We can romanticize or spiritualize the papacy as much as we want, but we should also remember it’s a monarchy. I was reminded of this fact while watching the latest season of Netflix’s The Crown. With its dramatization of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the series inspires reams of pop-culture commentary and critique. But it also presents the British monarchy itself as a subject for further study and comparative analysis, and so offers a way to think about the papal monarchy as well. Yes, it’s only streaming-TV. But fictional treatments can sometimes help us view the “historical” record of things—even the truths, the half-truths, and the myths surrounding the Vatican.
The obvious recent precedent is The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino’s 2016 series (which he followed up with The New Pope in 2020). Though plainly fictional, The Young Pope was clearly inspired by the transition from Benedict XVI to Francis in 2013, and how it played out not just in the Vatican but throughout the Church. But The Crown too has something to say to Catholics about monarchical epochs, as there are parallels between the Vatican of the last century and the reign of Elizabeth II beginning in 1952. Both the papal and British monarchies represent empires that have been shrinking, in different ways, over the last one hundred years. The fourth season episode of The Crown (titled “48:1”) opens with then-Princess Elizabeth’s famous twenty-first birthday speech from Cape Town. The voice of the future queen is accompanied by images of the many different places that still constituted the British empire in 1947, with subjects around the world listening raptly—a benign and paternalistic embodiment of service to the empire. At the time, imperialism and Christian missions (Catholicism’s included) were still very much a joint enterprise. In 1940, for example, the concordat between the Catholic Church and Portugal included a “missionary agreement.” In 1953, the Church reached an agreement with Brussels regarding the Belgian Congo, winning tax exemptions in the colony in return for allowing Belgian government involvement in the establishment of dioceses and the appointment of bishops. Both sides agreed that their agreement should remain secret. Catholicism’s exit from colonialism did not happen overnight; it has been an ongoing process since Vatican II.
The parallel shrinking of the British empire as seen in The Crown is a history of crises, with few moments of tranquility, always unfolding against a grand backdrop of palaces and country estates, not in Parliament or board rooms. It can remind viewers of the intrigues in the Vatican and the Roman Curia, which for centuries were run as a political and financial enterprise marked by ruthless competition between different families and dynasties. But in both cases we can see the loneliness of those at the top, and the frustration over the limits on what they can say and do. A constitutional monarch like the queen of England is “a sovereign who reigns but does not rule.” The pope is not a constitutional monarch, and in theory his power is absolute (especially as a sovereign of the Vatican City State, where there is no constitution to limit his power). But in fact the power of a pontiff is even more limited than a constitutional monarch’s, pace the doctrines of Vatican I on papal primacy and infallibility one hundred and fifty years ago.