‘On God’S Territory’

Last month CBS “Playhouse 90” presented to nationwide audiences a drama universal in appeal and inspiration, packed with more relevant messages than a television viewer was likely to see for some time to come. At least that’s the way Mobil Oil Corporation billed the production in a full-page ad run in the Washington Post. “ ‘Catholics,’ ” claimed the company, is “a fable of man and his institutions. And the agony of change. Christian or Jew, Muslim or Buddhist, agnostic or atheist, there’s a message for everyone.” Even if one were able to agree that the Church is one of man’s institutions, “Catholics” failed the final test: the viewing.

Trevor Howard starred as the abbot of a small Irish monastery. Until the final scene, his portrayal of a man trapped in the limbo between belief and unbelief was unemotional. Father Abbot cannot pray, and since he cannot pray he lacks the strength to resist change, which is personalized in the Vatican’s representative, young Father Kinsella, woodenly played by Martin Sheen. Kinsella travels to the desolate monastery to make the monks use the English mass; the Latin mass has been rejected as “irrelevant.” Private confessions have been banned, and priests wear clerical garb only on special occasions. (Does that imply that Catholics are becoming more Protestant?) The tension between Latin and English mass seems contrived, however, a mere excuse to get the two men together.

While the author labeled the play a late-twentieth-century fable, the atmosphere hardly transcends 1973. A few brief references to Vatican IV and the Roman church as a member of the World Council of Churches (along with the Buddhists) are the only “futuristic” touches. Dependence on such remarks seems a weak way to develop time and setting.

What little action occurs in the play gets submerged in the rather non-theological discussion between the abbot and the priest, though we get hints of a conflict between social revolution and salvation. At first the abbot seems concerned with souls rather than institutions, but his sincerity fails after he confesses faithless confusion to Kinsella. The abbot’s prayers get no farther than the altar (in other words, his mysticism, or perhaps his imagination, fails him), and this leads him into a spiritual vacuum. (Since he cannot face that possibility he stopped trying to pray several years before the play begins.) His inability to lead his monks in prayer causes Father Abbot to request a transfer from authority to submission. But his confession of his lack of faith and a promise to make the monks abide by Rome save his job.

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As the drama ends the faithful monks kneel and repeat the Lord’s prayer. Howard, his face melodramatically contorted, remained silent: Father Abbot entered the abyss. The contrast between the last scene and the rest of the play weakened the impact. Father Abbot was almost too controlled throughout the drama; the audience was unprepared for his final breakdown. Howard’s overworked expressions here seemed sentimental when compared with his previously understated portrayal.

That same evening a Washington, D. C., audience at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater saw a somewhat different approach to Catholic problems. The Prodigal Daughter by British playwright David Turner considered the moral questions of celibacy, abortion, and birth control. Although star Wilfrid Hyde-White told the final audience that “our little play has no message,” the comedy meandered through some theological thickets with skill, humor, and not a little seriousness.

Hyde-White, whose father was a country parson in Gloucestershire, England, played Father Perfect, an understanding parish priest who stands midway between the new and the old. “I’m no revolutionary; I’m willing to abide by the boss,” Perfect tells Father Daley, a confused young priest. At the same time Father Perfect exudes sensitivity, understanding, and a fair amount of Christian charity. The paradoxes of Christianity (die to live, lose to find, for example) form the basis for Perfect’s talk with Daley, who is afflicted, in the elder priest’s words, with “spiritual menopause.”

The young priest, played by John Lithgow, loves the church, yet hates the isolation inherent in the priesthood. Through watching an elderly nun die in agony from cancer of the womb, he finds his faith in God is shaken. That, coupled with the presence of a young, attractive housekeeper (who came to the priests seeking punishment because of her recent abortion), leads Daley to forsake his vocation. “I will not trespass on God’s territory any longer,” he explains to Father Geoffrey Vernon (Stephen Elliott). Vernon is a legalist; the letter of the Catholic law is all he knows or wants to know.

Daley voices the confusion and (unjustified?) anger of many people today, not necessarily Catholic or Christian. The Church suffers from male chauvinism and has for the last 2,000 years, he tells Perfect (at that the audience applauded). Christ, he argues, must in some way have participated in the female experience as well as the male in order to understand a woman’s problems, which are sometimes different from those of a man.

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Only two of the “unholy trinity” of priests remain. And both types are, in the end, unsatisfactory without Daley as catalyst. Father Perfect possesses untroubled faith, Father Vernon, rigid faith. But neither claims faith courageous enough to question, and it is through question and resolution that relief solidifies.

“Catholics” and The Prodigal Daughter, then, explore spiritual crises. Yet both intend to entertain. The comedy accomplishes both purposes with no hint of cloying sentimentality or melodrama. We see the suffering of the young priest and the disappointment of the old one in Turner’s play. The brash Kinsella in “Catholics” seems merely to pity the abbot; Father Perfect understands Father Daley’s crisis and tries to help him through it to firmer, faithful ground. Kinsella has nothing to offer the abbot except shelter from reality and aid in perpetuating the appearance of spiritual health. Father Abbot is too old or perhaps too insecure to face honestly his failure of faith as Father Daley does. While The Prodigal Daughter offers no final resolution, it at least attempts to deal in Christian terms with the problems of faith in the twentieth century.

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