When Pope Benedict made his announcement on February 11, 2013, it shook the Roman Catholic world, like a lightning bolt. Since 1415, he was the first pope in hundreds of years to effectively retire from the office of the Holy See. To most Roman Catholics, popes simply do not do that type of thing.
Anthony McCarten’s The Two Popes chronicles the story of how Joseph Ratzinger, a Bavarian born son of a policeman, would eventually become Pope Benedict, only to have his top role in the Roman Catholic Church transferred to Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a once-aspiring chemist turned Argentinian Jesuit priest, known for his work among the Latin American poor, who would himself become Pope Francis.
Ratzinger grew up in the shadow of Hitler’s Germany as a teenager, despite his father’s futile efforts to shield his son from the Nazi’s fascist control of the Germanic peoples. Young Ratzinger declared early on, that he wanted to become a Roman Catholic priest, but that was not enough to keep him from being drafted into the war, serving in an anti-aircraft unit for the defense of Munich. After the war, Ratzinger was able to continue in his theological education, and enter a career of teaching Catholic theology.
Most people are not aware of this, but the young Ratzinger worked alongside notable thinkers like Hans Kung at the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, to bring about progressive reform in the church. Yet Ratzinger ultimately backed off from his liberal leaning theology. He eventually was appointed as the head of the former “Inquisition” of the Roman Catholic Church, under Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger came to regret his earlier trajectory towards theological liberalism, becoming increasingly concerned that such progressive ideas would partner with relativism and secularism trends, to ultimately undermine the Roman Catholic faith.
Ratzinger was charged by John Paul II to revamp the “Inquisition” into the “Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” formulating catechetical instruction for the worldwide Roman Catholic faithful, following a conservative interpretation of Vatican II. The most significant work that Ratzinger supervised was the 1992 updated Catechism of the Catholic Church, the authoritative guide to Roman Catholic teachings. Ratzinger was noted for his efforts to reign in liberation theology, by removing the leading advocates for that theology from their positions, in order to promote John Paul II’s neo-traditional vision of Roman Catholic life and theology. He even managed to get his old friend and colleague, Hans Kung, removed from teaching theology to priests, after the latter wrote a book obliquely denying papal infallibility. Ratzinger had become the leading pick as a successor to John Paul II, following John Paul’s death in 2005.
The somewhat younger Jorge Mario Bergoglio grew up in Buenos Aires, originally pursuing a career to become a chemist, and even took a brief romantic interest that made him question occasional thoughts of becoming a priest. But a life threatening illness as a young man, that permanently injured a lung, steered him in a different direction, whereby he entered the Society for Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1958. Like Ratzinger, Bergoglio too was at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. He was known to be conservative in most matters of Roman Catholic doctrine, though more moderate in areas dealing with social justice reforms, seeking to carve a middle way between the right and left, of a politically divided Argentina.
His efforts to walk a political tight rope in Argentina, forced him out of Argentina for a time. Some accused Bergoglio of not doing enough to help the people he was called to serve, while others thought he interfered in matters that were none of his business. But he was eventually brought back to Argentina, eventually to be elevated as an Archbishop. As Archbishop, Bergoglio followed his Jesuit instincts and rejected use of a private car and chauffeur, opting to ride the public bus instead, to make his appointments. Bergoglio was the second most favored choice to succeed Pope John Paul II, behind Ratzinger. Thus, when Pope Benedict announced his retirement less than a decade later, Bergoglio remained a serious candidate, who eventually won out over the others.
So, why did Benedict resign? It seems very strange that Benedict, a stalwart defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, would so readily hand over the leadership of the church to someone whose views were more radical, and more apt to undo Pope John Paul II’s program to revitalize the Roman Catholic Church, that was aimed at reaffirming traditional theological commitments in an increasingly secular world.
The stated reason was that Benedict felt that a younger, more vibrant man was needed to do the job. But Anthony McCarten thinks that Benedict’s failure to aggressively address the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the global church as ultimately to blame. McCarten faults Benedict for focusing too much on taking down errant liberation theologians, and in defending and upholding the integrity of the Roman Catholic priesthood, at the expense of the sexual abuse victims, who suffered under wayward priests. Admittedly, the Vatican knew that the Church had her enemies, and for decades, since as early as the 1860s, had sought a policy of moving priests accused of sexual abuse to other parishes, and urging the victims themselves to take oaths of silence, in order to protect the Church from her enemies, who would otherwise use such accusations to try to destroy the church.
It is clear that McCarten views such polices of deception and concealment to be counter-productive at best, if not purely criminal, at worst. This is where a book like The Two Popes often tells us more about the writer than the subject(s) being examined. Anthony McCarten is a New Zealand author and playwright, who grew up in a devout Roman Catholic household, only to say later “that his faith has lapsed, noting that he now regards the biblical story of the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ as ‘a tall tale.'” Many former Roman Catholics like McCarten grew up in the church, only to be secularized upon entering adulthood, after being disillusioned by what they saw as a religious institution that could no longer be trusted.
