Fact-Checking 'The Young Pope': How Accurate is the HBO Series?

The Young Pope - Still - H - 2016
Fremantlemedia International

Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2016, Paolo Sorrentino’s new show The Young Pope starring Jude Law has been causing quite a stir. From breaking ratings records in Italy to inspiring a global meme of papal song lyrics, the critically lauded show, now airing on HBO, had more pre-launch buzz than most established franchises. While some conservative outlets were shocked and offended with the series' portrayal of a young American pope, most Church reviews have been very favorable.

Indeed throughout the first season of the show, the production worked with consultants from the Catholic Church. But just how probable is the plot of the show?

Law’s character of Lenny Belardo is mysteriously elected to power, becoming Pope Pius XIII overnight. He doubts his faith, wondering how there can be a God if his parents abandoned him as a child, desperately trying to connect to them and his faith again. He fires the Vatican photographer, and all but makes the Vatican media obsolete. And as a result of his unpopularity and failure to market his image, he risks bankrupting the Vatican coffers.

The Hollywood Reporter checked in with Vatican expert Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, and author of the books John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy and Pope Francis: Tradition in Transition. Read on to find out just what Faggioli thinks the series got right and wrong about the inner workings of the Vatican.

What's your favorite moment in the series?

Probably when the pope says that from now on the pope will have to be invisible: Nobody can photograph him and see him. His image will have to be mysterious. This is unlikely if not impossible in the Church of today, but it says a lot about the filmmaker, Paolo Sorrentino’s profound understanding of how the papacy works in the world of global news today.

The Vatican historically has been a very secretive organization. Do you think this show pulls back the curtains?

In a sense, yes, this show pulls back the curtains because if it is true that it portrays a fictional and very unlikely pope (so young, so American), at the same time it shows in plain sight a few uncomfortable facts about Vatican politics (the ruthless career system, the volatility of clerical alliances). To the eye of the expert, it is clear that the show also is based on a deep knowledge of how the Vatican really worked in this last century and still works politically and institutionally.

How accurate is the political and financial corruption revealed in the show? 

There is a long history of scandals that historians know well. The show has no intention to be accurate in the sense of “tell it how it is,” but the intention is to tell that the very human dimension of the papacy coexists with the spiritual dimension. Spiritual life and financial corruption are not incompatible – unfortunately – in the Catholic Church, as in all religions. In the Vatican they have always coexisted. What is new is the media pressure on revealing them and dealing with them. Secular news media have been more effective than very important thinkers and theologians preaching against clerical corruption since the Middle Ages.

How accurate is the role of "progressives" vs. "conservatives" portrayed in the Vatican? 

It is accurate in the sense that different “parties” exist in the Church, and they become very important in the key moments in the life of the Church, the conclave for the election of the pope especially. But it is far more complicated than a two-party system. Within each culture — progressive and conservative — there are sub-cultures that can stir the mix in unpredictable ways: there is the generational factor (old and young), the national and ethnic factor (the geopolitics of the Vatican), personal relationships, short-term alliances and deep-seated incompatibilities.

How influential is the media in the Vatican vs. how it's presented in the show? 

It is very influential, much more than in the past. You can see that from the fact that one of the few institutional reforms in the Vatican of Francis is a reorganization of the media system of the Vatican, in a sense also in order to defend the Vatican from the aggressiveness and professionalization of journalists covering the Vatican. Especially the world of Catholic journalism on social media is a totally new actor representing a new actor in the politics of the Vatican. Not to mention bishops and cardinals arguing on Twitter and sometimes criticizing the pope on Twitter — something completely unthinkable until a few years ago.

What does the show most get wrong about the Vatican? 

A few things. For example, the lifestyle of the pope. Now, the real life of the pope is a mix of a priest and a CEO with a very hectic schedule, while the pope of the show seems to have a lot of free time, time for leisurely walks in the Vatican gardens. But the show gets wrong a few things because this show does not want to be always "realistic." The show wants to tell a few truths about the Vatican as a symbol of power, and I think it does a very good job. 

We see a lot about the relationships of the pope and how close people are allowed to get to him. How accurate is this, in a typical day of Pope Francis?

It is quite accurate (even if I do not believe there is a secret button to call the nun when the pope is tired of talking to somebody). The pope has an official schedule that is handled by an institution in the Vatican presided by a bishop, but he has also a small, informal circle of advisers and friends that have easy access to him. And of course, there are a few people who have access to the people who have access to the pope. Every pope has his own rules and ways for access, but there is always the official path and the unofficial way.

How accurate are the economics of the Vatican presented in the show?

Well, some popes got very close to bankrupting the Vatican — or at least they let some people do it until emergency measures were taken. But it was not because of change in the marketing of the pope’s image or merchandising but because of reckless financial investments, like during the pontificate of John Paul II. Pope Francis initially wanted to get rid of the Vatican bank, but then he realized that it was impossible because the Vatican cannot work today without a financial institution, so he decided to clean it up and change the way it works. It is a very important part of the Vatican that only recently has been given to real experts to manage.

When the series premiered there was some conservative backlash over showing a radical (smoking, God-questioning) pope. Could this be comparable to the backlash against Pope Francis? 

It is very realistic. There has been a real backlash against Pope Francis after his election, when the cardinals realized that they elected a guy who was different from what they expected. The backlash against a pope is never about his smoking habits, but always about his policies, his priorities, his personnel choices, and of course about his religious views. In the show there are a few scenes that I believe happened or were very similar to what happened in the Vatican since the March 13, 2013, election of Pope Francis.

What kind of opposition is Pope Francis facing today and how does he manage this? 

There are different kinds of opposition: There is an institutional opposition trying to defend the status quo of the Vatican and of the power of the Church; there is theological opposition against any change in the practice and teaching of the church about moral issues and about other religions (Islam especially); and there is a political opposition against the social and political message of the pope about social inclusion, capitalism, refugees and immigrants and the environment. Francis navigates all this very well: He learned a lot about politics as a superior of the Jesuits in Argentina during the dictatorship and the “dirty war.” He is a very skilled politician, both for the internal politics of the Church and dealing with politicians and world leaders.

Given the ebb and flow of politics, what kind of pope do you think the Vatican will elect after Pope Francis? 

Somebody different from Francis for sure, but not an American young pope. The Church is in a way an “empire” parallel to the American empire of the USA. But the USA is the global superpower. Rome and Washington need to keep some distance one from the other in many different ways. This is one of the reasons that make the election of an American pope unlikely.