Aloysius is at a loss to prevent what she fears will be further sexual abuse of children, Woolf asserts that male hegemony prevents women from stopping wars that kill children as well as noncombatant adults. Throughout Three Guineas, she describes a number of photographs, the most memorable of which she calls those of “dead bodies and ruined houses” (14, 26, 42, 50, 53, 83, 102, 113, 116, 167, 168, 169). Having written Three Guineas in late 1936 and early 1937, Woolf is almost certainly referring to news photographs documenting the Spanish Civil War. Among the Spanish Civil War’s victims were many “dead children,” to whom Woolf also refers (14, 168). Maggie Humm explains that Three Guinea’s “repeated mnemonic of the absent photographs of the Spanish dead becomes a lively vehicle enabling Woolf to develop her attack on patriarchy,” providing “a prose picture of the indissoluble link between the physical violence of fascism and patriarchal tyranny to women and children in the private home” (647, 648). In order to prevent the deaths of more such women and children, Woolf ultimately argues, girls, especially “the daughters of educated men” (6, ff), must be free to pursue sound educations and to earn their livings in the professions, even to being admitted to the priesthood: “—it matters not to which priesthood; the priesthood of medicine or the priesthood of science or the priesthood of the Church” (152). Drawing her essay to a close, she challenges her male pacifist-petitioner to remember the links between domestic and political tyranny:

A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential is it that we should realize that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstractions forget the ­private ­figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual, for they are inseparably connected. But with your letter before us we have reason to hope. For by asking our help you recognize that connection…. (169)

Maybe, Woolf dares hope, women and men could someday work toward not only the prevention of war but further “toward the dream of peace, the dream of freedom” (169).


John Patrick Shanley’s work in Doubt, particularly in the screen version, articulates something of Woolf’s vision. Like Three Guineas, Doubt suggests that Sister Aloysius and other women like her can never reach their full potential within the Church in its current state and that their subjugation facilitates other injustices. In what would seem a direct allusion to Three Guineas, the film scene in which Sister Aloysius urges Sister James to watch for student misbehavior in the glass covering a framed portrait of Pope Pius XII shifts to a scene in which Sister James lectures her eighth graders on the rise of Fascism before World War II. Neither of these scenes appears in the play’s script. Conrad Ostwalt suggests that the film uses the photo of Pius XII, the Church’s head from 1939–1958, to underscore Sister Aloysius’ conservatism: “The pope who opened Vatican II and who was most responsible for the reforms that followed was Pope John XXIII. But the pope at the time of the movie would have been Pope Paul VI…. Is this a subtle homage to the last pope prior to the Second Vatican Council? Is this Sister Aloysius’ homage to tradition?” The film’s dialogue suggests otherwise, however:

SISTER JAMES: That’s the wrong pope. He’s deceased.

SISTER ALOYSIUS: I don’t care what pope it is…. Use the glass to see behind you. The children should think you have eyes in the back of your head.

SISTER JAMES: Wouldn’t that be a little frightening?

SISTER ALOYSIUS: Only to the ones who are up to no good.

Viewers familiar with Catholic history know that many people still condemn Pius XII for his failure to speak vigorously against Fascism during the Second World War; those tempted to vilify Sister Aloysius may conclude that she is the fascist in the scene. Whatever Sister Aloysius’s devotion to tradition, Shanley’s film suggests a line of causation among Catholic patriarchal tradition, the subjugation of women, and victimization that is consistent with his op-ed essay and resembles the one Woolf traces in Three Guineas.

