HBOs “The Young Pope” is Absurdity Masquerading as Art

saint peters basilica, rome, papacy, pope

saint peters basilica, rome, papacy, pope

If you have not been watching HBO’s The Young Pope you haven’t missed anything of any consequence.  All you’ve missed is some really well photographed surreal absurdity.

If Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino is Catholic, or was raised Catholic and still claims to be Catholic, he needs to go to confession. Yesterday, if not sooner.  And maybe public penance should be brought back.

On the other hand, Sorrentino may not be Catholic. This also could explain the fantastical and ridiculous ideas he has about the Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Papacy, and the Clergy.

Thus far, after six episodes, Sorrentino’s ideas on how a young, American pope might act and how he might lead the Church, and on what takes place in the Vatican on a daily basis, are outlandish. His ideas on what Cardinals, Bishops, and priests really think and how they conduct themselves, and the role nuns play in the Church are, well, twisted.  And his suggestion that fully three-quarters of the clergy are really homosexual is over the top.

My Opinion

In an interview I read some months back, Sorrentino asked that people refrain from judging the series until all 10 episodes have aired. I am going to go out on a limb, however, and, offer an opinion after watching just the first six episodes.  I hope that once the planned 10 episodes have all aired the series gets dropped like a hot rock.  The acting is very good and the photography and production values are first rate, but these are the only redeeming qualities the series has offered thus far.

In The Young Pope, the first American pope, Pius XIII, aka Lenny Belardo, is being portrayed as an enigma. For instance, what does he really believe about the nature of God?  He goes to confession but has no sins to confess.  Is he really a saint or is he deceiving everyone, including himself?

The first five episodes establish the enigma that is Lenny through an oftentimes confusing mishmash of Lenny’s first few days as Pope, flashbacks to Lenny’s orphanage days, and a number of bizarre dream sequences.

The Characters

Along with Lenny, the main clerical characters are Cardinal Angelo Voiello, Cardinal Michael Spencer, Sister Mary, and Cardinal Andrew Dussolier. Two non-clerics who are main characters are Sofia, the woman in charge of marketing the Holy See, and Esther, a young, attractive wife of a Swiss Guard who desperately wants to become pregnant.

Voiello is the Camerlengo and Cardinal Secretary of State. He is portrayed as a scheming, politician first and a Cardinal second.  His worst fear is that he won’t be able to control Lenny.  But since plot twists are always neat ideas, Voiello could end being a character who is actually the most God fearing.

Cardinal Michael Spencer, who is Lenny’s mentor and the former Archbishop of New York, is portrayed as an ambitious and now bitter old man (“I was supposed to be elected Pope!”).

Sister Mary is a nun who raised Lenny after he was brought to her orphanage at about 10 years of age. Lenny brings her to Rome as his personal secretary.  She is the only character, thus far, who might be considered somewhat ‘normal’ – a devout nun who likes to play basketball, who cares about both Lenny’s spiritual well-being and the Church.

Cardinal Andrew Dussolier is Lenny’s best friend. He and Lenny grew up together at the orphanage.  Andrew and Lenny are Sister Mary’s “boys,” but as we find out in episode six, Andrew is not upholding his vow of celibacy.

Sofia, an American like Lenny, is intrigued by the new Pope but also confused about how she will be able to market the Pope since he refuses to be photographed.

Little Plot Twists

Voiello’s scheming comes to light in the fourth episode when he tells Esther that he wants her to seduce Lenny so he and his clique can blackmail Lenny and get him to resign the papacy. The young pope was supposed to be a compromise candidate that Voiello and the other old guard Cardinals could control but Lenny is anything but controllable.  He foils the plan because, as he tells Voiello, he knows everyone’s secrets.

Lenny also “accidently” observes Esther and her husband having carnal relations in episode three and he immediately drops to his knees and prays to God to allow Esther to become pregnant. (At the end of episode five viewers are meant to believe that Esther’s prayer to have a child has been granted when a plant miraculously flowers in Esther’s and Lenny’s presence.)

