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The new wave of pope entertainment changed how I see the Church

For a generation of non-practicing Catholics, shows like The New Pope are complicated

Jude Law as the Pope in The New Pope stretches out on his back, dressed in white robes and vivid red loafers, and is borne aloft in a crucifixion position by dozens of followers dressed in all black. Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO

When HBO’s Jude Law drama series The Young Pope premiered in Italy in October 2016 (January 2017 in the U.S.), the Catholic Church didn’t respond for a year. That was surprising, given how the show revolved around the Vatican’s intricacies. And it was unusual for an institution with a history of quickly acknowledging Church-related content, and distancing itself from it. Eventually, the Church responded with a two-page story in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. The review calls The Young Pope grotesque, caustic, and frivolous, but ends with positivity and praise. Sorrentino’s show is known for its wild kangaroos and giraffes, near-naked Jude Law photos, and other meme-worthy moments. But it also gives the Catholic Church a chance at redemption. The Young Pope and the sequel series The New Pope, which concluded on March 9, both let audiences see the institution from a different, more understanding point of view.

The Young Pope depicts the election of history’s youngest Pope: the fictional Lenny Belardo, Pope Pius XIII (Law), who spends a tumultuous time in the papal office. Pius represents the enigmatic nature of the Church, as he fills each episode with doubt, miracles, and changing opinions about the rightness and wrongness of religion. The Young Pope set off a new heyday of pope-related content, with The Two Popes earning three Oscar nominations, and The New Pope beginning in early 2020. The current pontiff was even the focus of a documentary, Wim Wenders’ 2018 film Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. This Pope content paints a prettier picture of the Church than the one seen in the news, or in recent films like Spotlight and Doubt. All four projects depict it as riddled with issues, but full of humanity.

The Young Pope began this exploration, focusing on a central figure brimming with doubt. Law’s Pope Pius XIII gave the Church an odd, wild, yet friendly face, making a traditional church much more accessible. The show, the first Italian series to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy, gives viewers a chance to think about their own religious beliefs on a deeper level. It looks at religion through the eyes of a sinner, a man tasked with leading a religion even though his own belief in God is wavering. Pius, like so many people, isn’t sure what to believe, and his doubt becomes the central focus and most relatable aspect of the series. His love, for all the Catholic followers on and off the screen, carries the weight of a realistic pope.

John Malkovich sits wearing a white skullcap, red-and-white robes, and an elaborately gold-embroidered stole. He’s surrounded by cardinals in peaked crimson caps and red-and-white robes. Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO

When you grow up Catholic, it feels natural to break away from the Church at some point. You spend an hour of every Sunday in a church attending Mass, until you reach a point — 18 for some families, younger for others — where you can choose not to go anymore. Suddenly, you have a choice, in spite of the Catholic schooling you’ve been given since age of 5. Lots of us choose to go the other way, to drink, smoke, have sex, and rebel, exploring the freedom we didn’t having growing up. We make choices that differ from those Catholic-school teachings, and we make them often.

The Young Pope, The Two Popes, and The New Pope explore these kinds of youthful decisions for various real and fictional popes. While HBO’s dramas look at invented and heightened figures, Netflix’s Fernando Meirelles documentary The Two Popes zeroes in on the two most recent real-world popes — Benedict XVI and Francis II, both of whom have their fair share of scandals. Benedict is now known as the conservative who stood in the middle of the Church’s sex-abuse cases from around the world. Pope Francis has been more progressive, calling on Catholics to accept gay and divorced parishioners, and changing aspects of the catechism, like the inadmissibility of the death penalty.

Still, he cannot, and should not, escape criticism for his ideas on female priests and his own handling of the sex abuse scandals. The Two Popes lacks the bite and fantasy of HBO’s popes-related series, but in the same way, it brings viewers closer to the Church’s leaders. Instead of remote, holy figures, they come across almost like regular guys, men who like oregano, love soccer, and feel real pain, frustration, and sadness.

Though screen time with these popes hasn’t ended my disagreements with the Church, these shows have given me a renewed interest in my own religion, the power of faith, and the importance of love. After all these years, I still identify as Catholic. I go to church with my family when I’m visiting my hometown, and on the big holidays like Christmas and Easter. I pray when I need something, and I read the Bible when I’m feeling lower than low. But I’ve been praying more often in the past two years, and The Young Pope deserves credit for that. That show made me think more about religion than the overwhelming majority of my Catholic education. It has messages about the weight and comfort of prayer, and the necessity of believing in something, regardless of what it is.

