What We Talk About When We Talk About The Young Pope

Hollywood’s brush tends to paint the Vatican in colors dark and foreboding, a lavishly decorated place of simony and secret sexual sins. The papal throne is made to look smug and malevolent, even diabolical. Catholic priests are either buffoons or sex-crazed loonies. The laity are gullible, superstitious, or secretly Protestant. The HBO limited series The Young Pope is unexpectedly different, albeit obliquely. Here we encounter a young conservative pope who is not so easily demonized—or canonized. This is, perhaps, a good thing. The world is watching director Paulo Sorrentino’s drama with horror and delight, and they’re asking questions. Will Catholics have answers?

To Be or Not to Be Offended
There is, of course, the immediate problem of the “adult content.” There’s no excuse for the spectacle and it’s unedifying. Because of it, I cannot honestly commend the show to anyone. But when Catholic journals praise Breaking Bad for its enthralling portrayal of the addictive and destructive nature of sin, however graphic, one wonders by what principle The Young Pope could be discarded—except, perhaps, for the fact that the subject matter hits closer to home. If Breaking Bad shows us the wages of sin, The Young Pope imperfectly points us to sin’s remedy: before Jesus ascended into heaven he left behind his Catholic Church to be a city on a hill and a hospital for sinners. “The Confessional is our operating room,” says Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law). “We’re not afraid of sin and scandal, the way surgeons are not afraid of blood.”

At times, the gut instinct is to take offense. But, as G.K. Chesterton said, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” The irreverent opening theme version of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” traces a comet as it knocks halos off saints and eventually pummels an old pontiff. Is it mocking, or is it apropos? The new pontiff’s conservativism is clearly at variance with his liberal past. Before the orphan Lenny Belardo became Pope Pius XIII he was raised by hippie parents who presumably listened to Jimi Hendrix before abandoning their son to the care of Sister Mary (Diane Keaton). The instinct is to cry sacrilege! when the chain-smoking pontiff prepares to address the cardinals, fastidiously selecting slippers, gloves, and rings to the tune of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” But one can only chuckle at the montage’s unintentional recognition of the truth: sexuality is, after all, a parable of the ultimate union between Christ and his Bride. Isn’t one of the reasons priests wear lush robes in the first place because the Mass is the Royal Marriage Feast of the Lamb? Before we get huffy about the young pope donning such lurid, exotic robes, we must remember they are a ceremonial vesture. They are meant to downplay the pope’s personality and draw attention to his sacred office. As often happens in The Young Pope, the mash-up of seeming opposites (“sexy” and “priest”) might actually be salutary. Paulo Sorrentino seems to have noticed a possible irony in celibate cardinals gathering for a papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel, a room decorated floor to ceiling with, of all things, buck-naked men and women contorted into every possible position. Sorrentino seems to take this divine comedy and run with it.

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Pope John XXIII in episcopal gloves, papal tiera and ring.
Pope John XXIII in episcopal gloves, papal tiera and ring.

This is not to defend the liberties Sorrentino takes with Christ’s Bride, however artful, but to speculate whether or not The Young Pope can be so easily reduced to the bishop-bashing, blaspheming fare of Hollywood’s usual catnip. He has brought the world into the Church, or perhaps the Church out into the world, and the contrast is certainly provocative. The Young Pope might even “hook” anyone questioning the Christian religion: even when exposing clerical hypocrisy, it seems almost to admit the problem of sin and the difficulty of Christ’s high call to holiness. At the very least, by the end of the frenetic and kaleidoscopic string of episodes, viewers must be wondering why millions upon millions of people buy into this whole Catholic thing. In this way, Sorrentino unwittingly hands Catholics a wealth of reference points, good and bad, for evangelization.

What is the Catholic Church About Anyway?
My experience has been that nearly everyone thinks they know more about the Catholic Church than Catholics themselves. It’s no small accomplishment, then, that Sorrentino has managed to cut through popular anti-Catholic prejudice with a deep character study of Pope Pius XIII and a firework display of cinematography so as to “trick” viewers into entering Vatican walls, bringing them even to empathize with a frightfully conservative, tradition-loving pontiff.

