This fall, HBO will begin airing an eight-episode miniseries imagining the first American to be elected pope. While this drama may or may not attract viewers, I predict “The Young Pope” will fail to truly capture the Catholic Faith and Church. I had similar doubts when Showtime floated a similar premise in 2013. (“The Vatican” was to star the actor who played Adolf Hitler in the movie “Downfall” but none of its episodes ever aired.) The creator and director of “The Young Pope,” Paolo Sorrentino, describes what his new series will be about:
“The clear signs of God’s existence. The clear signs of God’s absence. How faith can be searched for and lost. The greatness of holiness, so great as to be unbearable when you are fighting temptations and when all you can do is to yield to them. The inner struggle between the huge responsibility of the Head of the Catholic Church and the miseries of the simple man that fate (or the Holy Spirit) chose as Pontiff. Finally, how to handle and manipulate power in a state whose dogma and moral imperative is the renunciation of power and selfless love towards one’s neighbor.”
Though some are more optimistic, I have low hopes for this series. The Catholic Church has beautiful stories to tell, but “The Young Pope’s” trailer and the quote above telegraph brooding agnosticism free of Christian joy. “The Young Pope’s” Pius XIII is reportedly “a conflicted man who must find a way to balance his ultra-conservative views with his immense compassion for the sick and the poor.” In other words, Catholic teachings will be falsely pitted against Christian love. Which one do you imagine will prevail in our hero?
A Vatican TV drama could be made with either the cynicism of “House of Cards” or the hopeful idealism of “The West Wing.” Which set of plot-lines below (“A” or “B”) do you think we could expect to see these days in a major miniseries about the papacy?
The Dinner Guest
A: The pope invites to dinner a priest-friend from seminary. At table, the priest asks the pope to lift the “impossible burden” of celibacy. The pope sympathizes but he explains (citing solely pragmatic reasons) that there is nothing he can do. By the meal’s end, the priest is asking to be released from the priesthood so that he might marry a former nun with whom he has fallen in love (and sin.) The pope, sadly subdued, grants his second request.
B: The pope invites to dinner a Roman beggar who once served as a priest. At dessert, the pope asks him to hear his confession. “I cannot do that,” the man replies, “I have renounced the priesthood. My priestly faculties have been taken away from me. I am no longer a priest.” The pope answers, “Once a priest, always a priest… As Bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church I can restore your priestly faculties to you…” The man’s priesthood is restored and he hears the pope’s confession. The priest is then assigned to the church where he had previously begged with a special responsibility for the poor who seek alms at the church door.
The Persecuted Refugees
A: As the cause advances to beatify Pius XII (the pope who reigned during the Second World War) the current pope personally investigates his predecessor’s record in the Vatican’s Secret Archives. When the pope concludes that Pius XII should have done more to save persecuted Jews from the Nazis, he places the entire beatification project on (permanent) hold.
B: The pope intervenes to help when a religious minority is threatened by an evil state. He facilitates the safe escape of thousands, even housing refugees within Rome’s convents and monasteries and at the Vatican itself. When peace returns, a world-famous agnostic scientist declares, “Only the Catholic Church protested against this onslaught on liberty. Up till then I had not been interested in the Church, but today I feel a great admiration for the Church, which alone has had the courage to struggle for spiritual truth and moral liberty.”
A Target of Controversy
A: After the pope describes the theory of evolution as being “more than just a hypothesis,” right-wing Catholic extremists plot to kill him for teaching heresy. After the nearly-successful bomb plot is thwarted, the pope laments the need to ‘lead our Church out of the Dark Ages.’
B: A Muslim gunman critically-wounds the pope as he greets crowds of pilgrims in St. Peter’s square. After the pope’s recovery from four gunshot wounds, he visits his would-be assassin in prison, enters his cell, and forgives him.
Which of these plot-lines could more believably appear on television? While the “A” stories above are my own works of fiction, each “B” story relates a true incident. The episode of the dinner guest who heard Pope John Paul II’s confession is told in an article by K. D’Encer entitled “The Priest, the Beggar and the Pope.” It was Pope Pius XII who hid and helped thousands of Jews during WWII, and the agnostic scientist who praised the Catholic Church for defending his people was Albert Einstein. St. John Paul II did call evolution “more than just a hypothesis” but no reactionary Catholic extremists tried to kill him for expressing this non-heretical view. In 1983, Pope John Paul visited Mehmet Ali Ağca, the man who had tried to kill him two years prior, and forgave him face-to-face.
This is not to say that a truly great drama about the papacy would or should ignore the realities of darkness, sin, and division. But secular treatments of the Catholic Church in this world trace her shadows without acknowledging her light. As the Latin adage says, “No one gives what he does not have.” (Nemo dat quod non habet.) Lacking a well-formed faith, no screenwriter can be expected to do justice to Jesus’ Church in its complex but saving reality.