Three years ago I was asked to write about HBO’s The Young Pope, which was expected to be a sucker punch attack on the Catholic Church and the papacy. It turned out to be a startling but surreal story that sympathized with a youthful and charismatic new pontiff who planned to reverse the Church back past the liberalizations of Vatican II to a more austere, mystical, centralized and difficult version of itself.
Far from alienating traditionalist Catholics, it ended up being a hit with many of them, most young and unimpressed with the softly ecumenical Church that had – for reasons coincidental or not – presided over emptying pews and a firestorm of sexual abuse scandals. The Young Popeended on a cliffhanger, with Pius XIII collapsing in Venice after delivering a powerful and inspiring papal address.
A sequel, The New Pope, began airing early this year, with Jude Law’s Pius in a coma and the cardinals scurrying to position themselves or someone sympathetic to their needs as the new pontiff. The most powerful scene in the first episode wandered around the red-capped members of the curia as they prayed – for a pope that will replace their absent father, for one who will be without mercy, for one who will let them get married, for one to forgive them their sexual abuse, for one who will punish them for it.
There’s no way we can be in the minds of cardinals electing a new pope, but I’m sure many of us imagine precisely this sort of self-interest at play in the hours and days leading to white smoke issuing from the Sistine chimney. And it hints that the fallout from sexual abuse scandals will press down even more on this new series than its predecessor; in the real world, it certainly hasn’t gone away in the intervening three years.
The voting is deadlocked when the Vatican’s arch-fixer, papal secretary of state Cardinal Voiello, does an end run around his (lookalike) competition by nominating a seemingly harmless nonentity who was, ominously, the Vatican confessor. He takes the name Francis II and reveals his plan to make the Church a poor one, selling off its treasures to give to charity, while enforcing the vow of priestly chastity by totalitarian means. He fires Voiello, opens the Vatican gardens to third world refugees and uses a gang of young Franciscans as his enforcers.
With a glance back at John Paul I, his brief papacy ends with a suspicious heart attack just as he opens the Vatican vault to inspect its mountains of bullion. Desperate for an actual moderate after the failure of Voiello’s puppet master strategy, the cardinals settle almost unanimously on Sir John Brannox, an Englishman played by John Malkovich with an affected, languorous purr who speaks in gnomic riddles and espouses an equally vague “Middle Way.”
The election of Brannox is the greatest clue that, even more than The Young Pope, The New Popeis utter fantasy. It’s hard to imagine someone like Brannox – both a recluse and a celebrity, a wealthy aristocrat, an Englishman and a priest whose particular success has been at converting Anglicans to Catholicism – making it onto a conclave ballot. His outlandish British accent is of a piece with the one Peter Dinklage employed on Game of Thrones– improbable and inconsistent but probably unnoticeable to anyone who isn’t English.
(It’s worth noting that Jude Law, an Englishman, plays an American as Pius XIII, but successful impersonations seem to be flowing in only one direction across the Atlantic these days, and in shocking numbers.)
Malkovich’s Pope, who takes the name John Paul III, is another form of retreat from the orthodox resolve of Pius XIII. Languid to the point of bonelessness, he announces that the theme of his papacy will be love, and that our fixation on physical love over a more abstract ideal has led the Church – and the world – to its current tragic state. It’s the sort of provocative theme that could power a half dozen encyclicals, but disappointingly we never get to see him debate or defend his ideas the way Law’s Pius did in The Young Pope.
In any case John Paul’s message and manner do nothing to halt the rot at the Vatican, all while a hard core of Pius devotees become more militant and Islamic terrorists focus their assaults on the Church and its followers. A star-struck John Paul uses his office to invite celebrities to his papal audiences, and two episodes begin with pre-credit cameos by Sharon Stone and Marilyn Manson. The latter isn’t quite sure which Pope he’s meeting, while the former uses her charm to plead for Catholic recognition of gay marriage, with some apparent success.
With each episode John Paul’s papacy seems to be slipping slowly but surely off the rails. At the same time we’re given glimpses of Pius on life support, with small but significant signs of life. As I write this the last two episodes of The New Popeare still unaired, but that “resurrection” finally happens, heralded with an opening scene of Law emerging from the sea in a pair of tight white bathing trunks, processing down a boardwalk past a line of clearly appreciative bikini-clad women.
If creator Paolo Sorrentino is trying to scandalize faithful Catholics with this scene, please understand that if they’ve made it as far as episode seven, it won’t be such a big deal. Up till this point each episode had begun with a credit sequence filmed in the dormitory of the nuns who do the Vatican housework. While “Good Time Girl” by the EDM group SOFI TUKKER throbs on the soundtrack, the nuns and novices in their shifts dance suggestively in slow motion as a huge cross at the end of the darkened room strobes and changes colour.
On one hand this is a bit disappointing; naughty nuns have been a salacious trope for both smut merchants and militant anti-Catholics since before the Reformation. Incessant return to this cheap slander stopped being outrageous generations ago, so it feels like Sorrentino threw this in for the titillation of curious non-Catholics, or to weed out the minority of the devout who can still summon outrage. For a cradle Catholic like myself it just feels strange; only non-Catholics seem to find a mine of overripe sexiness in the rites, personnel and holy orders of the Church.
Make no mistake, The New Pope– even more than The Young Pope– is a decadent bit of art, both in theme and style. Perhaps this is fitting – we are living in a decadent era, and it would be hard to argue that decadence is, in some part, what lies at heart of the scandals and crises in the Vatican and the Church in general. But it lunges – perhaps recklessly, but who cares? – at some real truths and issues about the Catholic church that a hagiography like Netflix’ recent The Two Popescan’t begin to grasp.
It’s inevitable that some Catholics will be as scandalized by The New Popeas they imagined they would be byThe Young Pope. It might be a personal failing that I find it hard to be scandalized. But I’d rather be assailed – and provoked and intrigued – by any number of similar entertainments that flatter or assuage or imagine that we shouldn’t be provoked and assailed by what’s going on in nearly every institution, secular or sacred. This is no time to be comfortable.