A Movie to Make You Think: The Two Popes

The great Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once called the Roman Catholic Church ʺthe most formidable religious institution in the history of America and of the world.ʺ1 One distinguishing doctrinal feature of Catholicism is the claim that the pope is the official leader of Christendom. Of the three branches of Christendom (Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism), Catholics uniquely view the pope as sitting in the Chair of St. Peter, and thus as the Vicar (or substitute) of Christ himself on Earth.

Since 2013 the Catholic Church has had two living popes—a situation that has not occurred since the Middle Ages (1415). Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927) retired unexpectedly in 2013 and now is known as pope emeritus. Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio in 1936) succeeded Benedict and has served as Catholic pontiff for the last seven years. Interestingly, both popes grew up under military dictatorships in their homelands (Ratzinger in Germany and Bergoglio in Argentina).

This very rare occurrence of having two living persons who have carried the prestigious title of Bishop of Rome has made for an engaging new film entitled The Two Popes (2019). The film’s screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles (both self-admitted nominal Catholics) have created a captivating and imaginative story of these two extraordinary ecclesiastical figures in dialogue with one another. Splicing together factual and historical information about the two persons, the movie portrays an imagined meeting and relationship between the two prominent churchmen during Benedict’s papacy. The result is a gripping and believable biographical drama. The elderly German Pope Benedict is played by Anthony Hopkins and the role of the younger Argentinian bishop who will become Pope Francis is performed by Jonathan Pryce.

Two Historic Figures: Catholic Conservative versus Catholic Progressive?

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger was recognized as one of the most important conservative Catholic theologians and church leaders of the twentieth century (he is a specialist on the theology of St. Augustine). A close confidant of legendary Pope John Paul II, Bishop Ratzinger served as both prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as dean of the College of Cardinals. He has been an ardent defender and, one might say, enforcer, of traditional Catholic doctrine and values.

Pope Francis is in some respects a pontiff of firsts. As an Argentinian, he is the first non-European pope in over a thousand years and the first from the Americas. He is also the first member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to be elected pope. While holding the line on most traditional Catholic doctrines and values, Francis is viewed as being a reformer and somewhat progressive on the application of certain Catholic values, and equally progressive on particular political issues (climate change and the rights of migrants are good examples).

Fictional Dialogue #1: Sparring & Jousting

The heart of the movie focuses on a meeting between the two leaders held in Pope Benedict’s summer residence outside of Rome. When they come together for the first time there is a lot of sparring. The banter reflects a conservative-progressive jousting match. Here are some choice topics and quotes from the exchange:

When Pope Benedict interrogates Cardinal Bergoglio concerning some of his statements about doctrine, Bergoglio insists that his words are often “misquoted” or “taken out of context.”

Pope Benedict responds: “Might I suggest you try telling the newspapers the opposite of what you think—your chances of being quoted correctly might improve.”

When Benedict complains about Bergoglio giving communion to the divorced, Bergoglio shoots back: “I believe that giving communion is not a reward for the virtuous; it is food for the starving!”

Benedict retorts: “So what matters is what you believe but not what the church has taught for hundreds of years.”

When it comes to the discussion of whether the Catholic church should stay the same or change, we get this interchange:

Benedict: “God does not change.”

Bergoglio: “Yes he does. He moves toward us.”

In their tête-à-tête the men discuss other controversial topics such as the priest sex scandal, the church’s decline in numbers, and priest celibacy.

Fictional Dialogue #2: Empathizing & Sharing

After the heated exchange above, the two meet again in the evening and find themselves empathizing with one another as friends and brothers in the Catholic faith.

Benedict: “The hardest thing is to listen. To hear his voice. God’s voice.”

Bergoglio: “Sorry. Even for a pope?”

Benedict: “Perhaps especially for a pope.”

In a lighter moment, while Benedict plays the piano the men exchange amusing quips about the Beatles.

Assessing the Movie

The acting is excellent. Hopkins is a master at delivering lines and Pryce seems to have gotten into the very persona of Bergoglio (again, now Pope Francis). Hopkins captures Benedict’s seriousness about truth, while Pryce reflects Bergoglio’s natural humility and concern for the poor. Visually, the scenes from the Vatican are quite stunning.

This film realistically reflects the way thoughtful people honestly interact about the big topics of religion and politics. It also shows how people who strongly disagree with one another can somehow learn to empathize with each another and find important common ground. This seems a prudent lesson for our fractious time.

The Two Popes is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I highly recommend it. It is genuinely a movie to make you think.

Reflections: Your Turn

Catholic or not, do you have a favorite pope?

Endnotes

1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960), 12.

  One thought on “A Movie to Make You Think: The Two Popes

  1. Rogstad, David
    January 21, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Yes, Pope John Paul, who helped dismantle Communism! Very interesting artlcle, Ken. Dave and I plan on watching the movie soon.
    Blessings,
    Diane

    • January 21, 2020 at 9:30 am

      Thanks, Diane.

      Ken Samples

    • Rod Hite
      January 22, 2020 at 6:18 am

      Pope Benedict XVI. I read a fascinating column by him while he was still only Joseph Ratzinger and an avid skier. I remember something about there being only one road up the mountain and our younger brothers in Christ. It generated a great conversation between me and my mother-in-law; a sister in Christ whose gone to be with the Lord and a life long Catholic.

      • January 22, 2020 at 10:12 am

        Rod:

        I think Pope Benedict is one of Catholicism’s best conservative theologians of the 20th century. He’s a specialist on St. Augustine.

        I quote him in my book Classic Christian Thinkers.

        All the best.

        Ken Samples

  2. January 21, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Did not like Two Popes. Francis is not that good and Benedict is not that bad.

    • January 21, 2020 at 3:24 pm

      Did you read my review?

      I think the fictional biography was pretty evenhanded.

      Ken Samples

      • January 22, 2020 at 3:02 am

        I saw the movie. Why would your review change my mind?

      • January 22, 2020 at 8:07 am

        Why leave a comment on my blog site if you have no interest in reading my blog article?

        Honestly, I think you might learn a lot from reading my article and also hear a different take.

        But if you have no interest then I’ll get back to my work.

        Respectfully,

        Ken Samples

  3. January 29, 2020 at 11:00 am

    Thanks for recommending this. My wife and I decided to watch it and found it fascinating.

    • January 29, 2020 at 11:01 am

      Very good, Darren.

      Ken Samples

  4. January 30, 2020 at 7:41 am

    Ken,

    Thanks for your insightful review. I’m always blessed by your work and I’m looking forward to viewing the film. I’m not that knowledgable about Pope Benedict XVI and his legacy, so I’d like to learn more. My favorite has been JP2 for his stance against communism and the manner in which he approached his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He publicly advocated for Parkinson’s disease research, but refused to blur the lines between ethical and unethical methods. His convictions regarding the sanctity of all human life were so strong that even in his suffering, he took an unwavering stance against medical research using embryonic stem cells. What a testament to his character and convictions!

    -Les

    • January 30, 2020 at 8:48 am

      Well said, Les.

      Pope John Paul II was an extraordinary man and church leader.

      Catholics and Protestants can and should unite around a sanctity of human life.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

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