Shanley does not, however, claim to have been directly influenced by Woolf. When asked whether he intentionally developed his play’s dinner party scenes in homage to A Room of One’s Own, Shanley replied:

Actually, those scenes are a result of a housekeeper’s anecdote. She was my friend’s mother, and worked in both the convent and the rectory. She was appalled by the difference in quality of the foodstuffs; the nuns got the inferior meats and produce. I put that together with the nun’s vows of silence. I do admire Virginia Woolf’s work very much. (E-mail to the author)

In June 2009, however, almost four years before celebrating Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation announcement in the New York Times, Shanley spoke directly to interviewer David Drake about the Catholic Church’s treatment of women. Despite praising Pope John Paul II’s work to bring down oppressive governments in Eastern Europe, Shanley described Benedict’s predecessor as “an extremely paternalistic, controlling, backward-looking pope,” opining:

What to me is the biggest problem in the world today—and this is emblematic of [Pope John Paul’s] biggest problems—is this backward-look at women. That women are treated as second class [sic] citizens—in the Catholic church, in Islam, in conservative Judaism—all springing from the same wellspring of Abraham. That came out of the Mid-east a long time ago and continues to absolutely dominate the western world: That women are in a second class role in these hierarchal structures like the Catholic church, completely cut out of the power loop. And when John Paul came into the United States the first time, he let the nuns in this country know in no uncertain terms that they were not going to administer the sacrament, that they were not going to enter the kind of ministry that their male brethren were. And they’d just better get used to it.

Shanley’s assertion that the world’s “biggest problem” is the mistreatment of women explains why he depicts Sister Aloysius as he has—as a victim of oppression who behaves heroically in an effort to protect others from suffering oppression, too.6

Still, in Doubt, Shanley is not attacking the Church in its entirety. If he were, Catholic reviewers would hardly have been likely to give the play and the film the kind of appreciative reviews they have. Commonweal’s Grant Gallicho calls Doubt a play of “lasting artistic value” and describes Sister Aloysius as “the sternly rigid yet secretly caring sister.” Gallicho continues:

Did Flynn do it? The play itself doesn’t say. By not resolving the case, Doubt shows that its ambition extends beyond the whodunit genre. It’s gutsy for Shanley to withhold the emotional satisfaction of closure in a drama fueled by such a fraught subject. And in doing so, Doubt reflects what the sexual-abuse crisis has been for so many Catholics: an occasion of profound grief for a church they, like Sr. Aloysius, believed in.

Fordham University communications and media studies professor Michael Tueth, a Jesuit, asserts that Shanley’s “expanding his narrative with more scenes and characters… demonstrates how a film can improve on a play’s psychological tensions. It can also deepen our awareness of the darkness to be encountered even within the most sacred locales of human faith and doubt.” These Catholic writers seem to find Shanley’s treatment of the Church appropriately nuanced, and Shanley communicates measured ambivalence about changes the Church has undergone. When Earnshaw asked him in June 2009 about Doubt’s “comparison between tradition and innovation,” connecting it to the previous year’s economic downturn, Shanley said:

I don’t think you can ever go back, but nothing ever gets lost. The history of the human race informs every person’s actions. Change always involves loss. What we are experiencing as loss now is an aspect of change. I think the changes that are going on in the world need to transpire, but there will be blood on the floor.

Such comments indicate that Shanley regards the changes associated with Vatican II as necessary, but he hints that those changes did not go far enough with regard to women’s roles in the Catholic Church. His focus, then, on sexual abuse to dramatize the patriarchal practices that Virginia Woolf explored in the 1920s and 1930s and that journalists such as Lisa Miller are still decrying makes Doubt a more pointed critique than he claims it is, even though his targets are not those many first suspect them to be. Ultimately, Doubt communicates Shanley’s deep appreciation for the Catholic nuns who educated him and his disgust with Church leaders and the system who have, through the ages, kept such women in subordinate roles. Those who do not recognize the focus for his dramatic critique have only to read Doubt alongside Shanley’s New York Times op-ed letter from February of this year—or alongside the extended essays that Virginia Woolf wrote seventy-five and more years ago.


Martha Greene Eads is Professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.


Works Cited

The Bible. King James Version.

Blodgett, Harriet. “Food for Thought in Virginia Woolf’s Novels.” Woolf Studies Annual. Vol. 3 (1997): 45–60.

Coe, Robert. “The Playwright Talks About Doubt.” In John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: Kansas City Repertory Theatre Play Guide. Laura Smith Muir, ed. October 2007: 21–23.

Doherty, Kevin. “The Struggle to Judge: ‘Doubt’ Is About Human Weakness; ‘Revolutionary Road’ Shows Marital Breakdown.” National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2009.

