CNN’s “The Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History” airs Sunday and is meant to explore the power and office of the papacy through a look at its historical and theological moorings. What could have been a rich and intellectually rigorous exploration of the office of the papacy turns out to be a somewhat superficial look at historical events with a generous focus on the church’s failings. It also contains some commentary that condescendingly implies that the Catholic Church still needs to evolve on certain issues.
Although it provides a good summary of historical events, this series is not advisable for those with a desire to learn about the power of the pope from an objective perspective. Some red flags that stood out in screening the first two episodes were the sheer number of commentators in the documentary who are in open dissent with the teachings of the church and yet are attempting to explain them.
The series is narrated by Liam Neeson, a former Catholic. Neeson upset many Catholics in 2015 when he appeared to call the Church’s influence “a cruel ghost of the last century” in an advertisement that called for legalizing abortion in Ireland. In an interview about the series, he pushes for women priests and wishes the Church would canonize Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is already recognized as a saint by the Church.
The show features the commentary of Anthea Butler, an associate professor of Religion and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Butler, who actively advocates for abortion, is a controversial figure in her own right, making headlines for calling Ben Carson a racial slur in 2015.
The series also features Elaine Pagels, a Professor of Religion at Princeton, who has agitated for change within the church, once telling Newsweek she wants women priests. They characterize her as “fuming” over the issue.
Another commentator. Diarmaid McCullough, an acclaimed Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, has openly described himself in the past as “contemptuous of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.”
While the show does include some more balanced voices, such as Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), chairman of the Congressional Catholic Staff Association, they are offered little screen time in the first two episodes.
This array of commentators seems odd for what the unsuspecting viewer is expecting to be a balanced historical and theological account of the power of the papacy. Why not ask a Catholic about the pope? Or at least balance out those that are in open dissent with the Catholic Church with an equal number of those who are not?
In the first two episodes, the series fixates on the Church’s missteps while often skipping historical moments that show its positive contributions to the world. The hyper-dramatic music and word choice are a bit jarring as well.
The first episode begins naturally with an account of the apostle Peter, the first pope, and then traces the history of the office through the history of the early church to the East’s schism with the West. It then covers the rise of Charlemagne and settles on Pope Urban II and the crusades where it predictably focuses on the crimes of the crusaders while emphasizing the heroism of Muslims.
The series praises the heroism and mercy of Muslim leader Saladin in 1187 A.D. who refused to destroy the Holy Sepulchre after taking Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
"As a symbol of a new partnership between Christiainity and Islam, Saladin entrusts the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to a Muslim family," Neeson says.
The series fails to mention that "historians differ on the roots of the arrangement," as Reuters reported in 2017, and Newsbusters points out.
"Some researchers say Saladin most likely bestowed the guardianship upon the two families in order to assert Muslim dominance over Christianity in the city," according to Reuters. "It also had financial implications, with a tax from visitors collected at the door."
The second episode covers the corruption of the Renaissance popes and the selling of indulgences. It paints Martin Luther as a brave reformer who gives you “the emergence of much more individualized or personal faith.”
And who will save the Church following Luther? The Jesuits of course. The series portrays Saint Ignatius of Loyola, quite rightly, as leading a counter reformation within the Church following Luther.
However, by the end of the episode the commentators are gleefully comparing the counter reformation to Pope Francis, a Jesuit, taking the helm of the church today. In the process, they insultingly characterize today’s church as badly in need of reform and one of them dismisses the Church’s centuries of steadfast teaching on certain issues as coming from a time where the Church has said “science is bad and it’s all terrible.”
Liam Neeson describes the Jesuit order as “setting the stage for the first Jesuit pope and perhaps the greatest reformer of the modern era, Pope Francis.” The episode does not go on to justify the labeling of Pope Francis as the “perhaps the greatest reformer of the modern era.” It does not point to even one doctrinal reform made by Pope Francis within the Church.
“The selection of a Jesuit pope signifies a real shift in the 2000-year-old office,” Neeson narrates.
St. Ignatius discouraged the Jesuits from seeking higher office within the church although, obviously, there were exceptions to this and there are Jesuit bishops and now a Jesuit pope.
Diarmaid McCullough argues that Pope Francis’s selection “almost suggests the society felt that Jesuits to the rescue, the church was in trouble and so they’d send one of their own in.” An odd characterization that suggests ignorance of the role of the papal conclave by the college of Cardinals that selects a pope. No, the Jesuits did not literally just select and anoint one of their brethren as pope.
“The capacity of the Catholic Church to accept change has been central to its ability to remain relevant,” the series goes on to emphasize.
“While there might have been a time where, you know, science is bad and it’s all terrible, Pope Francis has been able to speak about things like homosexuality, the environment in ways in which other popes have not,” Anthea Butler concludes. “We’re now in a time where someone like Pope Francis is saying, ‘climate change is real, we need to take care of the earth.’ So I think that’s a tremendous way to sort of look at the papacy to see how it has to develop over time not just about the faith but about the world in which it’s dealing with.”
One would hope that the other episodes in this series give a more balanced perspective on the Church and the role of the papacy, but the first two episodes give no indication that that will be the case.