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The Young Pope: Popes Are People, Too

August 26, AD2017

The Young Pope, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is premised on what is apparently a radical idea: that popes might experience spiritual growth even during their pontificate. Unsettling Catholics expecting a pope with more certainty in his spiritual life and baffling secular critics who don’t know how to recognize or discuss a spiritual journey, The Young Pope simply takes a story of a man who does not know if he believes in God, makes that man the Pope, and depicts his growth.

Private Person, Papal Office

That man, Lenny Belardo, now Pope Pius XIII, is mostly defined by his profoundly ironic disposition. That’s not an entirely inappropriate disposition for a Catholic to have; a faithful Catholic should be aware of the tension between the beliefs one professes and the ways in which one fails to live out those beliefs, and of the tension between the expectations one has of a good creation and the trials of a fallen creation. Pius’s irony, however, goes too far. His irony often focuses too narrowly on the hypocrisies of those around him, and he is prone to saying outrageous things simply for the sake of being baffling when the clarity he professes to desire would be more appropriate. Even though he removes himself from public view, effacing himself, his irony is a way of demonstrating his superiority to the Cardinals. His sense of irony does not lead to humility, as would be healthy, but to arrogance.

The greatest ironies in Pius’s life, however, involve the distinction between Pius as a private person and Pius as the holder of the papal office, and it is this relationship that is most interested in exploring. Pius has an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture and the Church’s teachings but professes not to believe them. Mere knowledge does not necessarily result in faith. Nevertheless, he embraces the role of teaching, as successfully as he can, that which he does not believe because that is the role he has been chosen to perform.

Pius privileges the office over the private person. In the first few episodes of The Young Pope especially, he goes to great lengths to efface himself by refusing to allow his face to be seen by the faithful and emphasizes the office he holds, especially in his elaborate clothing and his insistence on having business relationships instead of friendly relationships. This is not entirely a show of humility, but a ploy to emphasise the Church’s mystery and the fact that it is the Pope who is important and who leads the Church on Earth, not Lenny Belardo the private individual. However, Pius is occasionally despondent due to the childhood trauma of being abandoned at an orphanage by his parents and fulfills none of his papal responsibilities when this most depresses him, meaning that the personal dominates the office to an unhealthy extent in these instances. The challenge for Pius is to discover the balance between the two.

Despite The Young Pope’s Lack of Faith

Despite Pius’s lack of faith, his occupation of the papal throne is sometimes efficacious. He teaches a woman how to pray, and his prayers for her intentions, which he offers while invoking his office and calling himself the successor of St. Peter, are answered. Not all his strategies work; the faithful initially are alienated by his withdrawal from public view, but this has little to do with his personal belief or unbelief. Indeed, when he enters public life, there is usually interest in what he does, not because he is faithful, but because he is the Pope, and so when he acts in that capacity, he bears fruit. In this way, The Young Pope emphasizes the power of the papal office, which exists regardless of who occupies it.

However, sometimes Pius’s emphasis on his office seems to become a crutch for his personal shortcomings. He becomes too focused on the external aspects of being pope, though they may be efficacious, at the expense of his interiority. This is not a critique of papal finery per se, but a critique of substituting finery for faith. Indeed, the finery can only be best used in accordance with a well-developed personal faith, when they serve to accentuate the dignity of the office in serving the glory of God and pointing one’s mind to beauty and delight, as opposed to representing Pius’s apparent megalomania.

Even though Pius’s occupation of the papal office is efficacious, however, it is also suggested that God listens in a special way to his prayers offered as a private person. The office by itself is not enough. It must be balanced with the personal qualities of the private person who occupies it. Pius must learn how to overcome his ironic detachment and balance his personal qualities with the office’s. For the first few episodes of The Young Pope, he is lost in the impersonal irony which is his signature personal quality. All he speaks to are baffled by his cryptic remarks, and so he alienates those with whom he works and who carry out his wishes, meaning that few projects are accomplished. The office is damaged by him letting his personality run amok.

