When viewers new to author Philip Pullman’s story tune into HBO’s upcoming adaptation of His Dark Materials, they will discover a world very different from ours. The people of that parallel Earth all have their own dæmons, animals whom they are intricately bound to in both body and spirit. It’s a place where talking bears roam the icy north and actual witches populate the distant skies. However, the highest authority will feel familiar, because the all-powerful Magisterium that controls everything resembles the Catholic Church during its most powerful and terrifying peak of power. And that makes it a dangerous opponent for a universe about to be ripped apart in ways no one can imagine.
His Dark Materials begins in the world of its young protagonist Lyra Belacqua, and in many ways her Earth closely matches our own in both geography and culture. Despite its many magical differences, it has a Bible similar to ours, including the story of Adam and Eve, and the influence of Western religion on the civilization is maybe even more significant there. At one time, Lyra’s world even had its own Papacy, and while we know little of its past and how much it may have resembled the path of the Catholic Church, at some point there was a major departure between the two institutions’ histories.
On Lyra’s Earth, John Calvin became Pope whereas in ours, around 1530, he became one of the leading figures of the Protestant Reformation, which greatly challenged the authority – both spiritually and politically – of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. We’re not clear which dogmatic practices and beliefs the fictional Pope Calvin implemented, but he moved the papacy to Geneva in Lyra’s world. This mirrors how the city became the de facto capital of the Protestant Reformation in ours. (The closest real-world connection we have is when Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon, France in 1309, where it remained for 67 years before returning to Rome.)
From Lyra’s Geneva, Pope Calvin established the Consistorial Court of Discipline, an organization fanatically concerned with heresy, much like the infamous Spanish Inquisition. The two groups also employed similar methods for extracting the information they wanted to learn, and their preferred forms of “persuasion” made both greatly feared, giving their churches more and more authority. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition though, the Consistorial Court of Discipline never ended operations.
“The Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute” in Lyra’s world ever since the founding of the Calvin’s ruthless group. Two real-life church figures might give us an idea of just how important and powerful the fictional Pope and the church he built really were. The first is Pope Gregory VII, who in 1076 excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor (and presumed most powerful man in the world), Henry IV after feuding with him over who could appoint bishops. On the verge of being deposed entirely, Henry went in beggar clothes before the Pope and pleaded for forgiveness, in what is known as The Walk to Canossa. The Pope granted it, but there was no question where the true authority in the world lay on that day.
The true height of the Catholic Church’s influence and authority though came during the reign of Pope Innocent III, who ruled from 1198 until his death in 1216. The “ most significant pope of the Middle Ages,” he expanded both the church’s power over Papal States as well as the scale of the Crusades, reformed Vatican bureaucracies, fought heresy in Italy and France, and “shaped a powerful and original doctrine of papal power within the church and in secular affairs.” Pope Innocent III, who even annulled the Magna Carta, was the most powerful figure in Europe when the Catholic Church was its most powerful institution, each affecting the daily lives of everyone who lived there.
In our world, the papacy eventually gave way to secular authorities, and no one today would say the Pope is the highest authority on Earth, even if he is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. However, in Lyra’s world, Pope Calvin’s death ended the Papacy as it was known and marked the birth of a new and even more powerful church known as the Magisterium, which came to dominate life in all forms. From The Golden Compass:
“The Papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin’s death, and a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place. These agencies were not always united; sometimes a bitter rivalry grew up between them. For a large part of the previous century, the most powerful had been the College of Bishops, but in recent years the Constitorial Court of Discipline had taken its place as the most active and feared of all the Church’s bodies.”
Despite their differences, and even the rise and fall of power within them, this collective spread into every aspect of life. That included schools and the courts, which allowed the church to control all aspects of life. Eventually, that came to include the General Oblation Board, which will prove so important in the first season. Even scientific outposts were constricted by the church’s reach. Each “had to include on its staff a representative of the Magisterium, to act as a censor and suppress the news of any heretical discoveries.” You either work with and for the church to promote its strict rules, or you are its enemy.
Galileo wouldn’t have fared any better in Lyra’s world than he did with the Catholic Church, but just like in our universe, even the Magisterium eventually has to concede when a scientific fact becomes indisputable. What that fact reveals, though, is still very much under their control–as is the response to it. That approved message is easier to share when all discoveries are announced through the Magisterium in Geneva.
But just like the Earth revolves around the Sun, some things can’t be hidden forever, even by a powerful church who rules with absolute power. And there will always be powerful people who challenge it and its myopic views. The question for the Magisterium is the same as it was for the Catholic Church every time a new scientific discovery challenged it: how will it respond when everything it believes in is threatened, and what are they willing to do to defeat those they view as the enemy of god himself? That’s what His Dark Materials will answer, and if it looks at all how churches in our own world do, it’s going to be dangerous for every world.
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