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Why Netflix’s The Two Popes Is Important

Walter G. Moss: The duel between Benedict and Francis, regardless of how well the film reflects complex reality, is important, and not only for religious reasons. It is important because it challenges us to consider how best to approach and live our lives.

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, playing respectively Pope Benedict XVI and his successor, the present Pope Francis, are terrific in Netflix’s The Two Popes. The activities of these two popes should be of interest to not only Catholics, but to many others concerned with our world today. For example, the non-Catholic Bill McKibben, one of the world’s most influential environmental activists, lavishly praised Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, stating that “this marks the first time that a person of great authority in our global culture has fully recognized the scale and depth of our crisis, and the consequent necessary rethinking of what it means to be human.” In addition, Francis has also written on the flaws of capitalism and condemned Trump’s “cruel” immigration policies and indifference to the poor.

The Two Popes

At the core of the film are the differences between Benedict and Francis, especially before Benedict retired and Francis took his place. (Although the man who became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, did not adopt the name Francis until he became pope in 2013, for the sake of convenience he will be referred to as Francis throughout the rest of this essay.)

The duel between Benedict and Francis, regardless of how well the film reflects complex reality, is important, and not only for religious reasons. It is important because it challenges us to consider how best to approach and live our lives.

Most crucial is about a seven-minute film sequence set in 2012 in the beautiful gardens of the pope’s summer residence at Castle Gandolfo. It occurs about a half hour into the film. Benedict and Francis voice differences regarding the church’s stand on married priests, celibacy, homosexuality, the reception of communion, and relations with other religions. (See here for the film script, from which all the film quotes are taken.)

But even more significant are the men’s mindsets and the way they live their lives. Benedict is a German- born introverted scholar who while pope wrote the three-volume Jesus of Nazareth. Earlier, under Pope John Paul II, he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, established in the sixteenth century “to maintain and defend the integrity of the faith and to examine and proscribe errors and false doctrines.” He is a traditionalist and, compared to Francis, more unbending and uncompromising. He believes clear lines need to be drawn and doctrinal walls maintained to protect the Catholic faith. Francis is an extrovert a “people person,” born of Italian immigrants in Argentina. He is an ardent soccer fan and even sometimes tangos. Unlike most bishops and popes, he shuns luxurious surroundings. Benedict says to him, “By living so simply you imply that the rest of us are not living simply enough.”He also says to Francis, “So what matters is what YOU believe, not what the Church has taught for hundreds of years.” Francis responds that Jesus was more concerned with mercy than building walls.

The conversation that they have is invented by the screenwriter, Anthony McCarten--the later discussion the two men have about why Benedict wishes to resign as pope is also not based on any historical record. But McCarten had already dealt with the two popes in his play The Pope and written the non-fictional The Two Popes: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World. In constructing his film dialogue, he relied when possible on both men’s talks and writings, and it seems generally true to their characters (but more on this later.) For example, in a 2013 sermon Francis warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.” (See one of my History-News-Network essays for more on the challenges of creative writing, whether in books or on screen, involving historical characters.)

Most viewers of The Two Popes will come away from the film preferring the kind, humane Francis to the stiffer Benedict. In some ways their contrast reminds one of that presented in “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazovbetween the inquisitor and Jesus. Despite some attempts to present Benedict’s humane qualities--for example, his playing the piano, watching a TV program called Kommissar Rex about a crime-solving German Shepherd dog, and his realization of some of his imperfections--the film’s Francis is simply more likeable.

The Two Popes

Nevertheless, many conservatives, Catholic and otherwise, prefer Pope Benedict to Pope Francis. A good example is The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. He has praised Benedict for reasserting “a doctrinal core,” and has written essays and a book (To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism) about Francis. A New Yorker essay referred to Douthat as “perhaps the most prominent lay critic of Francis’s papacy,” and one who has suggested “the possibility that Francis will spark a genuine schism between liberals and conservatives.”

In a “Personal Preface” to Douthat’s book, he writes, that “it is conservative, in the sense that it assumes the church needs a settled core of doctrine, a clear unbroken link to the New Testament and the early church, for Catholicism’s claims and structure and demands to make any sense at all.”

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In an earlier essay (2015) in The Atlantic he criticized Francis because he “has repeatedly shown what seems to be tacit support for . . . allow[ing] Catholics in a second marriage to receive Communion even if their first marriage is still considered valid—that is, even if they are living in what the Church considers an adulterous relationship.” He added, “If people who are living as adulterers can receive Communion . . . then either the Church’s sacramental theology or its definition of sin has been effectively rewritten. And the ramifications of such a change are potentially sweeping. If ongoing adultery is forgivable, then why not other forms of loving, long-standing sexual commitment? Not only same-sex couples but cohabiting straight couples and even polygamous families (a particular concern among African cardinals) could make a plausible case that they deserve the same pastoral exception, rendering the very idea of objective sexual sin anachronistic in one swift march.”

In the film, Benedict criticizes Francis, saying “You openly give the sacraments to those who are out of communion . . . to the divorced, for instance.” But Francis replies, “I believe the sacraments are not a reward for the virtuous. They’re food for the starving.” For Douthat, this type of thinking does not take doctrine seriously enough.

Some other Catholics have criticized The Two Popes for failing to present Benedict in a favorable enough light. Steven D. Greydanus, for example, in the National Catholic Register, writes that Benedict cared more for the poor, migrants, refugees, and the environment and was less ambitious to become pope than the film depicted. The critic also believed that such lines as Benedict’s “Change is compromise,” which made him seem reactionary, and Francis’s later charge, “You forgot to love the people you were meant to protect,” are unfair to Benedict. Another review, this one from a website of the Los Angeles archdiocese, states that Hopkins’s Benedict “does not resemble in the least the real Pope Benedict.”

Both reviewers are probably correct that The Two Popes does not present the full truth regarding Benedict, but it is only partly because the director and screenwriter prefer Francis. Any two-hour non-documentary film is going to reflect considerable artistic license, and film-goers must realize that truth is going to be much more nuanced and complex than any film can capture--the same goes for most other media information, leaving tenacious truth-seeking an important, but under-appreciated, modern need.

And yet the duel between Benedict and Francis, regardless of how well the film reflects complex reality, is important, and not only for religious reasons. It is important because it challenges us to consider how best to approach and live our lives.

Should we emphasize rules, doctrine, ideology, or “religious truths,” or should we be more pragmatic. Despite about two decades of Catholic education and a strong appreciation of the primacy of values and virtues, I opt for the latter. St. Augustine stated, “Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will.” As quoted above, Francis warned against an “ideological Christianity” that is too rigid, but “without kindness.” I agree with both men. Their advice also applies to politics, where rather than any ideological approach I prefer a pragmatic one that emphasizes furthering the common good--in an address to the U. S. Congress, Pope Francis urged a similar method.

Perhaps a convincing case can be made for rules, doctrine, and religious truth--and Francis by no means shuns such--but I have never come across any convincing argument that they should be prioritized over love, kindness, and other wisdom virtues. The Two Popes reminds us of what our experience tells us, and it is why most people prefer Francis, whether in real life or as portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, to Benedict, even when depicted by the great Anthony Hopkins.

The film has much more to recommend it. For example, there is the depiction of Francis’s youth and struggles with Argentinean military government (1976-1983). There is its humor, including a wonderful opening scene of Francis on the telephone trying to book a flight. And there is the photography that skillfully highlights both locations and the facial expressions of the two main protagonists. But the heart of the film remains the differences between Benedict and Francis (regardless of how actual they might be in real life) and how much such differences matter.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss