Pope Francis and Pop Culture

Hollywood may not care much for Christianity or for actual Christians, but it loves the Roman Catholic Church – and it's not an affair that began with the election of Pope Francis in March 2013.

Reverent and/or accurate films about the Church are rare these days, but whether it's demonic possession (The Exorcist, The Rite); a haunting (The Conjuring); Satan and his minions threatening to sweep over the Earth (The Omen, et al.); historically questionable costume dramas (The Tudors, The Borgias, DaVinci's Demons); or just lurid, misogynistic horror (FX's American Horror Story: Asylum), filmmakers turn again and again to Catholic figures and imagery, which probably says a lot more about their own personal foibles and obsessions than it does about the Church.

Of course, even though only four percent of American priests over a 52-year period starting in 1950 were ever even accused of improper conduct with a minor, the Catholic priest who molests little boys (even though most of the actual victims were post-pubescent teens) has become a favorite villain of screenwriters. Look no further than Showtime's current drama Ray Donovan, which has a prominent priest-abuse storyline.

Obviously, one perverted priest is too many – and, because of their professed beliefs and position, priests should be held to a very high standard of moral behavior – but 4.5 million students currently in K-12 have been the victim of some kind of sexual abuse by an educator, with administrators engaging in a lot of the same reprehensible dismissals, denials, and transfers we have seen among some Catholic bishops. This isn't even getting into abuse by other religious figures, sports coaches, scouting leaders, etc.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Hollywood to turn to the public-school teacher into its next sex-abuse bête noire – which is right and proper, as the actions of a sick few shouldn't be used to smear the innocent many; a bit of common sense and basic courtesy that seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to priests.

(By the way, it looks like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI dropped the ecclesiastical hammer himself in 2011-2012 on about 400 priests credibly accused of abuse.)

Let's not forget that the liberal Cardinal Roger Mahony, formerly head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, was a big favorite with Hollywood types and the media – until he wasn't.

Also, thanks to The DaVinci Code author Dan Brown and his lightly sourced potboilers, the modern Vatican (which has its share of peccadilloes without having to make up more) is also referenced as a example of financial corruption, dark secrets, and moral decay.

So, it would seem that it's permanent open season on Catholicism in entertainment. Or, is it?

Since the election of Pope Francis, the media around the world have made the formerly obscure Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina into a superstar, clamoring for quotable (and misquotable) soundbites and publishing moving photos of him with the handicapped and children and hanging on his every word (which, ironically, may have uncovered some, er, left-leaning massaging of papal messages from the Vatican's English translators).

He even became Time magazine's Person of the Year, putting him in the rather mixed company of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II, Anwar Sadat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama – so it's more of a recognition of influence than an honor.

The Francis papacy has been hailed as a PR breakthrough for a two-millennia-old Church whose image has been severely dinged in recent decades. Everyone from atheists to The Advocate praises the pope – for reasons that are probably sometimes quite sincere, sometimes not, and occasionally pure fantasy – so for the first time in a very long time, it's not cool to publicly bash the Catholic Church.

(Except for the Obama Administration and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who are still at war with orthodox American Christians in general, and with the Little Sisters of the Poor in particular, over forcing the faithful to violate deeply held beliefs to adhere to Obamacare mandates. Oh, to be a fly on the wall if the proposed Obama/Francis meeting takes place.)

This week, the "Francis effect" hit scripted television. In 2012, shortly after canceling the racy Renaissance papal drama The Borgias, Showtime announced it was producing a pilot called The Vatican. Written by Paul Attanasio (HouseHomicide: Life on the StreetDonnie BrascoQuiz Show) and directed by Ridley Scott, it focused on power plays and intrigue at the contemporary Holy See, with Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) playing an American cardinal.

Although the trouble-plagued pilot was reportedly declared dead last December, the issue came up again this week at the biannual Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, CA, when Showtime president David Nevins got up in front of the assembled TV reporters and answered questions on the state of the network. One of the things he discussed was The Vatican.

In the wake of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (who was still pope and expected to remain so for a while when the show was proposed) and the election of Pope Francis, The Vatican, he said, likely no longer reflected either the Church or the world's attitude toward it.

As quoted in the Hollywood Reporter, Nevins said, "One of the fundamental issues of The Vatican is the world changed on us." He also observed that the project was "conceived in a world I think now would feel very dated. So, I'm glad we had not made 13 episodes of that."

While Catholics might continue to have to content themselves with positive portrayals on cable/satellite net EWTN, broadband nets like CatholicTV.com, or Web originals like the priest sitcom Ordinary, there may yet come a day when a faithful lay Catholic or priest is the hero of a TV show or a movie (one not dealing with possession, haunting, or Satan).

However, outspoken Catholic Mark Wahlberg is developing a new version of Michael Landon's angelic drama Highway to Heaven, so you never know.


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