When philosopher Umberto Galimberti began working as a psychoanalyst in 1979, his patients’ problems “were grounded in emotions, feelings, and sexuality. Now,” however, “they concern the void of meaning.” According to Galimberti, young people are plagued by a sense of nihilism.

Fr. Julian Carron asserts that this nihilism cannot be staved off with sentimental answers or political ideologies. Rather, each of us must look more closely at how this need for a lasting meaning emerges in our daily experiences. Carron then points to the crisis of authority implicated in the struggle with nihilism. He suggests that young people’s sense of meaninglessness stems from the lack of “true authority figures” to turn to. Today, true authority has been replaced by what we can call “authoritarianism”— characterized by regulating rather than forming the freedom of the other, and a permissiveness that takes a relativistic attitude toward life’s meaning and morality.

Carron refers to the writings of Fr. Luigi Giussani to map out the characteristics of a genuine authority figure, that is, one who is capable of responding to the nihilistic “void” that today’s youth are facing. First, an authority makes a “totalizing proposal of meaning” that is “connected to the deepest needs and desires of the heart.” This “proposal” is not made through “lectures or speeches.” Rather, it is made with “their being” — the authority figure “incarnates” the proposal they make through the way they live, thus making them a living sign of the promise that what our heart longs for indeed exists and is in our midst.

Further, a true authority is associated with “paternity” insofar as she “generates the freedom” of those who follow her. Followers of a true authority don’t follow blindly. Instead, they “ignite [the] freedom, personal awareness and personal responsibility,” of their followers, enabling them to become more authentically themselves and thus, more fulfilled.

Much of today’s youth culture is pervaded by desperate attempts to cling onto some kind of “proposal of meaning.” Nothing captures this more vividly than the many television series that depict the lives of young people today. A variety of Netflix original series portray young people disconnected from genuine authority figures, fending for themselves to find a promise of meaning that can withstand the test of time. Take the series Baby, the Italian spin off of the popular Spanish Netflix series Elite.

Now in its third season, Baby is based on the 2014 “Baby Squillo” teen prostitution scandal. The show’s two protagonists, Chiara and Ludovica, attend an elite private high school in Rome. Ludovica, in need of money, starts working in a prostitution ring. Ludo convinces Chiara, who is disillusioned with her privileged life and dysfunctional parents, to join her.

The adult authority figures in the show are vapid. They stand for nothing of substance, and are only concerned about their own affairs. The only time they express interest in their kids is to deter them from extreme danger, or when they want to emulate their young and hip ways. They represent the two extremes of permissiveness and foundationless authoritarianism that Carron warns of. Their attitude implicitly sends the message that there is nothing “ultimate” to strive toward in this life; seize onto your youth while you can, before life gets bogged down with the tedia of adulthood.

Ludovica’s mom is a divorcee who owns a flailing essential oils shop and is obsessed with trying to stay young. Thus when she tries to exercise her authority over Ludo to protect her from the prostitution ring, Ludo fires back at her, “if you want me to respect you then stop with all your men and your BS!”

“You can’t see that everything I do is for you, and you don’t even go***mn care!” As much as she desires to be there for her daughter, her authority comes off as inauthentic and unattractive — her life is in shambles as she fails to maintain a stable love life and business. Ludo’s birth father refuses to send them money and seems uninterested in spending any time with his daughter.

Damiano gets caught up working for Fiore in managing the prostitution ring to make money, and ends up falling for Chiara. Damiano’s father is oblivious to his son’s dangerous business ventures as he is more concerned with his work and public appearance as a diplomat.

Similarly, Chiara’s parents, whose marriage is falling apart, are more concerned about their social status than their own daughter’s safety. They try to force her to attend family counseling sessions with them, which she refuses to do, telling them that they only want to salvage the marriage so that it won’t damage their public image. They try to ground her after finding out that a sex tape was released of her, mainly because her male counterpart was the son of one of their clients, and they feared the tape would spoil business relations. Their weak moral code further propels Chiara away when they hand her a box of condoms and tell her she can keep doing what she’s doing, “just don’t get pregnant.”

Damiano’s stepmother Monica works as a gym teacher at the school. Another adult who seems to stand for nothing, she falls for Nicco’s attempts to seduce her into an ephebophilic affair. She sneaks out of the house to go for a late night swim with Nicco at the school, where she has sex with him once again. She finds herself conflicted between her urge for pleasure and her call to serve her students when she happens upon Nicco’s girlfriend crying in the girl’s locker room. How to console your student whose heart is broken when you are the one with whom her boyfriend is cheating?

