What the People Want: Review of HBO’s The Young Pope

— By Carly Twehous —

Most people can reluctantly agree that when the phrases “fictional tale of modern Catholicism set in Vatican City” and “produced by HBO” are thrown around and mushed into the same sentence, assumptions are bound to be made. Those coming from a secular background with no influence from organized religion automatically assume that such a show is to serve as an exposé on everything wrong with organized religion, traditional values, and the patriarchal “regime” of the Catholic Church. Culturally cognizant Catholics assume… Well, the exact same thing and kind of half-heartedly try to suppress a groan.

In essence, The Young Pope, starring Jude Law as the fictional, first American pope, Pius XIII, doesn’t live up to anyone’s expectations. Pius XIII is elected at the age of 47 with the assumption that he’d be easy for the cardinals to control, so that they can make what I’m sure the wider HBO audience assumes are “necessary” changes to the antiquated doctrine of the Catholic Church. Except, Pope Pius XIII isn’t willing to be a lap-dog. Instead, he holds up to the standards of traditional Catholicism, as he should, as pope. In regards to abortion, for instance, he says, “It only modern laxity that wishes to turn sins into rights.”

(Now, to be clear, because some people are easily confused by what the pope actually says, this is a fictionalized quote by a fictional character on an HBO TV show, not from Pope Francis.)

Given the network on which this show aired, however, HBO takes this traditionalist mindset to the extreme and, frankly, it comes off as a pseudo-mockery of the long-standing, unchanging doctrines of the Catholic Church. It’s almost as if they’re gloating, saying, “Here’s the perfect pope you traditionalists asked for! Look at how horrible it would be for everyone!” Because, of course, due to the nature of fiction, things go downhill fairly quickly for our fictional pope and, naturally it’s the traditionalist values to blame.

(Please note sarcasm and the very biased assumption made by a traditional Catholic critiquing the motivations of network does not, well, traditionally, share her values.)

Of course, this show has some more serious sins than what some might deem as “cultural commentary”. The Young Pope aired on HBO. That should tell you everything. It’s crass at times and there are a few sex scenes, though I have no idea why, given that, at least in theory, each member of the cast is portraying some degree of a celibate character living in the Vatican. Then there’s the mildly offensive and very uncomfortable scene, full of close-ups and model-shots, of Pope Pius XIII donning the traditional pope robes whilst jamming to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.”

(See what I mean? Even writing it is uncomfortable.)

All that being said, The Young Pope is nothing to get excited about. It’s not a blatant war-cry meant to destroy traditional Catholicism nor is it any sort of prophetic vision or obscure metaphor to the current state of our Church. No need for the pitchforks and torches on this one, guys. Frankly, it’s… Well, it’s just kind of dull.

If you want to see a story that details real problems in the Catholic Church that doesn’t simultaneously condemn the Church itself? Watch Spotlight, then have a healthy family discussion and/or therapy afterwards. Or if you’re looking for a family-friendly story that depicts Christological sacrifice, heroic virtue, and a clear separation of good and evil? Watch/read The Chronicles of Narnia, but never forego that family discussion. The masterful works of C.S. Lewis should never be consumed without proper decompression and digestion.

This? Well. Besides pointing out the obvious need for conversation between the two polarized camps of secular view on religion and those who grew up as culturally savvy, well-informed Catholics, The Young Pope pretty much amounts to nothing.

In all honesty, if the executives at HBO wanted a story about brokenness and human error within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, I have absolutely no clue as to why they felt inclined that making up a completely fictionalized new American pope would be more interesting than the previous two-hundred-sixty-six real-life popes, let alone the lives of the saints and martyrs. The Catholic Church has no shortage of stories that would appeal to a mass audience. Even when part of the story is inevitably fictionalized, the tales of some of the popes are bizarre, outlandish, and could certainly sustain one, ten-episode season with the vague possibility of renewal. There have been popes that started wars, popes that fought in wars, popes who breathed corruption, popes that were saints among men, and popes who got bored and moved to France. Plus, there was that very odd time in history where there were three popes at the same time and they all tried to excommunicate each other.

You want Catholic drama that depicts raw humanity twisted with politics, adventure, a flare of romance, with just a glimmer of hope of salvation in order to appeal to an audience that is predominantly non-religious?

Hey, HBO. I have your next big thing.

About the Author
Carly Twehous is a screenwriting alumna from JPCatholic (’17) who possesses a slightly inordinate love of both chocolate and comic books. In what little free time she has, she makes use of it by time traveling, ghost busting, and furiously scouring the globe for potential alien activity.