The Two Popes: Baloney, brilliantly acted

I first met Pope Emeritus Benedict in June 1988; over the next three decades, I’ve enjoyed many lengthy conversations and interviews with him, including a bracing discussion covering many topics last October 19. I first met Pope Francis in Buenos Aires in May 1982, and have had three private audiences with him since his election as Successor of Peter. Before, during, and after the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, I was deeply engaged in Rome, where my work included extensive discussions with cardinal-electors before each conclave was immured and after the white smoke went up. On both occasions, I correctly predicted to my NBC colleagues the man who would be elected and, in 2013, the day the election would occur.

Thus credentialed, I take up the movie critic’s mantle and say without hesitation that, as history, the Netflix film, The Two Popes, is baloney on steroids. It’s brilliantly acted, sometimes amusing, and occasionally moving. But despite its claim to be “based on actual events,” The Two Popes no more reflects history through which I lived and men I’ve personally known than does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The script offers several coruscating moments, perhaps more revealing of the two key personalities than screenwriter Anthony McCarten or director Fernando Meirelles realize. Thus Anthony Hopkins nicely captures Joseph Ratzinger’s dry sense of humor when the cinematic Benedict XVI remarks to Jonathan Pryce/Cardinal Bergoglio, “It’s a German joke; it’s not supposed to be funny.” And then there’s Pryce/Bergoglio’s smiling riposte to a grumpy Benedict XVI who accuses the archbishop of Buenos Aires of egotism: “Do you know how an Argentinian commits suicide? He climbs to the top of his ego and jumps off!” In the main, however, scriptwriter and director trade in stick-figures, however fetching the portrayal of those cartoons by two actors of genius.

Alas, one-dimensional portrayals of popes have been the journalistic and pop-cultural standard ever since the pseudonymous “Xavier Rynne,” writing in the New Yorker, created the liberal/conservative template for Everything Catholic during the Second Vatican Council. Thus it’s even more to the credit of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce that they bring a cartoon Benedict XVI and a cartoon Francis to vibrant life in The Two Popes. What ought not go unremarked, however, are the film’s grave misrepresentations of the dynamics at work in the conclaves of 2005 and 2013.

The script suggests that Joseph Ratzinger wanted to be pope in 2005 and maneuvered before and during the conclave to achieve his ambition. That is rubbish. As I thought I had demonstrated in God’s Choice, my book on the papal transition of 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger actively resisted the efforts of his many admirers to promote his candidacy during the interregnum, saying, “I am not a man of governo [governance].” His friends responded that he should leave matters to the Holy Spirit, and Ratzinger — who had tried to retire three times under John Paul II and who wanted nothing more than to return to Bavaria and pick up the threads of his scholarly life — acceded to their wishes, and to what he believed was God’s will. There was no ambition in all this. On the contrary, there was a touching display of self-knowledge, spiritual detachment, and churchmanship.

As for 2013, The Two Popes suggests that a “reformist” current, frustrated at the conclave of 2005, persuaded the cardinal-electors of 2013 that the Church needed a decisive shift from the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI  in order to catch up with “the world.” That, too, is rubbish. There was no such consensus among the cardinal-electors in 2013. There was, however, broad agreement that the New Evangelization was being seriously impeded by financial and other corruptions in the Vatican, which had to be vigorously addressed in a new pontificate. And the proponents of Cardinal Bergoglio’s candidacy presented him in precisely those terms — as a tough-minded, no-nonsense reformer who would quickly and decisively clean house. That presentation, reinforced by the Argentine prelate’s Christocentric and evangelically-oriented intervention in the General Congregation of cardinals prior to the conclave’s immurement, was the key to Pope Francis’s election. The notion that Francis was elected to upend the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is sheer invention, at least to those who knew what was actually afoot in 2013.

Is there motive here, in advancing this fake-news account of Conclave-2013? Some will undoubtedly find one. I’m content to clarify the historical record.

COMING UP: The Martini Curve revisited

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Pope Francis concluded his pre-Christmas address to the Roman Curia by invoking the memory of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, SJ, who died in September 2012. The Holy Father recalled that, “in his last interview, a few days before his death, [Cardinal Martini] said something that should make us think: ‘The Church is 200 years behind the times. Why is she not shaken up? Are we afraid? Fear, instead of courage. Yet faith is the Church’s foundation. Faith, confidence, courage … Only love conquers weariness.’”

The Martini Curve should indeed make us think. I thought about it at the time and ended up with questions rather than answers. What, precisely, was the Church two hundred years behind? A western culture come unglued from the deep truths of the human condition? A culture that celebrates the imperial autonomous Self? A culture that detaches sex from love and responsibility? A culture that breeds a politics of immediate gratification and inter-generational irresponsibility? Why on earth would the Church want to catch up with that?

Call me a dullard, but try as I might to adjust my thinking, I’m afraid that’s what I still think about the allegation that Catholicism’s contemporary failures result from our being stuck in a rut behind the curve of history. Moreover, since Cardinal Martini’s death seven years ago, certain empirical facts have become unmistakable: the local Churches that have tried hardest to play catch-up with “history” and “the times” are collapsing.

The premier example is Catholicism in the German-speaking world. Weekly Mass attendance percentages have fallen into single digits in German cities and aren’t much better in Austria and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland. Has this implosion of the sacramental community compelled a rethinking of the strategy of cultural accommodation? On the contrary. With a bullheadedness once caricatured as typically Prussian, the great majority of German bishops support a national “synodal process” that seems determined to put the pedal to the metal of surrendering to “the times,” even if — particularly if — this means jettisoning the truths that, according to both revelation and reason, make for happiness and beatitude.

Is there a single example, anywhere, of a local Church where a frantic effort to catch up with 21st-century secularism and its worship of the new trinity (Me, Myself, and I) has led to an evangelical renaissance — to a wave of conversions to Christ? Is there a single circumstance in which Catholicism’s uncritical embrace of “the times” has led to a rebirth of decency and nobility in culture? Or to a less-polarized politics? If so, it’s a remarkably well-hidden accomplishment.

There is, however, evidence that the offer of friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ as the pathway to a more humane future gets traction.

Shortly after last October’s Great Pachamama Flap, I got a bracing e-mail from a missionary priest in West Africa. After expressing condolences for my “recent Roman penance” at the Amazonian synod (which had featured a lot of politically-correct chatter about the ecological sensitivity of indigenous religions), my friend related an instructive story: “You’ll be happy to know that last year, when one of our villages invited me to come and help them destroy their idols and baptize their chief, we did not, before doing so, engage in any ‘dialogue with the spirits,’ as was so highly praised in the [Synod’s working document]. There was no Tiber to throw [the idols] in, so a sledgehammer and a fire had to suffice. Somehow the village managed to survive without such a dialogue, and in fact they have invited me back … to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the great event, and to bless a cross that will be set up in the village as a permanent reminder of their decision.”

Three weeks ago, the local archbishop wrote those same villagers, telling them of his “immense joy” that, the year before, they had “turned away from idols in order to turn resolutely to the Living and True God … You have recognized in Jesus Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Open wide your hearts to him … and always conquer evil with good.”

There’s no Martini Curve in that part of the global vineyard, it seems. Rather, there is, to borrow from the late cardinal’s last interview, “faith, courage, confidence … [and the] “love that conquers weariness.” That is surely something to think about in the Vatican — and throughout a world Church in which everyone is called to missionary discipleship.

Featured image by Mafon1959 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,