As expected, the halfway point of the series marks a shift in the dynamics from inside the Vatican to outside the walls. Nine months after the Pope’s address to the College of Cardinals, as expected, many of the Church’s less-fanatical adherents have fallen away, and collections are way down. With no income from merchandising or Vatican tourism, that’s a big hit in the coffers, especially for a Pope who revels in gaudy finery and rejects the more modernist “Church of Poverty” angle espoused by Francis. I can hardly blame them for staying away in droves, but I was raised well on the progressive side of the Church.
First, though, one last scene in the immediate aftermath of the Pope’s address: one morning, a cardinal collapses face-first in his breakfast. “What did he die of?” Aguirre asks. “The same thing our Church is going to die of,” Caltanissetta muses in response, “old age.”
Skipping forward, the Church turns quietly inwards. Cardinal Voiello, as Camerlengo, updates Pius on their dire fiscal straits, and he worries that they might have to start selling their art holdings just to survive. But Pius assures him that the faithful will return, even if they’re not returning yet.
As the Cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel again, Gutierrez is with them; the Pope is elevating him to Cardinal before his journey to handle the Kurtwell case.
Dussolier’s memory flits back to pleasant memories of his time in Honduras. A threesome with a local woman and man.
Esther is in the delivery room, well into her labor. The Pope seems to have worked a miracle; maybe his second.
Don Tommaso is disappointed. Pius had told him he would be elevated to cardinal, but he wasn’t. In principle, he could have added a titular church for Tommaso, as popes have since John XXIII, but it wouldn’t surprise me if limiting the size of the College is yet another of his reactionary ideals. Still, Tommaso’s image of the Pope has taken a blow, and he knows most of the Vatican’s secrets.
Dussolier returns, belatedly, to San Pedro Sula to bit his former diocese goodbye. He leaves them with their new bishop, Msgr. Jorge Aguero, a severe-looking man who he calls a hero. Msgr. Aguero will fight back against the narcotraffickers, denying communion to the crime bosses and refusing to perform weddings for their daughters. All the things that Dussolier, in his fear, did not do. But perhaps that human frailty, meeting the people where they are rather than where he would ideally like them to be, is why they loved him. He does not seem completely on board with Pius’ plans.
A young man in the pews weeps at the departure.
Gutierrez, wearing his new red zucchetto, walks out of the Vatican, and is almost immediately creamed by a motorscooter. As he told the Pope before, he doesn’t even know how to cross a street.
Men in dark suits walk down a hospital hallway, scooting everyone into their rooms and closing the doors before Pius enters, bearing an enormous bouquet towards Esther’s room. He presents her with a gift for the baby: an atlas-sized Bible, once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Esther and Peter offer to let him hold their son, whom they have named after him. Gingerly, without experience, he lifts the child, enchanted by the smell of its skin. His Proustian reverie takes him back to the memory of his parents’ smell. He says, as usual, that the baby takes after his mother.
Fr. Valente interrupts, and in his surprise Pius drops the baby, thankfully only as far as the empty hospital bed. His shock and dismay are probably the first time we’ve seen him feeling out of complete control; he does not like the experience. Valente tells him that the Italian Prime Minister (Stefano Accorsi) is waiting for him in the Vatican, though the Pope would much rather stay with the new mother.
The Prime Minister’s assistant advises him that Pius is said to be more diabolical than saintly, which he seems to take as a sort of challenge. When they sit down together, the Prime Minister tries passive-aggression over the fact that it’s taken nine months for an audience; Pius fires back that he hadn’t thought the Prime Minister would still be in office this long. And then he passes along a list of “requests”: no on same-sex marriage, abortion, and the usual conservative social positions, as well as increased social, political, and financial consideration for the Church, including the possible expansion of the Vatican’s borders.
Naturally, the Prime Minister laughs and rejects the demands, comfortable in his ruling coalition’s share of the vote. Pius, in contrast, was selected by God, and who knows if He even exists? Further, the Church’s influence has withered over the last nine months, and with it the last significant obstacle to the center-left Partito Democratico’s progressive policy agenda. He has revolutionary aspirations of his own.
