A long time ago in a decade far, far away, in Catholic high school I was assigned to write a personal obituary. An unholy spirit prompted me to characterize myself as the first American pope, elevated after attracting a sizable number of youths to the one true faith by means of a marketing campaign titled “Christ is my buddy”—this 22 years before George Carlin introduced the Buddy Christ in Kevin Smith’s 1999 simultaneously hilarious and often sacrilegious film “Dogma.”
It’s not difficult to conjure the dismayed expression of Sister Diane when she read a high-school poem written by yours truly based on his observations of our small-town parish:
The bishop went golfing today
While the congregation was out to lunch;
The hypocrites attended Mass
For the first time in months.
They screamed their Profession of Faith
To give them the courage and weight
To lift their God from their wallets
And drop in the collection plate.
It was a regrettable sign of the times, but an attitude discarded over time in favor of adult devotion. Some of us have grown up and cultivated faith by seeking Truth through spiritual introspection while others wallow in the mire of too-easy negative critical interpretation of others’ inherent human frailties. Aspiring to live within the enduring moral order as expressed by T.S. Eliot (an Anglican) and Russell Kirk (a Roman Catholic) is fraught with earthly temptations. Some of us are more up to the task of resisting than others.
Most of us, regardless the sincerity of our respective faith, however, fall on a regular basis. Observant Catholics recognize this as the nature of the human condition, and seek absolution through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and a sincere determination to denounce Satan and all his works moving forward. Failing to attain Christian ideals of perfection to which one aspires may be a shortcoming, but hardly warrants too-easy earthly damnation as a hypocrite.
The publishing and entertainment industry loves themselves some heresy, however, and the Catholic faith has been consistently targeted by many within the arts anxious to undermine traditional doctrine and expose perceived double standards among Catholic adherents. T’was always thus since Moliere put pen to paper to create Tartuffe, the epitome of clerical hypocrisy as depicted in the arts. Ever since, Catholic clergy and laity have endured artistic brickbats with several notable exceptions, among them “The Exorcist,” written by a devout Catholic and directed by a Jewish agnostic. Yet the Catholic Church definitely contains extensive rot beyond the senses of a Midwestern adolescent that were only hinted at in the film “Spotlight.”
Would ‘The Young Pope’ Be Different?
So it was with trepidation that your writer approached HBO’s “The Young Pope,” the Paolo Sorrentino production that just wrapped a 10-episode run. This foreboding was sparked by the premium network’s trailer aired last fall [warning – spoiler alerts ahead].
Certainly, it turned off many Catholics accustomed to bashing of their faith by such modern media as the “literary” oeuvre of Dan Brown. Either HBO was disingenuously marketing the dramatic series to the presumed rank and file of its anti-Catholic viewership or the network’s promotion gurus actually believe Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII is Snidely Whiplash in papal vestments.
On this last, evidence provided by the series proves them wrong. The rot is discussed and even depicted in graphic detail, but countered by scenes both divine and humane—a barren woman and her sterile husband conceive after the pope’s insistent plea to the Virgin Mary, for example, and hints throughout the first six episodes foreshadow an early miracle performed by Pius XIII on behalf of a friend’s dying mother when the pope was still the pubescent Lenny Bernardo. A corrupt nun receives her divinely just desserts.
We Love Religious Corruption
Many of the reviews I’ve read of “The Young Pope” discuss how deliciously evil Pius XIII is, sort of the Vatican’s version of J.R. Ewing in “Dallas.” So one isn’t surprised when the program reveals itself as chock-a-block with venally scheming cardinals and other clergy.
As for Pope Pius XIII, however, many critics ridiculously conclude that this fictional Holy Father is diabolical merely because he extols traditional Roman Catholic doctrine. According to the HBO zeitgeist, any person opposed to the trifecta of the progressive social gospel—abortion, divorce, and practicing homosexuality—must ipso facto be equal to the knuckle-dragging Inquisitor-General Tomas de Torquemada.
