HBO’s “The Young Pope” tells the story of a middle-aged American priest who is, young... The show follows Cardinal ‘Lenny’s surprise election to the office of Supreme Pontifex in an otherwise believable near-future. An opening theme attempts to paint the new pope as a comet firing radical change through a pristine line of ‘tradition’. Tradition in this series turns out to be the Vatican’s particular species of ‘political correctness’ rather than any deep penetration into Christian doctrine. Lenny takes the name of Pius XIII, a literal symbol of his devotion to the papal office and its formalities. From the start, the Holy See is portrayed as a political institution, albeit of an alien branch, with all the bureaucracy and corruption of a typical state. With due appreciation for this acknowledgement of the worldly elements in the Church, the illustration is too projective to paint a true picture of the Church’s many-colored coat. No doubt this bias only reflects the general agnosticism of Western believers today and perhaps serves its purpose in meeting such as those in their not unpopular position of amateur religiosity. As so, this show will not provide much spiritual sustenance to the devout, with exceptions, beyond the familiar social commentary. Not that we expected much – the holy people will understandably never watch HBO in the first place! Personally, I wanted to know what spin they would put on my beloved (Catholic Church) so that I could, if necessary, defend her to any caught in HBO’s typical gnostic propaganda. After watching, I was surprised at the only mild offensiveness of the series. The secular reverence in Paulo Sorrentino’s directing manifested as only soft satire with occasional notable insights. Here are my highlights and corrections.
One of the reasons why there should probably never be a young pope is the obvious fact that age brings experience and wisdom; there is analogy between the physical and spiritual body. No shortcuts can bypass individuation, despite the unfailing pretentions of the youth. Our culture keeps forgetting the Church’s most brilliant innovation, that is, the repositioning of value to the individual person. The Christian collective consists of independent members in spiritual communion, a complete contrast to the utilitarian model of the hivemind. Without appreciation for the servant-leader framework of Christ, one assumes the post-modern perspective of reducing every authority to an oppressor. The paradox of consubstantiality between material royalty and spiritual poverty is not sufficiently played out in ‘The Young Pope’, especially in those moments when its explication would be most enlightening. Since the primary purpose of the Church’s wealth has always been beauty more than power, the idea that every form of hierarchy constitutes exploitation is far too shallow a view of human motivation. There can be great humility in accepting a seat of authority and its accompanying rituals. Instead, the ‘Young Pope’ is as pompous about his station as one could imagine. Lenny’s arrogance implies a devolution of Church consciousness back to Medici times, echoing again the flat trajectory of modern philosophy, an arc that simply does not follow the history. The Catholic Church has always taken its surrounding zeitgeist seriously into an open dialogue, not withstanding brief interruptions, but ultimately resulting in the incredible theological and pastoral developments that mark the Church’s genius. The Church is not an ancient monolith, it is an ancient person, and the pope is not a CEO, he is a missionary.
The series continually misrepresents celibacy as it has been historically theorized and lived by the Catholic Church. It is a mild modern reaction to the sexual revolution that rightly esteems the heroism of marital fidelity. However, in this cultural spirit there is also an implicit repudiation of celibacy as a cowardly escape from the duties of familial life. Scripture and the Church’s tradition are very clear that celibacy is freedom for the sake of a full-time ministry of charity. To remain children in the sense of never becoming a biological father or mother is also to be able to give one’s heart more broadly and to imitate the love relationships of heaven in that way. Priesthood is not a hide-out for the psychologically immature as anyone who has been through the modern gauntlet of priestly formation can attest. HBO presents ordination as a career path for the socially timid. This goes in hand with a general mood of anxious uncertainty about life within the Vatican’s clergy. It draws a sloppy caricature of Christian doubt when it looks no different than secular skepticism or cynicism. That kind of doubt sometimes preludes conscious participation in Christianity but it dies with the initial awakening to natural mystery that begins mature faith. The darkness of a spiritual doubt, like John of the Cross and Teresa of Calcutta recounted, is a vastly different phenomenon, entirely unrelated to atheism. The ‘dark night of the soul’ is faith in God at the apex, it is the pain of losing sight of one’s own needs; altogether poured out in service to the point of confusion at the persistent presence of a crucified self.
Psychologically ‘The Young Pope’ only makes it as deep as the simplest aspects of Freudianism. Having no parents, Lenny’s metaphysics are reduced to an archetype of his stunted nurturing. It seems these premises underlie the motivations of every soul in this show’s worldview. A person never transcends their experiences of low human relationship. Likewise, a person is double predestined to act out the pattern of woundedness transmitted to them. The Church then is just a sexually repressed child, a victim, deserving as much sympathy for its sins as the rest of the sexually corrupt society. But this philosophy neither appreciates the intensity of attack against the Church nor the heights of glory that its holiness can reach. It appears instead that the Church advertises its own carrot-on-stick like any other competitor in an economic market. ‘Mystery’ is a shoddy product that must be sold. Again… mystery alone is pre-catechumenal. What the Church actually offers is more than any outsider can swallow or any tv show dare admit: a healed life, more truth than naked science, and a nuptial relationship with God. Only someone who has not penetrated the mystogogy of the Catholic Church could depict her as merely human, more bureaucratic than mystical.
On the positive side, HBO’s first season of Popery gives a cool depiction of the priest as a mediator of the family, precisely through the sacrifice of his own sexual desire. I think this is exactly the truth. There have even been surveys that evince married people being more comfortable receiving counsel and reconciliation from a celibate person. As they say, chastity means a smooth functioning sexuality, while promiscuity exposes a broken engine. There is another beautiful insight revealed in the sanctity of caring for the simple minded or otherwise physically disabled. Christians alone are capable of doing this work as it ought to be done, since only Christianity allows us to see God, literally, in the eyes of the sentient and suffering. The fact that the Pope smokes also speaks to something perhaps uniquely Catholic, that is, a certain indefinite suspension of judgment that is neither moral relativism nor an excuse to be silent to evil, but definitely a conflictual call to dialogue. I think its fair to say that the Church is generally “tough in principle, soft in practice.” Ambition and corruption is real in the Church as it is real in each human soul, but the Church is also as divine as Christ and immune to the systemic failure that overcomes all other institutions over time. This idea was conveyed brilliantly in the sinner, Pope Pius XIII, who performed his miracles accidentally.