Cullingford, Elizabeth. “Evil, Sin, or Doubt: The Dramas of Clerical Child Abuse.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 62 (2010): 245–63.

Doubt. John Patrick Shanley, dir. and adapt. 2008.Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD.

Drake, David. “Q & A: John Patrick Shanley.” Broadway.Com. (January 4, 2006). http://web.archive.org/web/20060104145259/http://www.broadway.com/Gen/Buzz_Story.aspx?ci=513195.

Earnshaw, Helen. “John Patrick Shanley Talks About Doubt.” Female First. (June 30, 2009). http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/movies/John+Patrick+Shanley+Talks+Doubt-155180.html.

Fisher, Philip. “John Patrick Shanley: The Hottest Writer of Straight Plays on Broadway.” The British Theatre Guide. 2006. http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/otherresources/interviews/JohnPatrickShanley.htm.

Gallicho, Grant. “The Cost of Justice: John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.” Commonweal, Vol. CXXXII, No. 8 (April 22, 2005).

Humm, Maggie. “Memory, Photography, and Modernism: The ‘Dead Bodies and Ruined Houses’ of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas". Signs Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter 2003): 645–63.

“Hysteric.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2009.

Jackson, Amber. “An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright John Patrick Shanley.” Texas Theatre Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2009): 65–70.

Miller, Lisa. “A Woman’s Place Is in the Church.” Newsweek (April 12, 2010): 36–41.

Ostwalt, Conrad. “No Easy Answers: John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.” The Cresset, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Michaelmas 2009): 40–42.

Podhoretz, John. “Unreasonable Doubt; As D.H. Lawrence Said, Trust the Tale, Not the Teller.” The Weekly Standard. January 5, 2009.

Pressley, Nelson. “The Playwright and the Seeds of ‘Doubt’.” The Washington Post. March 11, 2007.

Sailer, Steve. “Through a Glass Darkly.” The American Conservative. (January 12, 2009): 28.

Shanley, John Patrick. “Farewell to an Uninspiring Pope.” New York Times, Op-ed. February 11, 2013.

_____. Doubt: A Parable. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2005.

_____. E-mail to the author. November 20, 2009.

_____. Interview with Charlie Rose. The Charlie Rose Show. Public Broadcasting System. March 14, 2005.

_____. Interview with Tavis Smiley. The Tavis Smiley Show. Public Broadcasting System. January 15, 2009.

Tueth, Michael. “Uncertain Sympathies: John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.” January 19, 2009.

Wheatley, Jane. “John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: In the Church of Poisoned Minds.” London Times. January 22, 2009.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Reprint: Orlando: Harvest, 2005.

_____. Three Guineas. 1938. Reprint: Orlando: Harvest, 2006.



1. Shanley discussed his early career as a poet with Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post in a March 2007 article. More recently, Amber Jackson talked with Shanley about his poetic interests in a 2009 interview for Texas Theatre Journal.

2. Jones and Brian O’Byrne, who played Father Flynn alongside her Sister Aloysius, revealed in an interview with Charlie Rose that their sense of being evenly matched prompted them to compete with each other from show to show in a contest for their audiences’ sympathy (cited in Cullingford 261).

3. I am grateful to Maria LaMonaca Wisdom for her reminder about this point of Catholic doctrine.

4. Woolf’s word choice here is significant; the Oxford English Dictionary provides the following etymological information for the word: “[ad. L. hystericus, ad. Gr. ὑστερικός belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb, hysterical (f. ὑστέρα womb), esp. in ὑστερικὴ πνίξ, ὑστερικα πὰθη.”

5. The notes to the 2005 Harvest edition of A Room of One’s Own report that “[w]e are all going to heaven” are said to have been the eighteenth-century painter Thomas Gainsborough’s last words. He included Dutch portraitist Sir Anthony Van Dyck from a century earlier in that glad company.

6. That Shanley would be more troubled by the Church’s patriarchal practices than by its reputation for harboring pedophiles seems consistent with the findings of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which Elizabeth Cullingford reports as indicating that “Church teachings on gender and sexuality are even more important than abuse scandals in motivating the current turn away from Catholicism” (249).

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