Just as naturally, the Pope has an answer ready, and it’s completely orthogonal to the normal political channels to which the Prime Minister is accustomed. This most mysterious Pope in centuries could decide to appear, as young and handsome as he is, and capture the attention of Italy’s Catholic majority. And then he could invoke the doctrine of Non Expedit, a holdover from the days before the Lateran Pacts had solidified the place of Vatican City within the modern state of Italy.
The Kingdom of Italy had unified the disparate principalities of the peninsula, including the Papal States under Pius IX. In protest, the Church urged Catholics to refuse participation in the political process, neither to stand for election, nor to vote in elections. The position was weakened slightly over the years — concessions to consequentialism allowed votes to block “subversive” candidates — but it did not disappear completely until the aftermath of World War I, when renewed Catholic participation allowed a normalization of relations between Pius XI and Benito Mussolini.
And if Pius XIII were to reinstate the dictum, especially after appearing in public for the first time, he could sap most of the Prime Minister’s share of the vote, supported as it is by the former left-wing of Giulio Andreotti’s Democrazia Cristiana.
Or maybe not. The Prime Minister certainly doesn’t think much of this idea, and in his press conference he immediately pushes not only his social agenda, but raises the possibility of eliminating the Vatican’s sweetheart 0.8% tax rate. Voiello asks Pius if he should start smoothing over diplomatic relations, but Pius is no more interested in that than he is in reconsidering his obscurantist theological positions. In fact, he’s considering removing the ability of priests to grant absolution to women who have had abortions, as a sort of covert excommunication. Or so he says.
Meanwhile, Dussolier is objecting to the proposed screening procedures for new priests, including background checks and attempts to test their vows of chastity. Pius pulls a guilt trip on him, invoking their childhood history. He returned to the orphanage that day, giving up on his dream of finding his parents, because his friend Andrew was all he had left in the world. Besides which, the cardinal must acknowledge the Pope’s authority.
Stressed by the conversation, Sister Mary takes to the basketball half-court, which reminds both Pius and Dussolier of an episode from the orphanage, possibly their first sexual stirrings at the sight of the young nun doffing her habit and taking the ball to the rim, shaking her hair in slow-motion to “Blues From an Airplane”.
The first victim of the new policy is Ángelo Sanchez (Marcos Franz), the young man who wept at Dussolier’s departure from Honduras. Something in his sexual past raised a flag, and he is prohibited from applying to any seminary for seven years.
A small order of Franciscans request the Pope’s resignation, or they threaten a schism. But Pius comes back hard, threatening to strip them of what meager possessions they have, most particularly their monasteries. It’s one thing to be personally poor under the protection of the Church, but literal homelessness is another matter, for which they might not quite be ready,
Cardinal Voiello is interrupted by a police captain’s visit. He thinks it must be a local restaurant owner at whom he lashed out in an argument over whether his beloved Maradona is using drugs, but no. Tonino Pettola has gone missing, and the captain suspects the Vatican’s involvement. Voiello calmly denies the silly suggestion that the Pope and some cardinals might have visited Pettola’s home late at night, which we saw them do at the end of the last episode. He shows more of a reaction when the captain suggests that the rumors about Maradona might be true. After all, he’s a fan of Napoli’s rival club, Inter.
Eating alone in a small restaurant, Cardinal Dussolier is approached by a woman introducing herself as a contessa. She alludes to her girlfriends’ willingness to keep him company, and invites him to an upcoming party, possibly as a test of his own vow of chastity. He politely demurs, only to be interrupted again by Ángelo, who swears that he’s not gay and throws the cardinal’s wine in his face before running out. Dussolier collects himself for a moment, then chases after the young man, catching up to him in the entryway of an apartment down the street and consoling him.
Back inside the Vatican, Dussolier tells Sister Mary he wants to go home. But what is home to orphans like them? She admits that her own parents left her when she was three, but Pius doesn’t know about that, and she intends that he never will. One doesn’t steal the stage from the Pope, and one doesn’t interfere with his sorrow.
Ángelo climbs out over the balustrade of St. Peter’s — maybe the same one Pius leaned against with Don Tommaso late at night in those early days of his papacy — and steps off the edge, falling with the blue flames tossed up by the kids in the square..