We have watched several episodes of Paolo Sorrentino’s series, The Young Pope, which Matthew Schmitz has reviewed at First Things. Ultimately, we find The Young Pope to be neither as good nor as bad as claimed, and it unfortunately suffers from the all-too-typical HBO treatment. (Too much sex, if we may say so without scandalizing you, dear reader.) But many young Catholics are very enthusiastic about it. Schmitz rightly connects the reaction of many of the show’s viewers to a “sense of dislocation and disinheritance” among young people. He asserts,
Among the young people I know, there is a vague, floating sense of dislocation and disinheritance. They have been schooled in rebellion but have nothing to rebel against. This is the cause, I think, of the enthusiasm many young people show for ritual, ceremony, and all things traditional. Having been raised in a culture of unending pseudo-spontaneity, they have had time to count its costs. They prefer more rigid forms.
Of course, Christ is not another Confucius seeking the restoration of earthly order. He disrupts our easy lives by asking us to order them toward him. Sometimes this will mean pitting father against son, but after years of mistrust between Catholics old and young, I think we need a new Elijah, a man who will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.
(Emphasis supplied.) This is correct. In this regard, one may draw a line between the enthusiasm for The Young Pope—and traditionalism more generally—among young Catholics and a broader rejection of Boomer liberalism and hedonism among young people.
From what we have seen, The Young Pope is a show that defies easy characterization. “Cardinal Voiello,” the scheming secretary of state, is not a one-dimensional villain. Indeed, he’s quite human. Likewise, “Pius XIII” is not a plaster saint; he’s irascible, demanding, and sardonic. Among other things. And the themes of the show, as far as we can tell, extend well beyond the questions of traditionalism and liberalism that Schmitz discussed. (Candidly, we stopped watching the show for a variety of reasons, most of them related to the unnecessary sexual content.) But, in our estimation, the characters in The Young Pope are all haunted, to a various extent. Sorrentino does not create a sun-drenched world, free from concerns, into which the fanatical “Pius XIII” is thrown like a sudden thunderstorm.
And it is the soft, lazy libertarianism of the Boomers that haunts the show more than anything else, both in the specific case of “Pius XIII” and in the Church more broadly. (We will not expand further on that point, lest we spoil some plot points for you.) In a sense, the show is an extended fantasy about what happens when someone rejects liberalism as a conscious reaction to the post-1968 world. Schmitz observes,
The Young Pope hits on what life has been like for the children of the baby boomers. They are a generation of orphans, and not just because so many of their parents divorced and remarried. The baby boomers defined themselves by revolution, and even after that revolution failed, they refused to take on the stern trappings of authority. Rather than forbid and command, they sought to be understanding and therapeutic. They refused to take on the hard roles of father and mother, and so they made their children into orphans.
(Emphasis supplied.) Perhaps Schmitz overstates it when he says that this has rendered a generation or more “orphans,” but the basic idea is sound. Parents who prefer to be therapists and confidants more than parents have an effect on their children, for good or for ill.
But it is more than a mere abdication of authority, especially within the Church. Certainly St. John Paul and Benedict XVI projected authority—and were, we observe, wildly popular among young Catholics. No. It is a sense, we think, that something of great value has been hidden. This extends beyond liturgy and ceremony to doctrine. We could point to specific doctrines, but to do so would understate the problem. It is the idea of doctrine itself—and the implicit requirement that one conform one’s belief and conduct to that doctrine—that has been hidden in many places and replaced with a soft, condescending “do your best” attitude. It is, as Schmitz says, an understanding, therapeutic mentality—and it is ultimately infantilizing. And this is, we think, part of the attraction of a “Pius XIII” figure: when he tells us, in effect, that our best is not good enough in a matter as important as our eternal salvation, whatever else he may be doing, he is not infantilizing us.
Would that his example were more widely followed. We note that the upcoming Synod of Bishops has taken as its theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” However, in what we will call “The Young Pope Moment,” the Synod bureaucracy shows little understanding of the situation or, indeed, of the young people they’re supposed to be talking about. This strikes us as strange, since the Synod secretariat appears to grasp, if a little dimly, the problem. The preparatory document observes,
Young people do not see themselves as a disadvantaged class or a social group to be protected or, consequently, as passive recipients of pastoral programmes or policies. Many wish to be an active part in the process of change taking place at this present time, as confirmed by the experiences of involvement and innovation at the grass-root level, which see young people as major, leading characters together with other people.
