‘The Young Pope’ Takes an Anxious Look at the Danger of Doubt

HBO's unsettling Vatican satire asks what happens when spiritual leaders shirk their own faith.
‘The Young Pope’ Takes an Anxious Look at the Danger of Doubt
Image: Courtesy HBO

I used to believe pastors were infallible. Then I became one.

Over the last decade, others have changed their minds about ministers, too. In fact, the general public’s trust in clergy currently sits at an all-time low. One could explain these numbers by rattling off the names of recently defrocked preachers, or noting our country’s swing from organized religion to self-autonomy, but the fact remains: pastors just aren’t trusted like they used to be, even if a majority do live with integrity.

If the role of spiritual shepherd has fallen on hard times, HBO’s new drama The Young Pope looks to drop the ball from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Created by Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope stars the striking, smooth-haired Jude Law as 47-year-old Lenny Belardo, the first American elected to the papacy. Bizarre, purposely disjointed, and irreverently humorous, Sorrentino’s dark religious satire won’t be for everyone. (It’s also an HBO production, which means viewers can expect the same level of sexual content that’s become the network’s prerequisite.) But for all its absurdity and occasional discomfort, The Young Pope’s look at religious leadership feels at once strangely relevant and candid in its exploration of how the quest for power and security often corrupts genuine faith.

Compact and patient, the first seven episodes of The Young Pope focus more on Lenny’s character than any strict plot arc. As Lenny, who now goes by Pope Pius XIII, grows acclimated to his new position, walks through the gardens within Vatican City, or meets papal staff about matters of faith and marketing, we begin to get a feel for his unpredictable personality—and while his face may be attractive, the results of his leadership are not.

The Young Pope operates as an exercise in imaginative possibility: out with the old, in with the new. Catholic doctrine doesn’t argue for the Pope’s impeccability (absence of sin), only his infallibility (absence of error), but Catholics and non-Catholics alike at least expect him to be a decent human being. In the age of Pope Francis—the one spiritual leader who is gaining in popularity around the world—the thought of a twisted doppelgänger inheriting his power is intriguing.

While Lenny’s bleached papal wardrobe glows in Luca Bigazzi’s plush cinematography, his vestments hides a troubling charisma. Prideful, self-absorbed, and manipulative, he loves his almost unlimited authority, but becomes exasperated when performing the ministerial work that goes along with his office. During some conversations, Lenny seems to express genuine faith; then, minutes later, he’s diabolical.

Worst of all, Lenny simultaneously satisfies his pride and the feelings of abandonment he’s harbored since childhood by frequently equating himself with God. He struggles to hear the Father’s voice, so he overcompensates by filling the chair himself. While some decisions seem to depict humility—in one scene, for instance, he bans all images of his face—even these become a way for Lenny to cloak himself in a Sinaic cloud of divine mystery. At one point, even the power-hungry Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) rebukes him, “You may be as handsome as Jesus, but you’re not actually Jesus.” Lenny coldly replies, “I might be more handsome.”

Conversely, though—and a bit curiously—the show also alludes to a possible saintly anointing on Lenny. His Holiness is said to have performed miracles, and in one head-scratching subplot, he acts as a supernatural animal whisperer to a kangaroo. Despite his contradictions, might Lenny have a King Cyrus-type call to unify God’s people? Whatever the case, he stands to ride a new wave of spirituality into Catholicism—or destroy 2,000 years of church history. Whichever comes first.

Lest anyone accuse Sorrentino of blasphemy, his peculiar style and modern tone clearly set the program in an alternate timeline reality. The Young Pope feels less like a world of legalistic authenticity and more like a box of toys with scenes constructed within Sorrentino’s soap-operatic imagination. Whether it means Law breaking the fourth wall to smile at the audience or LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” playing as he dresses in his papal gowns, Sorrentino doesn’t take his material too seriously. He may not align with conservative Catholic doctrine—in fact, he seems to find glee in harassing religious hypocrisy—but he remains an artist interested in candidly exploring man’s ability to reach the divine.

At this point in the 10-episode first season, Lenny isn’t so much a character to like or dislike as one to watch deliciously, in the same way we watch Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood in House of Cards or Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad. Perhaps this is telling: all three characters, after all, provoke a sense of fantasy, pushing us to wonder what it would be like to abandon portions of our own personal morality in exchange for riches and power. We may condemn these characters for their Machiavellian pursuits, but those feelings of dominance—if we’re being honest about our own sinful desires—often mirror the secret fantasies within our own heart.

Of course, like much good art, The Young Pope invites multiple interpretations. On the surface, religious hypocrisy almost seems a given; from another angle, though, the question of clerical authority and tradition comes to mind. As someone who once served as a pastor, I relate too easily to the idea of spiritual and leadership insecurity overflowing into ministry. At times, I found myself either preaching too strongly to my own doubts or worried that if others were more talented than me, I’d lose some sort of personal influence.

Even for those who are not ministers, these feelings aren’t foreign. Too often, personal legalism finds a source in the matters we’re concerned about in our own lives. Like the hypocritical Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we chide others to make up for our own insecurities or to make sure they know who’s “right.” Even confidence is only a step away from self-righteous. We get into fruitless debates online, turn our noses up at the struggles of others, and isolate ourselves from individuals outside of the church. Like the characters surrounding Lenny, we can become less concerned with the gospel and more enamored with feeling in control of our own faith.

In this way, as a satire, The Young Pope does what satires are meant to do: it forces us to take a good, long look at ourselves. In a modern age when religion and church leadership are perceived with suspicion, where do we go next? How can we wield our religious power without injuring those around us?

Sorrentino’s exploration of this question isn’t the kind of television American audiences are used to seeing, but for all its uneasiness and mature content, perhaps his young pope can help us realize the enduring value of an ancient Christian faith.

Wade is the co-host of Seeing and Believing, a film and TV podcast that searches for the sacred on screen. He's also a writer, pastor, and adjunct instructor at Southwestern Assemblies of God University. Wade lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. You can catch his blog at www.wadebearden.com or follow him on Twitter (@WadeHance).

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‘The Young Pope’ Takes an Anxious Look at the Danger of Doubt