Netflix has just released a trailer for the original film The Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis. I plan to watch despite the predictable sermons on the Church’s need to embrace modernity, as majestic scenes from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel are used as an ironic backdrop. But Hopkins is a master, so I am curious about his portrayal of Benedict XVI.
The Two Popes promises to be the latest example of how the entertainment industry routinely bets on the trappings of traditional Catholicism to sell movie tickets and bolster television ratings. This speaks volumes about the power of traditional aesthetics and the inadequacy of modern church aesthetics.
The 2018 Met Gala, with the theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” was another prime example of this. While it was puzzling to hear a defense of Jared Leto imitating a priest in beautiful vestments on the red carpet from some of the very people who decry clericalism whenever real priests wear traditional vestments, it was clear that pre-conciliar aesthetics can draw people to museums and sell fashion magazines, and that even stylish celebrities might want to “engage” with it.
The Catholic Church, through the lens of Hollywood anyway, is still in 1566. Nuns wear habits, altars are bedecked in gold, and the air is perfumed by incense and chant. Simply put, traditional Catholicism provides a more attractive setting than modern Catholic churches, starkly decorated and doused in taupe (and everyone knows it).
HBO has no interest in our modern church aesthetics either. Its 2016 series The Young Pope starred Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII, a staunch traditionalist whose knowing wink in the opening credits was the face that launched a thousand traditionalist memes. Donning a papal tiara, fanned with ostrich flabella, and bestriding the sedia gestatoria, Law’s character felt strangely like an inside joke between secular media and young traditionalists, who shared a whispered giggle about the pending decline of Baby Boomer hegemony.
Liberals and traditionalists essentially agreed that The Young Pope was a visual delight, but also that it was just plain weird. It felt as if somebody whipped up a program about papal intrigue, solely as a vehicle to display the stunning iconography of traditional Catholicism. I expect the next installment, The New Pope, which adds John Malkovich and will include a cameo by Marilyn Manson, will involve another bizarre storyline, randomly peppered with obscurant sequences, and abundantly punctuated by sacred eye-candy.
In good conscience, I cannot recommend anyone sit down with their families and watch these programs. But we should take note that what seems like Hollywood mockery often betrays an odd, inverted reverence for traditional aesthetics, and a subtle bow to the compelling beauty of Catholicism.
Regardless of whether you are liturgically liberal or traditional, secular fascination with traditionalism raises important questions. Why is it that our sacred music belongs in concert halls, but not at Sunday Mass? And why should our patrimony of sacred objects be admired in museums, film, and television, but neither worn by our priests nor brought forth to adorn our altars?
Why are traditional aesthetics appreciated more by secular media than in our own churches? Truthfully, when I walk into a modern church, punished by folk music, battered by felt banners, crestfallen at the sight of a prosaic altar table buried under potted plants that might have been swiped from my dentist’s waiting room, it is hard to blame Hollywood for trivializing Catholicism. We seem to be doing a bang-up job on our own.
Despite how Catholicism is portrayed, most practicing Catholics are too young to remember any sacred music that predates John Michael Talbot. Then again, there was that album, Chant, from the mid-1990s, which sold millions and launched plainsong to the top of the charts. A few years later I was a teenager going through a confirmation program. On a weekend retreat, the youth ministry band scourged us with “Ice, Ice, Baby,” replacing “ice” with “Christ.” This was well after Vanilla Ice had become a cultural punchline, a fact somehow lost on the “youth ministers.” But I suppose the fact that nobody listens to folk hymns anymore has likewise evaded a couple generations of parish music directors.
We look around at the emptying pews and blame the abuse scandals, clerical hypocrisy, or so-called doctrinal rigidity. Yet the Church has been plagued by scandalous, hypocritical, and deviant clerics since Judas. We have had doctrinal debates explode into religious wars. But Mass attendance, baptisms, weddings, vocations, and all other signs of regular practice have never collapsed as they have since the 1960s. Is it very surprising? Far more inexplicable than most of my cohort never again setting foot inside a Catholic church after hearing “Christ, Christ, Baby,” is my own decision to remain in a Church that insists on rejecting her own vibrant beauty and tradition.
While traditional aesthetics suggest the unity of truth and beauty, modern church aesthetics make it nearly impossible to spot the connection. How many from my generation were simply repelled by banality?
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!