Here, for example, is Sean T. Collins, writing in Rolling Stone:
Pius continues to behave like a supervillain in shepherd’s clothing. In addition to his continued dirty deeds, from screwing over informant Don Tomasso to devising a backdoor method of excommunicating any woman who’s had an abortion, he wages a direct war against the equally young, ever so slightly less handsome prime minister of Italy. This charismatic politician comes to the Vatican ready to fight, with a 41-percent share of the electorate behind him and the catastrophic decline in the Church’s reputation as ammo. But Pius has got this guy licked. By keeping himself in the shadows, the pope has ensured that his first true public appearance will be a media event for the ages. All he needs to do is directly address the Italian Catholic community, using “his beautiful blue eyes and his soft round mouth” to order them not to participate in the next election – and the Prime Minister’s voters will disappear just as surely as if God Himself wiped them off the face of the earth.
And this, from The Hollywood Reporter:
The first two episodes of the 10-part series premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September to rave reviews. Law stars as the fictional first American pope, an outrageously conservative figurehead who seems hell-bent on turning the world of the Vatican upside down. Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando and James Cromwell also star.
The show, which features a chain-smoking, irrational pope with an unconventional approach to religion, created early buzz out of Venice.
Yes, a media savvy pope possessing the physical attractiveness of Jude Law has lifted, in his own words, the stock-in-trade of J.D. Salinger and Daft Punk: anonymity. He bans use of his likeness on Vatican gift-shop tchotchkes and photographs, even going so far as demanding the firing of the Vatican cameraman. Additionally, Pius acknowledges his physical beauty on several occasions, telling the gorgeous female prime minister of Greenland that he’s aware of his incredible handsomeness, and LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It” precedes the crucial scene (labeled on YouTube as “The Diabolical Speech”) wherein Pius addresses the cardinals for the first time.
It’s a showstopper, but not really in the diabolical or even unconventional sense if one possesses even a passing familiarity with Roman Catholicism. The faithful must be truly faithful, says this pope, adding “courtesy and good manners are not the business of men of God,” the church doesn’t need and doesn’t know what to do with the worldly friendship of other governments and institutions, and “the word compromise has just been banished from the Church’s vocabulary, I just deleted it…. When Jesus mounted the Cross, he was not making compromises. Neither am I.” Faith and forgiveness should never be too easily attained lest they lead to lapsed spirituality and presumption.
Imagine: The Pope Upholding Doctrine
Heady stuff? Maybe this sounds like an irrational, diabolical supervillain to those outside the Catholic faith and, perhaps, to more than a few still claiming membership in the church. As Pius reminds his detractors, however, the Roman Catholic Church isn’t a democracy while the pope is indeed a sovereign. Add to this Pius’ call for fanaticism for the Catholic faith, which includes opposition to the aforementioned triumvirate.
None of this should be considered revolutionary or even news in 2017, but the watering down of church doctrine by progressive ideologues from within and without has made it seem so, unfortunately. This doesn’t even begin to address the incessant ridicule and brickbats endured by the press and entertainment industry.
Yes, there is plenty of palace intrigue in “The Young Pope,” and several attempts to blackmail Pope Pius thankfully come to naught. Throughout, Pius alternately displays his love for humanity, disgust with modernity, self-doubt, and moments of political calculation of Machiavellian proportions. When a truly despicable archbishop attempts to use love letters written to a young woman by a youthful Lenny as a get-out-of-jail-free card, for example, the threat is defused when the letters are published in The New Yorker to universal acclaim. It’s brilliant writing, brilliantly executed.
Pius may in fact become what the Rolling Stone and Hollywood Reporter scribes imagine him thus far to be despite all evidence to the contrary that identify him as an actual saint. Already, in only 10 one-hour episodes, he’s racked-up an impressive series of bona fide miracles, and displayed remarkable humanity and humility. Pope Pius XIII may do more to advance the doctrines, mysteries, and majesty of the Catholic Church than that real-life guy currently occupying the Throne of St. Peter. More like this, please.