Disillusioned with the vapidness of their parents and teachers, the students take their freedom to the furthest limits. Desperate and alone in the face of a meaningless world without any sort of clear or lasting promise, they grasp in vain for something, anything of substance. Their erratic escapades keep bringing them up against a wall: none of their pursuits seem to fully sate their need for a kind of love that lasts beyond the moment. They can’t escape this need for a gratuitous, unconditional love that affirms them for who they are and is interested in their growth, and not in what they have or can do for the other.

The show’s title hints at this underlying desire for paternity, for true authority, that pervades the plot of the series. The characters are longing to be somebody’s “baby.” They need to belong, to be someone’s child and have someone to follow, someone who can help them connect the demands of their heart with some kind of proposal of lasting meaning, enabling them to grow into maturity and discover who they are truly called to be.

There are several moments of clarity when the youngsters recognize what they are really looking for. One of “Emma’s” (Chiara’s prostitute name) first clients is a young, good-looking tech developer, with whom she ends up hitting it off. Expecting to find an insecure, middle aged nerd, she finds that she’s able to connect with him on a deeper level. The morning after, he offers her the money she is due.

“I don’t want it…it was nice,” she says, pushing the money away.

“Listen,” he replies, “money makes everything clearer. It creates the right distance, prevents misunderstandings.”

She looks down in disappointment. “I don’t want it,” she says, seemingly unable to deny her heart’s need to be loved freely and intimately, without payment or the precaution of “distance.” She caught a glimpse of a kind of love that’s interested in her for her own good, and not for her utility, only for it to be quashed in the name of business.

Ludo takes the name “Desiree,” whose meaning in French (“the desired one”) speaks volumes of her heart’s true longings. She ends up with a client who upon finding out she’s a minor, refuses to sleep with her. To Ludo’s surprise, that same client shows up at her school to take over as a long term substitute for her philosophy teacher. Mr. Regoli attempts to get Ludo to complete her assignments on Kierkegaard’s three states of man’s freedom (aesthetic, ethical, and religious — a paradoxical lesson topic considering the circumstances). She blackmails him, telling him that if he doesn’t pass her, she’ll tell everyone that he slept with a minor. He tries to play the protective father, imploring her to leave behind prostitution and to take her life more seriously. But she scoffs at his attempt to act like a wise elder who can give her advice about making the “right decisions” in life.

As much as Ludo is unconvinced by his authority, she seems to be drawn by his paternal desire to protect her. After a possessive client starts stalking her, she runs to Mr. Regoli’s house imploring him to protect her. He consoles her and she falls asleep on his couch while watching a movie together. He attempts to wake her up, but unable to withhold his attraction to her, begins kissing her. She wakes up in disgust and runs out of the house sobbing. The one man who she thought was interested in her well-being…who would protect her as should a father and deter her from her dangerous lifestyle — betrayed her, becoming yet another man who was just interested in using her.

“When you no longer experience wonder,” comments Giussani, “you cannot avoid subjecting your own life to the slavery of rules. The Christian event is an encounter with a human reality that transmits the evidence that the divine, which has bent over and entered our life, corresponds to what we are. This encounter opens my eyes upon myself, unveils me to myself, shows that it corresponds to what I am: it makes me realize what I am, what I want, because it makes me understand that what it bears is exactly what I want.”

Christianity, although it played a major role in the history of Roman culture and continues to be a presence in it today, is not even hinted at in Baby. It’s as if it has been intentionally expunged from the characters’ cultural horizon. Giussani’s words shed light here on the correlation between secularism and the diminishment of truly “generative” authority. “No one generates, unless he is being generated…This concept of paternity is the concept that is most attacked by the whole Enlightenment culture.”

Carron comments on Giussani’s words, offering a possible path forward for parents and teachers who want to guide the youth toward the promise that our hearts can find fulfillment in the love and teachings of Christ:

in order to generate today, for parents to generate children, and teachers to generate students…remembering the past does not suffice: a present paternity is needed. In order to generate today, a present ‘presence’ is needed, one that cannot be reduced to the past, that expresses something ‘more,’ something unforeseen and unforeseeable, something that did not exist before and exists now.”

It is through an encounter with the presence of Christ that that childlike wonder can be sustained in us. May those in authority never cease to seek His presence, so that we may become a living sign of hope to those whose care is entrusted to us.

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Posted by Stephen G. Adubato

Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J. He blogs on Patheos at "Cracks in Postmodernity." https://www.patheos.com/blogs/cracksinpomo/

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