Young people, on the one hand, show a willingness and readiness to participate and commit themselves to concrete activities in which the personal contribution of each might be an occasion for recognizing one’s identity. On the other hand, they show an intolerance in places where they feel, rightly or wrongly, that they lack opportunities to participate or receive encouragement. This can lead to resignation or fatigue in their will to desire, to dream and to plan, as seen in the diffusion of the phenomenon of NEET (“not in education, employment or training”, namely, young people are not engaged in an activity of study or work or vocational training). The discrepancy between young people who are passive and discouraged and those enterprising and energetic comes from the concrete opportunities offered to each one in society and the family in which one develops, in addition to the experiences of a sense of meaning, relationships and values which are formed even before the onset of youth. Besides passivity, a lack of confidence in themselves and their abilities can manifest itself in an excessive concern for their self-image and in a submissive conformity to passing fads.
(Emphasis supplied.) But the remainder of the document reverts to the now-standard language of discernment and accompaniment.
In fact, at no point does the document suggest that the answer to “a willingness and readiness to participate” is a clear proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, much less the uncompromising demands of a “Pius XIII” figure. Indeed, the document trades in more “understanding and therapeutic” language:
Pastoral vocational care, in this sense, means to accept the invitation of Pope Francis: “going out”, primarily, by abandoning the rigid attitudes which make the proclamation of the joy of the Gospel less credible; “going out”, leaving behind a framework which makes people feel hemmed-in; and “going out”, by giving up a way of acting as Church which at times is out-dated. “Going out” is also a sign of inner freedom from routine activities and concerns, so that young people can be leading characters in their own lives. The young will find the Church more attractive, when they see that their unique contribution is welcomed by the Christian community.
(Emphasis supplied) It goes on to observe:
As opposed to situations in the past, the Church needs to get accustomed to the fact that the ways of approaching the faith are less standardized, and therefore she must become more attentive to the individuality of each person. Together with those who continue to follow the traditional stages of Christian initiation, many come to encounter the Lord and the community of believers in other ways and later in life, for example, coming from a commitment to justice, or from contacts outside the Church with someone who is a credible witness. The challenge for communities is to receive everyone, following the example of Jesus who could speak with Jews and Samaritans and with pagans in Greek culture and Roman occupiers, seizing upon the deep desires of each one of them.
(Emphasis supplied.) Such language, more at home in 1967 than 2017, would be funny—if only its consequences were not so well known in the Church. We have had fifty years of felt banners, uninspiring liturgies, and horrible music on the backs of “leaving behind a framework which makes people feel hemmed-in” and being “more attentive to the individuality of each person.” And to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the modern history of the Church, such language portends more of the same. And all of these things add up to the infantilization we discussed above.
In other words, the Church, confronted with a generation of young people who are fed up with the standard liberal approaches to religion (gotta be hip! gotta be up to date!) sure sounds like it is getting ready to offer more of the same liberalism. Perhaps the Synod process will result in clarifications, not least from pastors with actual pastoral experience, to say nothing of experience with young people. But we are not sanguine about the possibility. We suspect that the Synod secretariat will produce a relatio that looks like the preparatory document and a post-synodal exhortation that looks like the relatio. This is certainly what happened at the last Synod, as you may recall. This seems to us like a profound miscalculation at a time when young people generally, but particularly young Catholics, are sick and tired of infantilizing liberal solutions.
We do not expect the Church to take note of a program like The Young Pope, to say nothing of the reaction to the program. But the dissatisfaction with tired liberal modes of expression and engagement can be found without the help of “Pius XIII.” One need not tune in to HBO or check Twitter after the show to discover that young people want a Church unashamed to claim tradition. One needs only go to tonsures and ordinations for the traditional orders. Or to look at the young people (and the large, young families) in the pews at Extraordinary Form Masses. Or to see that the response of young Catholics to certain innovations in recent years has been far less than enthusiastic. If the Church offers more of the same, 1960s-vintage answers to the questions of these young Catholics, we suspect that the Church will be forced to revisit all of these questions sooner rather than later. As the preparatory document says, young people “show an intolerance in places where they feel, rightly or wrongly, that they lack opportunities to participate or receive encouragement. This can lead to resignation or fatigue in their will to desire, to dream and to plan.”
Young Catholics, it seems to us, are making known their desire to participate.