What the Pope and “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” have in Common

The Greek word for the devil, diábolos, finds its etymology with the word “διαβάλλειν” or “diabállein.” Roughly translated, this means “to cast apart, to scatter.” Bishop Robert Barron, one of the spiritual influences that led me to faith in Rome, says “the great sign of the demonic is scattering.” Demonic powers, then, pull apart human communities. God, on the other hand, gathers or unites.

As I write, the Catholic Church is feeling the demonic powers as Archbishop Mario Vigano and other figures within the church hierarchy question the legitimacy of Francis’ papacy. This past week Vigano wrote an open letter to President Trump that circumambulates around conspiracy theories regarding “deep states” within politics and religion—proposing that Francis is part of this infection on the body of the church. Implicit, and occasionally explicit, in Vigano’s accusations of Francis is the idea that his papacy represents a discontinuation or directly contradicts that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whom he served as a papal nuncio under. Interpreting the pontificate of Francis in this way requires bringing a binary modern political perspective to a 2,000 year old institution. Moreover, in addition to standing in opposition to the church’s teachings, this view simply misunderstands the heart of Francis’s theology and the consistency between the pope and his predecessor.

Here, I think Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker can help us understand what’s happening in the church.

Most critics and a large sum of Star Wars fans have interpreted Rise of Skywalker as repudiating Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. The assumption is that the studio favorite J.J. Abrams, the director of ROS and The Force Awakens, wanted to protect his idea of the original Star Wars series, so he dismantled and shut down the questions brought up in The Last Jedi, such as the true powers of the force and Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) heritage. As someone who honestly doesn’t care that much about Star Wars, I find this reading of ROS to almost ignore the film itself; it’s more eisegesis than exegesis. 

Instead, I opt for readings (or viewings?) that interpret the two as consistent — as building off each other. The most articulate reading of this, to my knowledge, comes from the San Francisco Chronicle critic Zaki Hasan on Diffused Congruence: The American Muslim Experience. (For the relevant portion, start around the 20 minute mark.) Hasan argues that in ROS Luke’s (Mark Hamil) character arc from The Last Jedi shapes his decisions in the new movie. 

“Kill the past” summarizes how some critics interpret ROS; it’s also a line spoken by the antagonist, which Hasan points out is a clear condemnation of the assumption that Abrams is in a hypothetical conflict with Johnson. Hasan, who spoke to Johnson about the very issue, notes that even the director of The Last Jedi recognizes that these words come from the villain.

Hasan’s core argument is corroborated by the way ROS expands on ideas regarding the mystical parts of the Star Wars universe. Fans were angered by The Last Jedi for the way it treated the force, adding elements such as “ForceTiming.” In the same spirit, Abrams expands the force through its healing properties in ROS

Likewise, in both movies (and even in Abram’s The Force Awakens), iconography of the original series is destroyed; main characters die, ships are destroyed, etc… 

And most importantly, Rey’s heritage as a “nobody,” as revealed in The Last Jedi, isn’t refuted, but emboldened through the revelation that she is actually the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, the great bad of Star Wars. Hasan, interpreting this revelation, says “What The Last Jedi did in terms of our main character… is dropped her to her lowest end… This next one is like ‘oh, turns out you’re actually the emperor’s grandaughter.’” He likens this to being the granddaughter of Hitler—a much worse heritage than “being nobody.” Through this revelation, by making Rey a descendent of the most morally depraved character in the Star Wars universe, Abrams maintains Johnson’s spirit of democratizing the force. In this sense, ROS continues rather than refuting the mission of its predecessor — much like Pope Francis’s continuity with Benedict XVI. 

In direct response to the divisive claims of Vigano, Benedict himself said “there is interior unity” between his pontificate and that of Francis. Regarding Francis’s first encyclical, he said it was written “with four hand.” Bishop Robert Barron has spoken in numerous places how Francis’s early documents, though bearing his name, read more like Joseph Ratzinger, the bapismal name of the man who would become Benedict XVI. 

Pedro Gabriel, of Where Peter Is, summarizes this continuity with three documents. In one of the documents, Francis’s letter to the German people in response to the German Bishops Conferences, Gabriel notes that Francis’s conservative critics praised him for what appeared to be his rejection of the more liberal German bishops—and aligning himself with the teachings of his predecessor. 

In a more poignant observation of the respective popes theological perspectives, Gabriel writes, “In their messages to the Church, they both reminded the faithful that they do not need to save the Church. The Church already has a savior.” 

While I will refrain from the theological depth that Gabriel explores, I find his insights and arguments compelling (and Catholic). “The pope is the pope, no matter who he is,” to paraphrase Benedict.

So what does the pope have in common with The Rise of Skywalker? They both tend to be misunderstood as in contradiction, and not always dialectical, of their predecessors. Personally, I find it helpful to remember this false tension when consuming secular media about the Catholic Church, such as the The New/Young Pope HBO Series, which tends to show two aspects of the faith in a similar contradiction—one that doesn’t really exist. 

But they have something else in common. The responses to both Francis and ROS have been divided. The responses separate rather than unite, even though the objects of concern are not in opposition to their predecessors. As Barron noted, this is a demonic response. While this may seem drastic to impose upon a science-fiction movie, it isn’t completely construed as Rian Johnson has received death threats and the extreme fringes of fandom across all social media platforms are clearly hostile to those of differing opinions. It seems possible, to me at least, that observers of the papacy and consumers of Star Wars have approached the world with a prepared disposition to divide. In other words, Francis’s extreme critics reject his teaching not because it’s discontinuous with Benedict, but because they want to find it discontinuous; Star Wars fans who vehemently reject either The Last Jedi or Rise of Skywalker may do so because they predisposed themselves to not like movie, whether to be contrarian or simply because they convinced themselves of what the movie is without deeply engaging with the movies themselves to see what they are. Approaching the world with a disposition to divide it, in the tradition represented by Barron, is a sign of the demonic. A godly response, to both Francis and Star Wars, would bring us together, or at least not drive us apart.

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