Sorrentino’s shows reminded me why I became so interested in religion in the first place: its sense of community, magic, and miracle. Like me — and more essentially, like the Catholic Church itself — Jude Law’s pope is flawed, which feels like an open acknowledgement of the major problems still haunting one of Western society’s most widespread organizations. Law and John Malkovich’s Pope John Paul III both preach of immense love and our communal suffering. Their speeches to the masses and their private actions center on the attributes we hope to see in our leadership.

John Malkovich, wearing white papal robes and skullcap, and a gold crucifix, kneels in prayer with his eyes closed and hands folded together. Next to him, Jude Law, in a black suit and priest’s collar, kneels with his arms spread wide and looks up to heaven. Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Between the sex-abuse scandals, the degradation of people on the LBGTQ spectrum, and the endless list of unnecessary rules and regulations, the Catholic Church feels distant and cold. Run by men in high places, the religion is organized but messy, supposedly loving but quick to cast out its members and shelter their own leaders, nominally open to the world, but closed to those who don’t fit specific parameters. That’s why these Pope movies and television shows have such weight and meaning. They make church teachings, practices, and ways of life more accessible, regardless of viewers’ beliefs or previous experiences with religion. The fantastic vs. factual details don’t matter, because they move audiences to consider the existence of a higher being, the possibility of the impossible, and whether things happen for a reason. And in the process, they make an irredeemable religion feel significant and human.

For example, The Young Pope features an episode in which Pius prays over and over again to bring a child to a mother who seemingly cannot get pregnant. He kneels and yells at God. Prayer isn’t a joke or a trivial matter in these shows, it’s a deeper experience that leads to miracles. Meanwhile, the series features leaders of the church performing every sin imaginable, then confessing those sins and attempting to grow, balancing between redemption and religious condemnation. This show, its spin-off, and The Two Popes depict the Church in a state of dichotomy, flux, and inconsistency, offering an intimate look at religious imperfection. It’s a very different level of access than seeing the real-life Church hide behind its usual veil of papal documents and half-apologies.

Both HBO series and The Two Popes also grapple with the Church’s handling of the massive child sexual-abuse scandal, a worldwide issue depicted in Spotlight and other popular media. This issue should matter to any Catholic, but its consequences have been felt on a wider societal level. All three projects address the scandal with deep regret and anger, suggesting that the Church hasn’t handled the situation honestly or responsibly. It’s a major plot in The Young Pope, a continuing issue in The New Pope, and the reason the popes in The Two Popes meet in the first place. Intentionally or not, these movies and TV series are doing the Catholic Church’s job for them, by openly examining what the Church did wrong, and showing how it could make amends. But the process actually may let the real Church off the hook.

For example, The Young Pope and The New Pope set in motion sweeping, fictitious changes to the Church, like the fall of the current pope and hundreds of bishops, the excommunication of priests, and even the notion that priests, both gay and straight, should be allowed to marry. Though some of the series’ ideas about what could fix the Church are odd, hardline, or unlikely, they’re a conscious attempt to curb the leadership scandals and end the sin.

The actual Vatican is doing none of these things. Instead, it’s focusing on the Catholic Church’s relationship with Orthodox churches, setting up councils that hope to curb scandals in the future, like the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and an in-house Vatican tribunal to judge bishops’ cases. But watching dramatic fictional responses to scandal certainly can be cathartic for Catholics who want more to be done. The Two Popes spends much of its runtime looking into the errors in judgement and major oversights of Pope Benedict XVI, while drumming up Pope Francis as a man who will change the church for the better, in spite of his own complicated baggage. It’s like watching a prequel after the rest of the trilogy has already premiered: it fills in some blanks, but doesn’t change what’s already happened. Still, the issues and human problems continue to exist, as does the belief of the God at the center of this and so many other religions.

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, both dressed in papal white robes, sit on a couch together in a white room full of religious iconography, cheering on a sporting event on TV. Photo: Peter Mountain/Netflix

But it gives Catholics and non-Catholics alike some of the feelings that faith should provide. The shows and film prompt laughter and longing, offer thought-provoking questions without feeding anyone the answers, and hold up the power of belief, even the fabricated kind. And they help Catholics, practicing or not, as they try to wrestle with the Church and their own faith or lack of it. They bare its internal struggles for viewers to internalize and attempt to process.

While the HBO dramas are just portraits, just fantasy treatments on what this religion once looked like or could look like, they offer a glimpse into the possibilities of the future, one that spurns scandal and remedies mistakes. After watching these shows, I don’t forgive the Church for its wrongs, or even feel closer to the organized religion I still call my own. The New Pope, The Two Popes, and The Young Pope have changed my view of Catholicism, though, reminding me of the miraculous nature of belief, the difficulty of doubt, and the relatability of a place rooted in tradition. For myself and others, these papal pieces of film and television begin to restore faith and humanity in a problematic institution, one that did absolutely nothing to deserve it.