Last night my wife, Laurel, and I watched the first episode of the HBO series, The Young Pope. It was weirdly realistic while also being strangely fantastical. The official trailer will give you a feel for the Young Pope, masterfully played by Jude Law.
Laurel, being a retired psychotherapist, didn't have any trouble diagnosing the newly elevated Pope Pius XIII: psychopath. The Young Pope is controlling, manipulative, hypocritical, and charismatic.
In other words, he is like lots of other religious leaders in both the West and East.
They prey on the misguided faith of their followers. They profit from being viewed as God, or at least Godly, despite being thoroughly worldly beneath their well-crafted persona presented to the outside world.
There are, of course, various degrees of cultish deception.
The Young Pope pushes the limit of what could be achieved by a duplicitous leader of the Catholic Church. But when I watched this clip from a future episode, I was reminded of how closely the Young Pope's speech to his cardinals echoes themes I heard from gurus who led an Indian organization I used to belong to, Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
"Fanaticism." "Total devotion." "Blind loyalty to the imperative." "Nothing outside obedience to Pius XIII."
Coming from the lips of Jude Law/the Young Pope, these words sound sinister. However, actually they are ideals promulgated by many, if not most, fundamentalist religions.
It is only because The Young Pope shows us the inner reality of Pius XIII which belies the Catholic dogma supporting papal divinity, that we viewers are able to recognize how dangerously fake he is.
Based on my lengthy personal experience in a guru-led form of spirituality, where the Perfect Living Master was considered to be God in human form by his millions of devotees, I can confidently say that while the The Young Pope may shock followers of a liberal form of religion, the themes in this HBO series will appear quite familiar to people knowledgeable about cults led by a leader who has almost complete control.
It's going to be interesting to see how the Young Pope's relationships with Vatican insiders turn out in further episodes. In Episode 1 we got glimpses of rebellion. This makes for good television, but it doesn't fit with how Indian gurus typically are treated by their inner circle.
Faith in the guru usually is so strong -- in large part because the guru is considered to control the eternal salvation, or lack thereof, of disciples/initiates -- even those closest to him who are able to see his flaws are extremely unwilling to view those human frailties for what they are.
Rather, expressions of anger, insults, vindictiveness, lack of compassion, and the like are explained away as being "lessons," "tests," "tough love," or other rationalizations.
For example, in the Radha Soami Satsang Beas literature there is an oft-told story of a guru who ordered his disciples to dig a large hole in a field, only to fill it with dirt again. Then the disciple was supposed to repeat the process: dig a hole; fill it back up. Eventually the guru saw that only one person was still digging, as all the others had quit this difficult, meaningless task.
In a cult, that person is viewed as possessing the greatest faith and is the most beloved of the guru. But in everyday life, that person would be properly seen as the most gullible and easily manipulated by a con artist.
Rather surprisingly, The Young Pope is very popular in Italy and hasn't been criticized by Pope Francis.
In general, I take this as a good open-minded sign. But it also is possible that those who belong to a fundamentalist religion consider that displays of cult-like behavior just couldn't pertain to them -- only to those other false religions.