I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope recently. Matthew Schmitz writes beautifully in First Things on the 10-episode show, explaining that it “depicts a Church that no longer seeks the favor of the world—and is all the more fabulous for it.” Tyler Blanksi also has a great reflection on the show:
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?
Let me present some personal context for why I liked this show:
We’re living in a world where top Jesuits are flirting with turning Catholicism protestant in the most fundamental ways—changing the meaning of Christ’s words to fit their particular social agenda on the idea of the Eucharist as a cure-all for sin and reconsidering the covenant of marriage. No doubt there are other sympathizers, but I’m thinking in particular of recent comments from Arturo Sosa Abascal, the Jesuit Superior General. There are some who are promoting the idea that, in the name of “accompaniment,” the totems of individual conscience and discernment (without respect to the authority of Scripture or the Church herself) can be used as a means to alter the church’s doctrine in practice for any individual professed believer.
Apostasy and heresy are realities in any age, but the Church exists to preserve us from those ills and protect the faithful through clear teaching from their rotten fruits. In a celebrity era of accessibility and manufactured senses of relationship, new forms of apostasy and heresy present themselves.
In the series, Jude Law plays Pope Pius XIII. He declares in his first homily 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.”
They’re a call from a man who, even as pope, we see struggle with belief and unbelief, and who is as conflicted about God and his ability to do what is expected of him as anyone. Over the course of the show, we see him mature and we see the ways in which his rigidity is transformed into a healthy balance of mercy and justice, truth and charity.
This is what a pope exists to do: be the vicar of the Christ we know.