Monday, March 12, 2018

Kennedys and Popes

Such is our persistent fascination with the Kennedy family that, 50 years after Robert Kennedy's assassination, CNN has produced yet another series on the famous family. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that once again we have another scandalously rich, overly privileged and entitled, pseudo-royal family in the White House. Where John Kennedy had Bobby, Donald Trump now has Jared and Ivanka!

Most of those in that famous November 9, 1960, AP Photo (above) of the family on the morning after JFK's election are gone, but the fascination remains. While it is hard to imagine what new could possibly be revealed about this most famous of American families, this new series does a good job of retelling this old, familiar, but forever evocative story. Narrated by actor Martin Sheen, it includes commentary from some younger Kennedys as well as from various historians and family biographers.

Sunday’s first episode - appropriately titled "The Power of Wealth" - focused on President Kennedy’s (in)famous father, Joseph Kennedy, who apparently once wanted to be president himself – an unlikely ambition, which his disastrous performance as American. Ambassador in London before and during the first part of World War II put a well-deserved end to. The episode highlights the whole tragic pathology that followed from his feeling of not being appropriately appreciated as an Irish Catholic in Protestant America  and his lifelong need to compensate, which eventually took the form of his ambitions for his sons. In the process, we cover the familiar ground of the family's wartime tragedies - Joe's tragic decision to "cure" his daughter Rosemary with a surgery that backfired so terribly that it ruined her life, Jack's near-loss in the Pacific (cleverly repackaged and publicized to make  him a war hero), Joe Jr.'s death as a casualty of war, and Kathleen's marriage outside the faith and her later tragic death in a plane crash. The episode ends with only Jack left of the older children - a sickly war hero newly elected to Congress. (Regrettably, while focusing on the role of the Kennedy money in Jack's political ascent, the program ignores the importance of Rose's family political connections.)

Given the woefully inadequate state of many contemporaries' historical awareness, a well done series such as this at least has the advantage of situating its story in the actual historical context and thus hopefully expanding its audience's historical knowledge.

That same can less confidently be claimed about the other historical series that CNN premiered last night, Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History. The first episode of The Kennedys covered actually only about a decade of recent, 20th-century history. In the same amount of broadcast time, the first episode of Pope  tries to cover almost 12 centuries! So it is inevitably somewhat superficial. Still, someone with little or no knowledge of the subject would learn something from this rushed and inevitably simplified survey of the first half of the Church's history.

That said, the series starts well.  The first episode, "The Rise of the Pope," starts, appropriately enough, with Saint Peter himself, emphasizing the Pope's position as successor of Saint Peter. Without serious challenge, the program rightly recognizes the papacy as the link to and the inheritor of the apostolic generation - and also fully accepts the link between Peter and Rome. It highlights the significance of Peter's martyrdom and the early Church's hierarchical organization.

Just as the Church's fortunes changed after Constantine, so does the pace of the presentation - rushing from Nicaea and the division of the empire into eastern and western halves through the familiar account of western empire's decline and the Pope's emergence as the only source of stable, civil governance in Rome. (There is some silly commentary about how neither Constantine nor the popes believed in separation of church and state - as if that uniquely contemporary concept would have even been comprehensible to people in other times!) Meanwhile, the papacy's struggle to survive in a context of almost constant conflict quickly causes it to ally with a new Constantine, Charlemagne. Then it is the threat of Islam that endangers the Church, causing the Crusades. The program presents the background of the Crusades correctly as a consequence of Islamic conquest of Christian lands, although it soon starts to get bogged down in familiar, "politically correct" lamentation over the violence of the Crusaders and a perhaps overly enthusiastic embrace of Saladin.

Even so, the story is largely fairly told, but so much is inevitably omitted. Perhaps the next episode will backtrack, but there is nothing about what actually became of Catholic Europe in those centuries - nothing, for example, about what was probably the most significantly influential institution (both religiously and culturally) in medieval Catholic Europe, namely monasticism. 

All in all, however, for all its superficiality, it is not a bad rendition of the Church's story! Whether the Pope is really best described as "The Most Powerful Man in History" may be arguable, but it is certainly an interesting story that is being presented - more interesting even than that of the Kennedys! 

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