The Young Pope is a fascinating exploration of the ambiguities and doubts within Christian faith. The series is directed by Paolo Sorrentino, famed for his 2013 Academy Award winning movie The Great Beauty, which like The Young Pope, explores the search for authenticity, divinity and beauty in a materialistic, PR-obsessed world. Yet, what is and what is not sacred in this hyperreal setting remains uncertain, and indeed, a matter of faith.
As the name suggests, the series centres on the fictional character of a young American Pope, Pius XIII, and the unfortunate cardinals who have to endure and survive his turbulent papacy. But it is a series that confounds expectations. From the trailer you might expect Law’s character to be a Machiavellian psychopath only interested in power. But the show resists such clichés.
Pius is not a young Frank Underwood in a Papal rather than presidential setting. Still, he isn’t particularly likeable – which makes him a strange character to be played by the usually charismatic Jude Law. The character of Pius is difficult to understand precisely because he doesn’t understand himself. Abandoned as a child and raised by Sister Mary, a nun played by Diane Keaton, he definitely has a chip on his shoulder.
Indeed, Pius is quick to make enemies: everyone disagrees with his retrograde stances on homosexuality and abortion, including and perhaps surprisingly his surrounding cardinals. But he also isn’t a religious zealot; as we learn he doesn’t really believe in God. He states paradoxically:
God, my conscience does not accuse me because you do not believe that I am capable of repenting and therefore I do not believe in you.
He clarifies in his confession, “I am saying I don’t believe in God” – and even makes the same claim later in the series.
As such, the show – while funny and enjoyable – may be unfulfilling for some viewers and bewildering to others. After all, how can a Pope not believe in God?
The series sets up clichés and leads the audience to expect one thing, but delivers another. This resistance to any neat encapsulations is evident from the very beginning of the first episode where Pius prepares for his Papal address. In order to calm himself, he pictures a naked woman and then, when restored, goes out to make his first homily.
It sounds like a sales pitch: he’s a young, telegenic American Pope and he wishes to modernise the Church’s stance on a range of issues – starting with masturbation. The scene is a type of wish fulfilment for progressives. Wouldn’t one simply love to hear the Pope talk so encouragingly? It is, of course, too good to be true. Pius wakes up and we discover it was all a dream.
From this opening, you might suppose that Pius is a progressive in the church or a charismatic scoundrel. But far from being licentious, it transpires that he is, in fact, squeaky-clean, refuses sexual advances and is abrasive rather than charismatic.
His first real homily is a PR disaster for the church. Delivered at night, the silhouette of Pius yells at the people gathered below, warning that those who doubt God have no place in the Church. He then tells the crowd that they may not be worthy of him.
This episode introduces us to the narrative structure, which resembles a sort of thematic coitus interruptus, with disruptions and false-starts. The Pope, at times, seems clever and a charlatan, but at other moments he seems mad as he wonders if he is God.
Mostly, he doubts God’s existence.
Echoing Pascal’s advice
For Pius, the best way to save the Church is to return the institution to its past where faith was founded on terror. This solution to uncertainty echoes 17th century philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal’s advice to atheists. Famously, he evaluated the merits of belief versus disbelief. He argued the risks are only slight if you believe in God (if you’re wrong, nothing happens). But if you don’t believe in God (and if there is one), you jeopardise eternal life and happiness.
Pascal’s solution for an atheist is to practise religious faith even if one does not believe – in hope that one will. Pascal thereby opens up the question of what constitutes faith. Does faith have to entail belief, or can faith continue even when belief is absent? In short, Pascal leads us to ask whether faith is practice, rather than just a belief.
For Pius, it appears so. He frequently entrusts his fate, and indeed also the Church’s, to God even when he remains unsure of its existence. This quality of disbelief becoming part of faith may seem disingenuous, but there is a long tradition of faith that encompasses doubt within the Church. After all, Mother Teresa was known to have her doubts about God’s existence and mercy.
For the religious believer, there is a paradox: the further you go away from God but continue to worship him, the closer you come to God as your faith persists the test of doubt. Even without belief you still worship God with the hope that the belief will return, but of course there is the danger that it won’t and will therefore be insincere. Sin and salvation thereby come at a razor’s edge, and in the modern world entail what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard framed as a leap toward and into faith, a commitment to the unknown.
Some Catholics have been critical of the series given the ludicrous, heightened qualities of Law’s performance and its potentially blasphemous connotations. But their condemnation seems to miss some of the more nuanced aspects of his performance. Indeed, one central theme to the show is the idea that Catholicism must be ambiguous in order to have adherents – that the Church must present a friendly face in order for people to ignore its reactionary position. However, history does always involve interpretation.
Although the series is, thematically speaking, as adorned as the Vatican itself, it explores questions of reverence and celebrity, and further delves into the masochism of faith. It also surveys the ambiguity of the Pope’s faith, which adds intrigue.
While Pius is easily the least likeable of the characters, there’s a strange appeal to his anti-populist stance. However unconscionable his regressive stances are – and they are unconscionably cruel – they are based on a brutal honesty.
Unlike populists, he makes no secret of his sense of power as an institutional head, refusing to go all Dalai Lama and spout placating platitudes.
The series, like Pius, is funny, bizarre and mad — at once relevant to our media dominated age and unapologetically esoteric in its evocation of ideas that aren’t readily apparent to non-theologians. In short, the series is almost as enigmatic as the Church itself.
The Young Pope is currently viewable on SBS on Demand.