by Albert Camus
Father Paneloux is the one character to represent organized religion in The Plague, yet he himself seems to struggle with organized religion. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s look at Paneloux when this plague business begins, right around the time of, oh…Sermon Number One. The priest is calm, he’s steady, he’s sure. He says "you" and instead of "we," making the mistake of men like Rambert who think for a moment that the plague is other people’s problems, not their own. Rieux accuses the priest of thinking he can speak about a grandiose "truth with a capital T" because he hasn’t looked death in the eyes. He accuses Paneloux of abstraction, of turning to grand ideas rather than dealing with concrete reality.
But that all changes during what we’ve identified to be the climax of the novel: the death of Jacques Othon. The doctor, and no doubt the priest, have been present for dozens if not hundreds of deaths so far. What’s the big deal about this one? Rieux explains that this is the first time they had all "watched a child’s agony minute by minute." In other words, Jacques really makes death hit home. No more abstractions after this.
It’s a big moment for Father Paneloux when he cries out, in the midst of Jacques’ suffering, "My God, spare this child!" Is this a moment of doubt for the priest? Of anger? What’s clear is that nothing is the same for him after this boy’s death. So it has a big effect. Rieux’s conversation with the priest just after the boy’s death shows an incredible kinship between the two men despite their vastly different beliefs.
Apparently, this is a problem. Paneloux gets some flak around the pews for relying on and working with a doctor; his religion argues that men should trust in God – so why does he need a medical professional? Paneloux’s second sermon reveals just this kind of tension; he stumbles for his words, he tries to defend his God without ignoring the suffering of the small boy, and he openly admits that his back is to the wall. The best he can come up with is that religion is a package deal – an all-or-nothing sort of thing. (This is not unlike the odd, black-and-white way that Tarrou sees the world, interestingly enough.)
So the big question is whether Paneloux himself goes all or goes nothing. Sure, in his death he refuses medical attention, and he stares at a crucifix, but does he really believe? Given recent events, this question really comes down to this: can Father Paneloux really accept the agonizing suffering of the young, innocent Jacques Othon as the will of God?
Camus’s answer is this: he’s not sure. At least, in so many words. When Paneloux dies, Rieux and his colleagues aren’t certain whether or not he had the plague (or some other, mysterious fatal illness. Hmm…). Looks like the medical professional and the man of the cloth are in the dark with regards to their rubrics of belief. Interesting. But more interesting are the two words written on Paneloux’s diagnostic index card, the two words that connect the uncertainty of Rieux’s medicine with the uncertainty of Paneloux’s religion: "doubtful case." The doctor doesn’t know whether the priest had the plague; the priest doesn’t know whether he can accept the will of God in a world of so much suffering, and most importantly, we the reader clearly don’t know anything.