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The One Pope

The Two Popes should, by rights, be called The One Pope, for it presents a fairly nuanced, textured, and sympathetic portrait of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and a complete caricature of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).

Anthony Hopkins portrays retired Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce portrays Pope Francis in a scene from the movie "The Two Popes." (CNS photo/Peter Mountain, courtesy NETFLIX)

The new and much-ballyhooed Netflix film The Two Popes should, by rights, be called The One Pope, for it presents a fairly nuanced, textured, and sympathetic portrait of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and a complete caricature of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). This imbalance fatally undermines the movie, whose purpose, it seems, is to show that old grumpy, legalistic Benedict finds his spiritual bearings through the ministrations of friendly, forward-looking Francis. But such a thematic trajectory ultimately does violence to both figures, and turns what could have been a supremely interesting character study into a predictable and tedious apologia for the filmmaker’s preferred version of Catholicism.

That we are dealing with a caricature of Ratzinger becomes clear when, in the opening minutes of the film, the Bavarian Cardinal is presented as ambitiously plotting to secure his election as Pope in 2005. On at least three occasions, the real Cardinal Ratzinger begged John Paul II to allow him to retire from his position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and to take up a life of study and prayer. He stayed on only because John Paul adamantly refused the requests.

And in 2005, upon the death of John Paul, even Ratzinger’s ideological opponents admitted that the now seventy-eight-year-old Cardinal wanted nothing more than to return to Bavaria and write his Christology. The ambitious plotting fits, of course, the caricature of the “conservative” churchman, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the flesh-and-blood Joseph Ratzinger. Furthermore, in the scene depicting an imagined meeting between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio in the gardens at Castel Gandolfo, the aged Pope frowningly lashes out at his Argentinian colleague, bitterly criticizing the Cardinal’s theology. Once again, even Joseph Ratzinger’s detractors admit that “God’s Rottweiler” is in fact invariably kind, soft-spoken, and gentle in his dealings with others. The barking ideologue is, again, a convenient caricature but not even close to the real Ratzinger.

But the most serious mischaracterization occurs toward the end of the film when a dispirited Benedict, resolved to resign the papacy, admits that he had stopped hearing the voice of God and that he had begun to hear it again only through his newfound friendship with Cardinal Bergoglio! Mind you, in saying the following I mean not an ounce of disrespect to the real Pope Francis, but that one of the most intelligent and spiritually alert Catholics of the last one hundred years would require the intervention of Cardinal Bergoglio in order to hear the voice of God is beyond absurd. From beginning to end of his career, Ratzinger/Benedict has produced some of the most spiritually luminous theology in the great tradition. That he was, by 2012, tired and physically ill, and that he felt incapable of governing the great apparatus of the Catholic Church—yes, of course. But that he was spiritually lost—no way. Again, it might be a fantasy of some on the left that “conservatives” hide their spiritual bankruptcy behind a veneer of rules and authoritarianism, but one would be hard pressed indeed to apply this hermeneutic to Joseph Ratzinger.

The very best parts of this film are the flashbacks to earlier stages in the life of Jorge Bergoglio, which shed considerable light on the psychological and spiritual development of the future Pope. The scene depicting his powerful encounter with a confessor dying of cancer is particularly moving, and the uncompromising treatment of his dealings with two Jesuit priests under his authority during the “Dirty War” in Argentina goes a long way to explaining his commitment to the poor and to a simple manner of life.

What would have infinitely improved the film, in my humble judgment, is a similar treatment in regard to Joseph Ratzinger. If only we had had a flashback to the sixteen-year-old boy from a fiercely anti-Nazi family, pressed into military service in the dying days of the Third Reich, we would understand more thoroughly Ratzinger’s deep suspicion of secularist/totalitarian utopias and cults of personality. If only we had had a flashback to the young priest, peritus to Cardinal Frings, leading the liberal faction at Vatican II and eager to turn from preconciliar conservatism, we would have understood that he was no simple-minded guardian of the status quo. If only we had had a flashback to the Tubingen professor, scandalized by a postconciliar extremism that was throwing the theological baby out with the bathwater, we might have understood his reticence regarding programs advocating change for the sake of change. If only we had had a flashback to the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith composing a nuanced document, both thoughtfully critical and deeply appreciative of Liberation Theology, we might have grasped that Pope Benedict was by no means indifferent to the plight of the poor.

Now, I realize that such a treatment would have made for a far longer movie, but who cares? Heck, I was willing to sit through three-and-a-half rather tedious hours of The Irishman. I would have been happy to watch four hours of a film that was as honest and insightful about Joseph Ratzinger as it was about Jorge Mario Bergoglio. It would have made not only for a fascinating psychological study, but also for an illuminating look at two different but deeply complementary ecclesial perspectives. Instead, we got more of a cartoon.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 186 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

14 Comments

  1. This whole papacy has been marked by propaganda from the beginning. I remember within days of his election there was breathless talk of the “Francis Effect”. It struck me as so desperate and orchestrated.