The first four episodes more or less lead up to Lenny’s address to the College of Cardinals, which finally takes place near the end of episode five. A hint of his plans was offered in his first public address as Pope in episode two when he tells the world that he wants everyone to devote themselves to God unconditionally.  Now, in episode five, Lenny tells the Cardinals his full vision for the Church.

Lenny’s Plan

“I want fanatics for God because fanaticism is love. I want absolute love and total devotion to God,” Lenny tells the Cardinals.  Ecumenism is no more, evangelization is done, and tolerance is out, he says.

“The liturgy will no longer be a social engagement it will be hard work and sin will no longer be forgiven at will,” he says.

“From this day forth the word compromise has been banished from the vocabulary. I just deleted it.”

In short, Lenny wants a Church that is made up of true believers who are “reliable” rather than a bunch of people who are just hanging around, calling themselves Catholic. Liberalism in the Church is out and strict adherence to doctrine is in.

Nine Months Later

In episode six, now nine months after Lenny’s address to the Cardinals, Voiello starts things off telling Lenny that as a result if his (Lenny’s) extreme rhetoric revenues are down throughout the world and visitors have stopped coming to the Vatican. Lenny says it’s to be expected, but that the faithful will return.  Confused and exasperated Voiello asks Lenny, “Who are you really?”

Also, in episode six Esther’s baby is born, a son that she and her husband name Pius. Lenny also meets with the Prime Minister of Italy and during the highly contentious meeting, Lenny presents him with a list of actions that he wants the Prime Minister to take that Lenny says will make Italy a better country, such as banning abortion and same-sex marriage.  In response, the Prime minister (possibly a secular-progressive socialist and atheist) responds by saying he intends to start taxing the church.

Lenny also instructs his friend Cardinal Andrew Dussolier, who is now Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy (responsible for admitting new candidates for the priesthood and training them as priests) to bar any men from the priesthood who may be unable to uphold their vows of celibacy, which presumably includes suspected homosexuals. As a result of this order, a prospective student who is refused admittance to a seminary in Rome commits suicide in St. Peter’s square.

A group of monks also meets with Lenny and threatens schism unless he resigns.

What’s the Message?

It may be that Sorrentino has some kind of legitimate message to convey in regard to Catholicism that will only be revealed after watching all ten episodes. Even if this is so, his method of delivering the message is atrocious, appalling, and abhorrent.  A straight drama without all the artsy, surreal dream sequences and blatant sexuality might actually have made for an interesting series.

As it stands through six episodes, however, Sorrentino is portraying the Catholic Church, the Papacy, and the clergy in a manner that anyone who is anti-Catholic will probably grab onto with both hands. It’s not hard to imagine certain types of people insisting that The Young Pope is fiction based on fact, or that it is actually portraying a reality that does exist, but one the Catholic Church has managed to keep hidden.

Fodder for Conspiracy Theorists

After watching just the first six episodes it may be too early to guess where Sorrentino plans to take The Young Pope.  He may be trying to convey any number of messages: the Pope is only a man and he is not infallible; Popes are human beings and like all human beings raised to a position of power they can become autocratic; that an ultra-conservative Pope would destroy the Catholic Church; or even that Americans are egotists who think they know better than everyone else.  But it’s also possible that Sorrentino has a plot twist in mind that is impossible to guess at this point.

In any case, just like the movies The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, both of which had people speculating about deep, hidden secrets within the Catholic Church, The Young Pope will probably result in new unflattering speculation about the Catholic Church.  The series will undoubtedly provide anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists with plenty of new fodder with which to continue tearing down the Papacy, the clergy, and the Catholic Church in general.

