Man oh man, the criticism out there on this TV series is so, so far off the mark! The Young Pope (2016) is a deeply thought-through meditation on the two perennially warring factions of the Catholic Church and, despite what it seems, it displays a solidly Catholic perspective. But to really get it, you’ll have to go farther back in the history and traditions of the Church than the Second Vatican Council—which, ironically, is exactly what Lenny Belardo, Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law; I’ll call him Lenny), would have wanted you to do. (The date of the series is 2016 because, though there’s a planned second season, it’s titled The New Pope, which fits the ending of this season perfectly and seems in all likelihood to follow a different story.)
At first glance, The Young Pope looks like it’s out of its mind. Then you realize it’s just a (very weird) dream sequence that in its weird way manages to convey the time-stopping experience of waking up on your first day as pope. Then the show gets really crazy by having Lenny not just flaunt convention but spit in its face: Frank Underwood-ing his Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (a smooth yet vulnerable Silvio Orlando), reassigning a Cardinal to Alaska out of petty spite, and refusing to let his likeness be used for merchandising.
It’s precisely these three opening moves that offer a way into the Catholicism of the show. Let’s go in reverse order. Refusing to be depicted or seen at all by the masses gestures toward the mystical side of the faith, exemplified by Saint Augustine of Hippo. Old Auggie led a dissolute life in his youth until one day he heard the call of God. His Confessions are a record of his thoughts and experiences on the path to redemption, a path which was pointed out for him, and which he was motivated to pursue, not of his own volition but by the power of the Holy Spirit. The mysterious, personal aspect of faith henceforth took on the label “Augustinian.” Lenny refuses to be turned into a spectacle, reserving his presence and likeness for personal, intimate encounters in which he is able to enact mystical faith with the use of, yes, his handsome young face—after all, the word “charisma” used to refer to the allure of the holy person.
Shunting the Cardinal off to Alaska is not only an act of vengeance, it also removes an obstacle to Lenny’s ambitious agenda. This political act of Church governance reminds one of another paradigmatic Father of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas. The strain of thought named “Thomist” follows the lead of Aquinas’s massive Summa Theologiae, an encyclopedic work of theology that attempts to work through the contradictions of and answer every question about the Catholic doctrine of his day. Not every logically rigorous thinker can manage such a feat; one had to have a sense of which direction each resolution of a dilemma should take, and had to get those answers from somewhere. The Church canonized Aquinas on the (undoubtedly correct) assumption that his answers and logical exertions were divinely inspired; nonetheless, Aquinas famously lamented that he could not feel directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, as Augustine could. If Augustine represents the personal, intimate relationship between the faithful and the Godhead, then Aquinas stands for the worthy work of realizing the Catholic faith through secular means.
The tension between these two modes of religious logic is physically embodied in the person of the Pope—any pope—and is here manifested for the viewer in how Lenny deals with his Cardinal Secretary of State. As head of the Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, Voiello might be expected to hold conservative views preserving the status quo, but in fact he is a reformist at heart. It’s Lenny who’s the conservative, even more so than his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell). (The American bishopric, especially the East Coast, is conservative in real life.) Thus, in a clever reversal of every newcomer political drama, The Young Pope has a liberal member of the bureaucracy frantically maintaining, by hook or by crook, a holding pattern against the new deeply reactionary political leader—and yet each side uses the traditional methods: Lenny with his newly formed coterie employs shock and awe tactics, and a bit of arm-twisting, against Voiello’s bureaucratic foot-dragging, shady leveraging of power over subordinates, and borderline-conspiratorial extracurricular consultations with other Cardinals. The genius of the show is in how this setup gets us to root for the reactionary.
That’s the setup. The execution is basically House of Cards (2013-18; yes, it’s ending), even down to how conflicts are resolved and obstacles overcome outside the normal channels of power; instead of Frank’s extortion and character assassination, Lenny exercises (and threatens to exercise) his monarchical power and successfully prays for divine intervention. This brings us to the question of Lenny’s own personal faith. He says he doesn’t believe in God; then, like a boy professing his love for his crush on April Fool’s Day only to be rejected, he adds that he’s only kidding. This turn of events shocks Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo), but we shouldn’t be so gullible. Given that Lenny does indeed have the miraculous ability to call upon divine intervention, the whole question of the Pope’s faith is moot: In this storyworld, just like in that of the uncannily Catholic Constantine (2005), God exists, period. In fact, Lenny’s crisis of faith might be the same one that John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) has: As Archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton with her signature androgyny) says to Constantine, exorcist extraordinaire: God demands “[b]elief. . . . You know, and there’s a difference.” (Just try believing in doors.)
No, the bigger question in this series is whether his agenda is being guided by God or by the psychological trauma of his abandonment. The answer, I think, is both. The political concept of the “two bodies” of the sovereign has it that the sovereign exists in both the body and the role, and that ending one doesn’t end the other. Lenny’s personal motivations may stem from his own psychology, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the holy legitimacy of his political agenda. Aside from his position on social issues like women in the clergy, homosexuality, and contraception (on which I take no position), his other efforts do a lot of good for the faithful: refining and purifying the faith, getting rid of the predatory Archbishop Kurtwell (Guy Boyd) and Sister Antonia (Milvia Marigliano), promoting worthy people to high positions and removing their predecessors too focused on worldly power, bringing Sister Mary (Diane Keaton!!) into his inner circle to soften up and humanize Voiello, and spreading the fundamentally Christian message of love for all and sunder through his invisible speech in Africa and the release of his love letters.
In any case, God believes in Lenny. In addition to the three documented miracles (healing a sick woman, enabling Esther (an ephemeral Ludivine Sagnier) to conceive a child, and removing Sister Antonia—four, if you count getting elected pope), there are a few minor incidents that for anyone but the pope would be mere coincidence: the kangaroo being coaxed out of its cage; Kurtwell actually pointing to Ketchikan, Alaska (a real place) on Lenny’s globe; Sister Antonia’s charity being the only one Lenny decides to visit; and receiving a letter from a young boy echoing the question in his own mind: What is God? In the same vein, we can say that some incidents are God pulling Lenny’s leg: giving him an attractive blonde (Cécile de France) for a PR chief, the one part of the bureaucracy that’s totally on board with his agenda; denying him confession, in that the only time we see him actually opening up about his spiritual state of mind, he’s confessing to an African priest who knows no English; and even giving him Peter’s seat in the first place. We might furthermore append the appearance in the final episode, at long last, of his parents, and his subsequent incapacitation—God telling Lenny that his work is done (and that His work has been done).
Between the two—God’s anointing of Lenny and His messing with him—lies the small territory of coincidence and humor: the Prime Minister of Greenland’s (Carolina Carlsson) audience with Lenny; the kangaroo later ignoring him when nobody’s looking; the lighter given him by a member of the faithful; and, of course, that absurdly placed button under his desk.
It’s no big exaggeration to say that The Young Pope runs the full gamut of the life experience of the highest servant of Christ. I can’t wait to see what twists and turns and theological conundrums showrunner Paolo Sorrentino has in store for us next!
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.