By the end of the season, anti-Catholic viewers might be surprised to admit that they have fallen in love with the kind priest, Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara), or come to admire the resolute Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), or taken pity on the politicking but surprisingly tender-hearted Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando). Viewers might even agree with the Honduran drug lord’s assessment of Lenny’s childhood friend, Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepard), a priest who had the courage neither to proclaim doctrine nor to implement discipline, let alone live it:

If you had preached in your church against the narcos and refused to give me Communion, I wouldn’t have felt disrespected. You would simply be doing your job then I wouldn’t have felt obliged to use violence against you. But that’s not what you did. That’s what the current bishop is doing, and he is right to do so. In fact, no one would dream of laying a finger on him. You, however, have chosen another path.

The scene seems to suggest that perhaps the world wants the Catholic Church to be Catholic. In fact, it can respect Catholics who do not compromise. Compromise is a dirty word for Pope Pius XIII, who admits in his startling address to the cardinals: “I have no idea what to do with the friendship of the whole wide world. What I want is absolute love and total devotion to God.”

Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) smoking a cigarette.
Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) smoking a cigarette.

Today, Church teachings about sexuality are perceived to be retrograde. Yet the opening scene (which turns out to be only a dream) illustrates just how absurd it would be to hear the vicar of Christ say something like, “We have forgotten to masturbate, to use contraceptives, to get abortions, to celebrate gay marriages, to allow priests to love each other and even to get married, to divorce, to be happy.” Whether or not it was Sorrentino’s intention, just hearing a pope say what everyone thinks they want him to say seems to expose just how wrong it would be for him to say it.

The juxtaposition of opposites—the unexpected love for those in Catholic power combined with outrage when they commit grievous sins, the surprising delight in liturgical beauty mixed with horror at the extravagance, the way you can’t pin a single person down as either a sinner or a saint—combine in such a way that leaves us wondering, What is the Catholic Church, really?

Against Donatism
Sorrentino paints a picture of the Vatican that is at once repulsive and frightening yet also beautiful, mysterious, and at times even holy. Cardinals are two-faced yet sincere, self-interested yet self-giving, otherworldly yet deeply human. The young pope himself is a man full of hope and indecision, reminding viewers at every turn that the claim of papal infallibility (which the show misrepresents) is not a claim to impeccability. Sadly, popes sin. They can think and say heretical things. His Holiness can even drink Cherry Coke for breakfast and reverse the smoking ban introduced by Pope Saint John Paul II. The dogma of infallibility pertains only to that which is said in union with the bishops from Peter’s chair.

In a way, the whole drama is a long reminder that Catholics are not Donatists, that heretical group that believed that only those living a blameless life belong to the Church. The validity of the sacraments does not rise or fall on the holiness (or sinfulness) of the priest. This does not by any means excuse broken vows of chastity, child-abuse, greed, power-mongering, sloth, or any other sin a priest might commit. Not at all. But it is to say that the apostolic succession, the holy priesthood, the sacraments, the Petrine Office, are true only by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ. From the start, the Church had a betraying Judas and a denying Peter and a doubting Thomas. It’s still the Church. We should be outraged that bishops and priests sin, but we should be outraged for the right reasons.

Those who take comfort in cheap polyester vestments, stripped altars, and whitewashed sanctuaries coordinated to “the spirit of Vatican II” will be disappointed to find such an exhibition of Catholic regalia and garish signs of power in The Young Pope. The fact of the matter is, if you do not like towering cathedrals, magnificent statuary, stained-glass windows, golden monstrances, ornate altar linens, shimmering miters, towering papal tiaras, or Piscatory rings, you might not like being Catholic. The Church’s theology of stuff is anything but iconoclastic. The reason priests dress like kings is to remind the congregation that they serve Christ the King, and that the priest is in persona Christi. The young vicar of Christ loves the opulent costumes and pageantry of Catholicism, but every detail is shot through with meaning. For example, the traditional red shoes are the color red to symbolize the blood of the martyrs.

Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-1958) being carried in a chair and wearing a three tiered papal tiara.
Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-1958) being carried in a chair and wearing a three tiered papal tiara.

If we are shocked to see the pope carried into the Sistine Chapel in the papal sedan chair, wearing the three-tiered papal tiara, it’s only because we’ve forgotten that this is in fact normal. Popes have long been carried around in chairs. Artwork from as early as the eighth century depicts popes wearing a cone-shaped helmet with a small crown attached to the bottom. Over the centuries, the keepers of the keys built on this custom, adding not one, not two, but three crowns, until the long tradition came to a sudden end in 1963, at the end of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, when Pope Paul VI descended from this papal throne in St. Peter’s Basilica and placed his papal tiara on the altar, perhaps as a sign of renunciation of worldly glory. In buying back the tiara from the crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., the character of Pius XIII is simply making an old thing new again.

Anti-Christ or Christ-like?
One of the most challenging aspects of The Young Pope is the character Lenny Belardo himself, whose papacy seems at times to be a platform for his personal problems. He is at one moment a saint and the next a sinner. Is he Christ-like or is he the anti-Christ? One moment the young pope blasphemes and the next he says, “I do not exist, only Christ exists.” One moment he claims he has no sins to confess only to beg for God’s mercy the next. Ravaged by grief and plagued by an unremitting doubt in the existence of God yet performing incredible miracles and enjoying a direct line of communication with God himself, one is never too sure about the identity of this pope.

And although Jude Law’s character often challenges and repels the Catholic viewer, there are nonetheless many, albeit surprising, parallels between Pope Pius XIII and Jesus himself. For example, the young pope does not want to be seen by the masses and for most of his life Jesus did not want to be seen. Pius XIII fires the papal photographer and won’t allow his face to be printed on plates and other trinkets, insisting that his papacy isn’t about him but about the office he holds and for whom it is dedicated, not unlike how Jesus was constantly pointing to the Father. Like Jesus, the young pope is able to miraculously heal the sick. It’s almost biblical the way a small group of Cardinals act like Pharisees in trying to blackmail him. Like Jesus, Lenny is not afraid of prostitutes and immoral people. In trying to seduce him, a married woman encounters Christ through him and can only “go and sin no more.” Like Jesus, the young pope speaks the truth with force, even if it means the crowds will leave. He refuses to compromise (“Whoever is not with me is against me”). One can’t help but wonder, is this guy a saint?

If he is, he seems almost to know it. Given what God has done through him, he’s surprisingly humble and yet disappointingly proud. We might imagine saints to be much less eccentric than the character Pope Pius XIII, but there is something similarly jarring about many of our most beloved saints when we un-domesticate them and see them more as they truly were (the Little Flower saving the clippings her own toe nails comes to mind). Given that the show is presumably written and produced by non-Catholics, it’s altogether impressive that they came as close to the beauty of holiness as they did.

And yet, unfortunately, for all the talk of “God,” the ten-episode spectacle fails to mention the Holy Trinity, barely mentions Jesus Christ, not once gives a synopsis of the Gospel, and if it tells the truth it says it in a very slanted way. It is strongly suggested that only someone with personal problems could be conservative. One wonders if there is any reason for the kangaroo beyond a Sorrentino signature.

Is it dark comedy? Jeremiad? Soap opera? Accidental evangelism? They say every joke has some truth. Despite its helter-skelter storyline, moral faults, and doctrinal distortions, The Young Pope is an unexpected invitation to talk about Jesus and his holy Catholic Church. Sorrentino’s series brooks neither belief nor disbelief, raising more questions than it answers. The bright-eyed soundtrack, the intensity of color, the roller-coaster plot and character development—to say nothing of Jude Law’s captivating performance—make this the kind of show even the most ardent anti-Catholic could enjoy. But after the credits roll, who will talk with him about it?


  • Tyler Blanski

    Tyler Blanski, a Catholic convert, is the author of When Donkeys Talk: Rediscovering the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2012) and Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (Upper Room Books, 2010). www.holyrenaissance.com

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