Ironically, however (as is only appropriate), the young pope, wants that which is definitive, despite revelling in ambiguity. He tells the Church that there will be no room for doubt, even as he attempts to ratchet up his mystery and the Church’s mystery. He wants to be able to know God in as concrete a manner as possible, which he identifies with meeting his parents who abandoned him. His deepest desire is to make love concrete; at first, he does this by trying to increase the desire inherent in love by increasing the mystery that draws people in, but there is no love given in return because he is too mysterious and impersonal. The personal aspect of this pope’s life must be present because love is such an essential part of faith, and love is personal.

Humility and Love

Ultimately, the truest self-effacement Pius occurs not when he emphasizes the office over himself, but when he delivers an address that he had once rejected, written by Cardinal Secretary of State Voiello. He accepts another the words and ideas of another person, indeed, one he mocked mercilessly, and he needs to rehearse these words many times as they do not come naturally to him. He works hard to accept another’s contributions. This address focuses on love, telling the people in the crowd to look at those around them with joyful eyes, and that if they want to see God, they have the means of doing so by looking at other with love. Similarly, in one of the show’s most moving scenes, he summons the men and women who serve in the papal apartments, to whom he had previously shown contempt, to tell them that he loves them. He begins to speak to the cardinals in Italian, their native tongue, instead of having them speak to him in his native English. The acerbic irony is reined in and becomes friendly banter. He accepts that the world will read love letters he wrote and hid in a drawer, which the world devours, turning its attention away from war and terror. When Pius has made this personal growth, overcoming his personal vices and preventing them from dominating the office, even while maintaining a personal touch, morale in the Vatican and the Church improves, and Pius need not forsake the power of the office. In a way reminiscent of the greatest work of Italian literature, The Divine Comedy, in which Dante comes to know God through his love for Beatrice, Pius comes to teach that the faithful can know God through the love of each other, and he also knows some of this love. When he becomes a person that the faithful can know – if only partially – and love, and who promises love in return, instead of a dark silhouette, the power of his office blossoms. The true self-effacement is not of the person, but of the personal qualities that, though the person may treasure them, hinder love.

Pius comes to know some love, if not his parents’ love, and it is largely in the cardinals and Vatican staff around him. Though the cardinals almost all scheme and backstab, the Secretary of State among them, and the Pope is not exempt as a target, the Secretary of State ultimately remains obedient to Pius, staying close to him and working with him as best he can, despite Pius’s contempt. The nuns continue to cook for Pius after he rejects their breakfast for a Cherry Coke Zero. These mustard seeds of love might not come from any affection for Pius, and they may be very small, but they move the Pope’s mountainous sarcasm and he comes to love. Their love for the papal office is expressed in their service to the person who occupies it, and it moves that person. Pius now allows the personal to shape his papacy, even as his occupation of the office shapes his person. He need not sacrifice his office; he still wears beautiful vestments that highlight the papacy, for example, and he condescends himself to accept more personal homage from a new cardinal in a consistory. In fact, by leading the weekly Angelus and by teaching instead of demanding, by offering the paternal love which he had previously withdrawn (and which had been stolen from him), he occupies more fully the office of the Holy Father.

Truth and Mercy

Associated with the relationship between the office and the personal (which also has roots in Dante, who depicts many popes in Hell even as he insists on the sacredness of the papal office) is the relationship between truth and mercy. Pius initially associates his emphasis on his office with an emphasis on the Church’s truth over and above mercy, which is more personal. As Pope St. John Paul the Great says in Dives in misericordia, “God also becomes especially visible in His mercy.” However, Pius XIII, who wears a veil to hide his face from the camera and decrease his visibility, is similarly reluctant to show mercy to sinners, imposing strict disciplines on the faithful such as not considering for ordination seminarians who have had prior sexual indiscretions or making the excommunication of women who have procured abortions harder to lift. This is reminiscent of what Pope Francis says in Misericordiae vultus,

Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more.