Pope Francis does not escape criticism either in The Two Popes, as McCarten tells the sordid tale of Bergolio’s disputed involvement in partially propping up a right-wing, military government, that overthrew the inept rule of Isabel Peron, in politically unstable Argentina, in the 1970s. Thousands of Argentinian dissidents were “disappeared” during these years, but the Argentinian Roman Catholic hierarchy was more worried about a threatened communist takeover from the left. Some of Bergolio’s fellow Jesuit priests were abducted as well, and critics charged Bergolio with not doing enough to protect his fellow priests, even to the point of claiming that Bergolio aided corrupt elements in the government in their persecutions of the poor, and those who tried to help them. Two of these priests were tortured before being released, and blamed Bergoglio for having abandoning them and their mission work. Bergolio’s defense was, “I did what I could.”
Pope Benedict had his sins, but Pope Francis had his sins as well. McCarten’s Bergolio comes out looking better than McCarten’s Ratzinger, but both men who became popes have failed, in McCarten’s mind, to inspire deep confidence in following the Roman Catholic faith.
Pope Francis, as the first Jesuit pope and first Latin American pope, who still refuses to live in the finely furnished Vatican apartments, and who still likes riding the public bus, has proven to be a popular yet enigmatic figure. Progressive Roman Catholics applaud the type of changes Francis has made to reform the Vatican, and voice great frustration when he does not do more, whereas traditional Roman Catholics are deeply concerned that Francis is turning into yet another “bad pope,” and compromising fundamental doctrinal stances of the church.
As concerns about Francis have grown, the former Pope Benedict emerged briefly in recent years, as a move that many observers believe was meant to be a check against Francis’ more progressive policy leanings. Time will tell what type of legacy Francis will ultimately leave.
A good example of the type of reforms that Francis is encouraging can be found in the January 2021 letter, Spiritus Domini, which seeks to institutionalize the practice of having women serving as Acolytes and Lay Readers in worship services. Such practice is already happening throughout various parts of global Roman Catholicism, but this is the first papal pronouncement formally acknowledging that this is good and right Roman Catholic doctrine. Throughout the 2,000 year history of the church, women have never served as priests (or presbyters), but women did serve as deacons, a practice that was abandoned in the West by about the sixth century. Supporters of Francis see this as restoring the ancient practice of the early church. Critics, however, are concerned that this might pave the way to allow women to serve as priests, despite Francis’ explicit reservations to the contrary.
Anthony McCarten’s cynicism about Roman Catholicism remains held back for most of The Two Popes, but it finally emerges the most starkly in his epilogue. “Were we able to look far into the future of the Catholic Church and learn that its fate was to become nothing more than a sacred book club, where fans gathered once a week to discuss their favorite characters and chapters, debate passionately the themes, and draw real life-lessons from shared readings, it could do a lot worse” (p. 205). So much for the inspirational character of the Roman church, rooted in real, historical truth. But McCarten’s cynicism is not just about Roman Catholicism. It is about the Christian faith itself.
There is a tension that McCarten exposes for all Christians to see. On one side is a reactionary, fundamentalist form of Christianity that believes that the Christian faith is under siege, and that the only option we have is to circle the wagons and fight against the incoming onslaught of secularism, etc. On the other side, is a watered-down form of Christianity that completely empties itself out of any and all concrete, historical reference points, in an attempt to show that Christianity is not fundamentally different than what a secular vision of reality is. Such liberal approach to Christian faith is merely a following of the secular trends, with a thin veneer of religious vocabulary and symbols pasted over the top. McCarten finds this latter approach to be more acceptable than the former. But interestingly, such liberalism is not compelling enough to encourage re-embracing the Christian faith himself.
I am not surprised.
Both forms of Christianity, the reactionary, conservative one, and the watered-down liberal one have effectively nothing to offer to the secular skeptic today, as McCarten would most probably describe himself. From my vantage point, the best path forward to revitalize Roman Catholicism and re-inspire the disillusioned is to be found in a robust dialogue with the other great traditions of the faith, evangelical Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in order to recover lost ground, and to rediscover what C.S. Lewis aptly called “Mere Christianity.”
The Two Popes was made into a Netflix film. I have not been very enthusiastic of some of the films Netflix has promoted, but this film is an exception to that. The Two Popes is very entertaining and the acting is really, really good (Anthony Hopkins, who plays Benedict is fantastic). Both men come across as more attractively human figures, as opposed to stereotypical, stuffy church officials. But the film lacks the nuance that the book has, which is probably to be expected when you try to take a book like this and squeeze the story down to a 2-hour film. The film takes a deeper look at the story of Francis, while comparatively spending less screen time looking at Benedict’s life story. For those reasons, I would recommend the book if you want a fairer treatment of history, but recommend the film for the entertainment value. In the end, viewing the film and particularly, in reading the book, it all helped me as an evangelical Protestant to understand the challenges of trying to maintain a robust, traditional Roman Catholic faith in an increasingly secular, postmodern world, that instinctively is prone to distrust religious institutions.
What do you think?