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6 thoughts on “HBOs “The Young Pope” is Absurdity Masquerading as Art”

  1. Mark 12:30-31
    30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.”

    You are right. Based on what this fictional pope says and does on the show, it looks to be Hollywood’s social experiment on the public to fan the flames of mistrust for faith by to a pope who is extreme-right (as perceived by liberals) and evoke in us some horror and feelings of hypocrisy for our orthodoxy we strive to meet. Is it any coincidence he’s an American? Smacks of anti-American socialist/communist hatred to me. The character of Pope XIII is spiritually immature and does not resemble any decent priest that I know of let alone any saints who once were popes (see John Paul II). This fantasm ghoul of a holy person is not anything that is demanded out of Christ’s representative on earth (the dying, rising Lord, out of His Own Free Will not out of a convoluted sense of justice or stunted-and-perverted sexuality…*We were made for relationship; that is what sexuality is*. *Sex within marriage is an earthly icon/image of the Unitive, Donative, and Procreative love of God – Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II*). Yes, there have been popes just as bad/extreme/uncouth as he. Yes, Catholics (as all people) go through doubt and temptation. And we are aware *we are sinners in need of a savior, and that is Christ*, not the Pope. This Pope needs saving too, that is why we pray for him, as head, to lead us as the Body of Christ to lead us on our earthly journey to heaven in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, lest we fall away through willful and conscient sin. Yes, all people must go through the fork in the road, the crisis of faith to choose if they will seek the Truth or not. No, we don’t take our crisis of faith to bombastically preach immorality, intemperance, scandal, and, what’s worse, despair, on others by our confused, unenlightened, and disobedient-to-God actions. Mother Theresa didn’t feel Jesus’ presence for 20-some years. It was called the Dark Night of the Soul for people who are close to God in their walk with God…those who reject the self-seeking Culture of Death of the world and experience faith without…guess what? Pleasure. It’s not important to get to Heaven to have “delicate feelings of holiness” (what the spirit of the world can lie to you is tantamount to an orgasm) and it’s superficial…The actions of Pope Pius the XIII are the bad fruit of a really very childish fear and the doubt that every believer must reject by will…feelings will come into alignment with will later.

    Such bad writing, guys…did they get their story fodder from an atheist meme page?!

    Pray for the people who made this show, for their swift conversion or maybe just giving the Church that Jesus founded its actual, realistic due. This is embarrassing (in my empathy for HBO and co., not for me), and gives me the heebie jeebies.

  2. Ever since “The Cardinal” 1962 and its rather unflattering portrayal of Cardinal Spellman, film makers have felt free to concoct lurid speculations of Popes and clergy. This is simply another example and not unexpected.

  3. And his suggestion that fully three-quarters of the clergy are really homosexual is over the top.

    In the 2000 book “The Changing Face of the Priesthood,” Rev. Donald B. Cozzens suggested that the priesthood was increasingly becoming a gay profession. Cozzens estimated that as much as 58 percent of priests were gay, and that percentages were even higher for younger priests.Jul 29, 2013

    So what?

  4. All I saw was the address from St. Peter’s balcony on YouTube and it was terrible. It pains me to think that that’s how people think a faithful Pope thinks like and acts like. I can think of many examples of faithful Catholics but they’re so not like that. All they want is for people to discover God’s wonderful plan for their lives.

  5. I watched Lenny’s address to the Cardinals on youtube. Jude Law plays the Pope as if he is crazy. The way he haltingly spits out his words, the weird contorted facial expressions. all of it is meant to indicate that the Pope is crazy, or, more likely, possessed by the devil.

    Jude Law looks like he needs an exorcism most of the time.

    This is yet another profoundly anti-Catholic show. It is just stupid.

    HBO is well known for hating Christians.

    The whole message is: Conservatives in the church are really, really bad people.

  6. having seen all ten episodes, here are my two cents

    1) I agree that the sexuality should have been left out of it, and had it done so it would have made the series better overall.

    2) We do see a softer side to Voiello, although I suspect he will always be defined by his opening line “my sins have to with diplomacy and high finance”

    3) I thought that overall the series was quite uneven, there were moments of brilliance such as the address to the Cardinals, but there were also some serious failings.

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