    Since then we’ve seen many of Francis’ greatest cheerleaders caught red handed in lies, manipulations and engaging in propaganda exercises. Something has been off in the Church ever since Benedict’s resignation. Movies like the “Two Popes” just prove how desperate some in the Church are willing to craft and force an untrue narrative to achieve their agenda. I see little of God in these schemes.

  2. The “One Pope” review expressed my take-away so accurately that I though someone had read my mind. Anyone that reads what Pope’s write will see through the misrepresentations in this one-sided portrayal of what makes the Catholic Church what it is – one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that is faithful to Christ and is word – not to the Peter’s and Paul’s that shoulder the grave responsibility of holding to the fullness of truth.

  3. It is the definition of injustice that Anthony Hopkins, who in real life cold-heartedly abandoned his young wife and baby daughter, makes money by falsely portraying a man who is a good father: Pope Benedict XVI.

    Read about Hopkins and his absolutely cold hearted rejection of his daughter in the link below (there are dozens of similar links available):

    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5759679/Why-Anthony-Hopkins-barely-spoken-daughter-20-years.html

    What o farce, that a man as low as Anthony Hopkins makes money smearing a good and great and holy father.

    • Exactly what does Hopkins private life have to do with his playing Benedict? Is you life sin free? He who casts the first stone….

      • M. S. –

        Since, as Pat Long (and others) observe, the movie “says nothing true” about Benedict, it is a lie. A very big lie.

        If a man of Hopkins intelligence is the man telling the lie, then Hopkins is a liar. And his lie bears false witness against a good and intelligent and faithful father, portraying him as a louse.

        So here we have a real life louse, Hopkins, telling a lie that another man is a louse, and doing it for money,

        It is malicious and under-handed behavior by Hopkins, to smear a good man, when Hopkins himself is money-grubbing liar and dead-beat spouse and father.

        But setting aside lying and hypocrisy and callousness by Hopkins, I am unaware of other reasons to object to Hopkins’ caricature of Joseph Ratzinger.

        Or to extend your analogy: people (like Hopkins) who live in glass houses shouldn’t “throw stones.”

    • Conspiracy theories have been abound since the dawn of the church.
      So, whatever your affiliation, don’t
      create an issue where none exists.
      How is it that John Paul 11 wanted Ratzinger to be the next Pope!
      Is he already appointing his successor to the throne.
      That is much worse.

  4. I would also observe that Bishop Barron’s use of the political words “liberal” and “conservative” (using them sometimes without quotations and at others with same) displays a failure to communicate.

    What on earth the two terms are meant to indicate is impossible to detect.

    These are empty terms that operate (intentionally or not) only as dog whistles, leading readers nowhere.

    I would also observe that Bishop Barron has recently announced the hiring of John Allen onto his “Word on Fire” team, which I take as a VERY BAD about Bishop B, because Allen was part of the mob that went after Joseph Ratzinger for years, and wrote a book caricaturing a Ratzinger in a way similar to the film. And Allen is the worst kind of Church agitator:

    A – he speaks at colleges gomenting division by labeling people who love tradition as “Taliban Catholics;” and

    B – he wrote a fawning obituary for the sex abuse coverup artist Cardinal Danneels, a monster who stood against the Catholic Vangelhuwe family and refused them justice against their own uncle, protecting his friend the Belgian Bishop Roger Vangelhuwe, “the Belgian McCarrick,” who raped his own little nephew and tried to get away with it.

    I am beyond disappointed to see Bishop Barron team up with a man like Allen, who in my view has spent his life trying to subvert the Church, first as a reporter for the subversive National Catholic Reporter, and now defending sex abuse coverup artists like Danneels at the subversive Crux website.

    It strikes me as odd that on one hand Bishop Barron says “he gets lay Catholics who are appalled at the sex abuse scandal,” and on the other hand he teams with men like Allen who defend these monsters like Danneels.

    It doesn’t make Bishop Barron seem very consistent as a Catholic Bishop…it only makes him seem like, to use his choice of words, a “liberal Bishop,” which is what Allen thought of Danneels.

    Depressing, I had hoped for better from Bishop Barron.

  5. I agree with Archbishop Barron. I thought the movie was one side and very unfair to the Pope Emeritus. It really said nothing true about this good priest.

  6. One of Hollywood’s most pervasive limitations (and I lump Netflix in with Hollywood; they have aped the Hollywood establishment in every possible way since they got into the content business) is that it is so often locked into the Us vs. Them mentality.

    Which works fine if your story deals with a narrative featuring Nazis or drug cartels or contract killers.

    But that template often falls short with stories with more nuanced characters.

  7. Having met Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, many years ago at a conference, I came away with the impression of a man that has dedicated his entire life to his faith, and to the people of God; over the years from reading his books, listening to his speeches, it has remained.

    That is NOT how the character with the same name in this fictional movie was written or portrayed.

  8. If memory serves me correctly, John Allen , wrote very complementary about Bishop Barron in one of his latest books. In this book, i believe Allen mentions Barron considering himself a reformed liberal. What is a reformed liberal, and what does one look like!

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