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A Tale of Two Popes

By Matt Boulter

Anyone who remembers Shadowlands, the classic 1993 film about C. S. Lewis, knows that Anthony Hopkins has an uncanny knack for portraying Christian intellectuals who are struggling through an existential crisis. Yet another actor gifted in playing religious figures on screen is Jonathan Pryce, whom Game of Thrones fans will recognize as the enigmatic High Sparrow, a pontiff-like character who leads the dominant religious institution in Westeros, the “Faith of the Seven.”

How utterly appropriate then, that these two accomplished thespians should appear side-by-side in the 2019 Netflix drama The Two Popes, with Pryce (age 72), playing Pope Francis, and Hopkins (age 83) as Pope Benedict XVI. In terms of age, each actor is currently within two or three years of their respective characters’ ages, at the time at which the story takes place, roughly in 2013.

The film focuses more on Francis’ background than it does on that of Benedict. We learn at various points that the Argentinian had not initially planned on being a priest as a young adult; that as head of the Jesuits in his country he appeared to side with the right-wing dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla (a stance arguably resulting in the persecution and death of some of his closest friends), and that he spent the following decades of his ministry in active repentance for this political decision, now ministering as visibly and deeply as possible among the poor and marginalized of Buenos Aires, thereby becoming something of a populist hero of the people.

For me the most interesting dimension of the film (which consists, appropriately, mainly of dialogue between the two central characters) has to do with the political and theological tensions between two popes. One would expect, after all, that, given the progressive tilt of most Netflix productions, the producers would cast the Bavarian Pontiff — derided in many circles as “God’s Rottweiler” for his traditionalist stances while serving as the Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — in a derogatory light. One might, in other words, regard Benedict as an “easy target.”

Yet while the end message of the film is one with which progressives within the Roman Catholic Church can be pleased, such an anti-Benedict bias is largely absent, to the credit of the film’s director Fernando Meirelles. A remarkable balance is achieved, primarily through the portrayal of friendship and mutual submission.

Before ending this piece with the theme of friendship, however, I first would like to offer a word of context, and then a word of critique.

As is true with so many works of historical fiction, a deeper grasp of the context of the events narrated allows for deeper appreciation of the story. What I particularly have in mind are the respective theological postures of the two leaders. There are many differences between the two popes. But at the broadest possible level, their primary contrast is that for the Bavarian elder, the fundamental telos of the human and the ecclesial is transcendent, a supernatural end oriented to the beatific vision, while for the mendicant-like Jesuit, the thematics which most capture his imagination (and thus the bulk of his ecclesial energy) are immanent: social issues such as global warming, economic justice, etc.

For the former, one could consider Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity or his Eschatology, both an attempt to “dethrone,” if you will, the hegemony of natural science in our current culture, arguing instead that the sciences play a subordinate (albeit vital) role within the overall trajectory of human development: holistic wisdom, or maturity in holiness. Indeed, Ratzinger, long-time colleague of the great Ressourcement theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and others, never stopped affirming humanity’s “natural desire for the supernatural.” For his part, the Jesuit South American articulates a thorough vision for immanent human and social progress in his second and most recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, dealing with environmental degradation and climate change.

Transcendence and immanence: twin aspects of how God relates to creation, embodied in the two most recent popes, who happen both to be still on the scene. There is something deeply appropriate, deeply encouraging here. I’m reminded of a line by Rowan Williams, “It takes the whole church to know the whole truth.” In these two popes, we get a glimpse of the comprehensiveness of catholic truth.

My only real critique of the film is that it omits a feature of Ratzinger’s biography which could have made the story and the relationship it narrates even more vivid: the fact that he, too, found himself as a young man caught up in 20th-century geopolitical tensions. Indeed, he no less than Borgoglio was coopted and ensnared by a right-wing dictatorship, in his case Hitler’s Nazism. The harrowing story (including the aspiring seminarian’s forced involvement and his subsequent decision to desert his military post) is recounted in Ratzinger’s memoirs, Milestones. What’s more, he was far more resistant, perhaps counterintuitively, to right-wing ideology in the 20th-century than was his South American peer.

Earlier I mentioned transcendence and immanence, embodied in the thought of each pope. Yet this complimentary comprehensiveness goes even deeper, for it finds its intimate embodiment in a relationship of mutual friendship, submission, and love. Near the end of the film the viewer is allowed to “listen” in on an intimate exchange — fictional but realistic — between the two as they offer each other mutual confession and absolution. Not all disagreements are resolved. Yet what becomes clear is that the gifts and especially the faith, hope, and love of each leader are needed and beneficial, not just for the church, but also for the world.

Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and recently completed a PhD in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.


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