The Virtue and Vice of Irreverence

By  · Published on January 26th, 2017

The Young Pope and the role of irreverence in culture.

Blasphemy. Heresy. Crude. Obscene. Dirty words used to describe unclean things: popular works that discuss religion with an irreverent tone. The Young Pope, Twitter’s comic obsession and Paolo Sorrentino’s newest critical darling, has been on the receiving end of these words. Critics of The Young Pope forsake it because they view the limited series as too impolite and crude. The show’s depiction of the Catholic Church as populated by the same avarice and gluttony for power that exists in another capital city is deemed sacrilegious. The reason is both social and philosophical.

There is a dichotomy with relation to religion that is rampant in popular consciousness. David Émile Durkheim, a French philosopher, is credited with pointing out this dichotomy between the sacred and profane. Durkheim describes the difference better than I could restate: “religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” Contrast, this to the idea of the profane. The profane is the mundane and ordinary, the non-sacred to religion’s sacred, whereas the sacred is apart and away, the profane is available and accessible. The Young Pope assaults religious sensibility because it depicts the sacred interacting with the profane. The show does this in three ways: (1) the characterization of Leonard Bernardo/Pope Pius XIII, (2) through the juxtaposition Cardinals and nuns doing profane things, and (3) the soundtrack.

“Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.”

First, the show mixes the sacred and profane through the characterization of the young pope Pius XIII (Jude Law). Leonard Bernardo or Pope Pius XIII, the name he takes following his appointment, desires a return to the olden days of church inaccessibility and conservatism while also drinking a Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and listening to popular music. Pope Pius XIII does not hold the profane and the sacred too far apart. Pope Pius XIII scoffs when Sofia (Cécile de France), a marketer for the Holy See, does not know of Daft Punk. He quips, “What do they teach you at Harvard?”

The joke is amusing for two reasons. First, it is the second dig at Harvard in the conversation. Previously, Pius XIII rejected a Harvard degree as a mark of excellence. He states that all Harvard means to Americans is “decline.” Many recognize Harvard as sacred, but Pius XIII does not hold this to be valid. In film and TV, having a character say they went to Harvard is the last refuge of a lazy screenwriter. It allows a screenwriter to tell the audience that their character is smart while rarely ever showing any proof of it. It’s a lab coat in the toothpaste commercial. Second, it shows that Pius XIII values knowledge of the profane and accessible as much as he values knowledge of the sacred. It is the reason he insists that Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo) tell him the confessed sins of everyone in Vatican City. (A gross violation of the Sacrament of confession easily recognized by any Catholic.) Knowledge is more than a form of power it is a means of control for Pius XIII. He uses his knowledge about Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) against him. In their first meeting, knowledge of Voiello’s impure thoughts about the ancient art in the Pope’s office is used to throw the Cardinal off balance and give Pius XIII the upper hand.

This obsession with control and knowledge folds nicely into Pius XIII’s desire for power. Pius XIII wants the Church to return to its conservatism. Much like the pile of babies he crawled out of in the first episode, Pius XIII wants the Church to bring its knees up to its chest and withdraw from the world. Not as a showing of weakness, but as a showing of strength. Pius XIII wants people to bring God to the forefront of their lives. He wants them to embrace the sacred and banish the profane. As evidenced in his eventual homily, “I want to be very clear with you. You have to be closer to God than to each other. I am closer to God than I am to you.” Pius XIII calls for things to be held completely sacred while not holding much of anything sacred. It’s a paradox. It’s unfathomable. It’s inconsistent. He’s trying to be sacred while being profane.

Second, the show mixes the sacred and profane through its depiction of Cardinals and nuns as normal men and women. Sorrentino is a visual poet. He chains imagery together in complex ways. Much like how Buddhist monks spend hours intricately using sand to create elaborate mandalas so too Sorrentino weaves tiny grains of imagery into a larger pattern. The use of complex and symbolic imagery can make The Young Pope feel inaccessible.

The second episode of the series starts with jarring imagery: Cardinal Voiello having sex with a woman. Followed by images of various Cardinals prepping for their day in contrast with Pius XIII prepping for his day in the first episode. During this set of shots, you see one Cardinal take puffs of oxygen and a cigarette in equal measures, another fiddle with his iPad, Cardinal Voiello eats some breakfast, and a third Cardinal receives a shot in his buttocks. Nuns play soccer (one of them is objectively fantastic at it too). The intricate drawing created by these separate vignettes: Cardinals and nuns are people. People are fallible.

The narrative further reinforces this fallibility through Cardinals behaving like politicians. There is much talk of Spencer choosing Pius XIII as an apprentice because he did not threaten his power. Additionally, there is talk during the first episode that Cardinal Angelo Voiello advocated for Leonard Bernardo to become Pius XIII because he felt he could “control” him. The Cardinals stand in a circle in the center of a garden like gossiping Senators. If you merely change the costumes and the setting, the scene would feel at home in a DC set drama like House of Cards or Scandal.

Third, as has been written before, The Young Pope has eschewed the obvious with respect to soundtrack. Opting instead to include, among others, Jefferson Airplane and LMFAO. (Yes, you read that right. Go ahead, read it again. I can wait.) This is a deliberate choice based on a decision to blend style with substance. Modern music gives the show a sense of pertinence as well as irreverence. The Young Pope plays with musical expectations because, above all, it wants you to consider: perhaps the Pope has heard that LMFAO song too. Moreover, he may have even liked it.

It’s an irreverent thought because it doesn’t separate the profane and sacred. In The Young Pope irreverence strikes at every cinematic angle: imagery, scoring, dialogue, and narrative beats. The images of a Pope in sunglasses or smoking, Cardinals having sex, and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) having a dance party and the modern music and its ramifications creates a sensory blending of the profane and the sacred. The Pope is many things: a religious leader, a diplomatic leader, and an actual head of state. He is the personification of the sacred, to depict him as anything less feels irreverent.

Irreverence has many places in modern life. People decry reality TV for being “junk” and praise a certain film for being “high art.” We separate cultural goods amongst themselves just as we segregate the sacred from the profane. Wisecrack, a Youtube channel which applies philosophy to TV, film, and popular figures, discussed religion in South Park as sending much the same message that The Young Pope does. South Park too breaks down the separation between the sacred and the profane. The show’s post-sex abuse scandal episode is a prime example, as Wisecrack aptly points out. The central message of the episode is that when we treat the sacred too sacred we put ourselves and others at risk. South Park’s justification for irreverence: without irreverence how can we investigate the religious critically? The ultimate reframe is that to when you hold something so apart you fail to investigate it and when you fail to investigate it horrible things happen. The results of this have been examined in documentaries such as Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), narrative films based on real events like Philomena (2013) and Spotlight (2015) and fictional films that center around religious extremism like Four Lions (2010).

The vice of not interrogating the sacred is that you settle for less from your institutions, both secular and non-secular alike. As Pope Pius XII states, “It is death to settle for things in life.”

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Writer and law student.