The word “mercy” is not initially in Pius’s vocabulary, though he is right to seek justice. Because Pius is so focused on the dignity of the papal office to start, he believes that being too forgiving will make the Church seem a lenient laughingstock that has not the courage of her convictions. He confuses protecting the office with an impersonal justice. In his personal life, he is in fact quite merciful to a woman who commits adultery and who is one of the closest things he has to a friend in the Vatican; he teaches her to pray and prays for her. However, while he acts as the successor of St. Peter, he disqualifies any candidates for ordination because of any past adultery or for being sexually attracted to men, regardless of their chastity. He is more merciful in his private life than his public. He could stand to read Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, in which Gervaise Crouchback says, “If only one soul was saved that is full compensation for any loss of face.” The cardinals around him rebel against his strictures, and eventually, as Pius becomes more personally accessible and more open to love, he also becomes more merciful, elevating a man he knows to be sexually attracted to other men to the role of his personal secretary, despite earlier intending to throw these men out of the priesthood, and does not reduce people to their sins, even as he still seeks justice for a cardinal who committed monstrous acts of sexual abuse (at least the show seems to consider this justice – I would want a greater sentence). In his encyclical Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI says,

Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the “economy” of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practised in the light of truth. In this way, not only do we do a service to charity enlightened by truth, but we also help give credibility to truth, demonstrating its persuasive and authenticating power in the practical setting of social living.

Pius needs to learn to show the Church love, and he cannot do this fully without making sure he teaches the truth of the Church. He knows this to start. However, he cannot make the truth of the Church shine forth if he does not show the Church faithful his love, and by the end of the series, he learns to strike this balance. Though the cardinals might argue over the best way of responding to, say, abortion, for them the question of abortion’s immorality is never up for grabs. The Young Pope does not question the Church’s teachings about what is right or wrong, or even whether wrong things deserve punishment, but instead asks whether it is wise to offer mercy instead of punishment despite a person having done these wrongs.

The True Provocation

Ultimately, some secular critics who get right that The Young Pope is supposed to be “provocative” don’t actually understand in what ways the show is truly provocative. They don’t grasp that The Young Pope embraces the role of the papacy as a sign of contradiction not to the Church itself, but to the secular world, and makes a mockery of the secular expectation that the Church must “update” its teachings to be “relevant,” because only love given in truth and truth given in love are “relevant.” They don’t see that, as G.K. Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, to side with the revolutionary is to side with the orthodox, that “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags,” and that “the mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the whole world,” but The Young Pope embodies this spirit.

The Young Pope is not perfect; there are several instances in which the writers could certainly know more about the Church, and the plot sometimes slows to a crawl. This is a show, however, that is much more than the sum of its parts. Chesterton says in All Things Considered that the mark of a good religion is whether you can laugh at it, and The Young Pope is very much in that spirit. It delights in the incongruities of faith and the Church, yet it takes Pius’s journey of faith seriously and engages with the Church’s teachings on their own terms (whether or not it accepts them). It’s not meant to be entirely realistic in terms of what the Vatican or the Church are really like, but it’s still a profoundly human portrayal of doubt, mystery, love, and the struggle to reconcile one’s personal and public duties. Catholic fiction often depicts so-called “bad Catholics” who, though flawed, know something of God. Pius begins as a bad Catholic who rejects other bad Catholics, and part of his journey is coming to know how to accept those bad Catholics. Like in Dante’s Purgatorio, Pius, is to err more in letting people in than in refusing people entry, which in this case requires the union of the personal to the public office.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Patrick Malone has been writing for Catholic Stand since March 2016. He has a BA (Honours) in English, and is particularly interested in secularism and the exploration of faith in literature and film, especially the works of Terrence Malick, the McDonagh brothers, Flannery O'Connor, and Cormac McCarthy. He has also been published in Millennial Journal.

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