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The Two Popes: Baloney, brilliantly acted

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.

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)

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.


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About George Weigel 306 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

7 Comments

  1. Regardless of what Mr. Wiegel states were “the intentions of the electors,” it is crystal clear that the intention of the Pontiff Francis is the “decisive shift away from the Magisterium” of JP2 and B16, and “catching up with the world” (because as Francis’ hero, the Sankt Galen mafiosi Cardinal Martini complained, “the Church is 200 years behind.”

    The Pontiff Francis staged managed and presided over outright idolatry in Rome in Ictober 2019, and desecrated The Holy Sacrifice of The Mass by taking the black bowls offered to his pagan idol Pachamama, and placing them on the altar of Our Lord Jesus.

    We now have the “McCarrick-Pontiff” of idolatry, sodomy, vanity and infantalization, a sort of “Katholik” death cult that measures its success by the esteem felt for it by Bono and abortionist of the papal court Frau Ploumen and GENERAL SECRETARY Xi.

    It’s next clown Pontiff for the totally infantalized “McCarrick-Church-of-2013” is the television celebrity Cardinal Tagle of Manila, supreme sycophant of the Pontiff Francis, and heir to the dynasty of Caiphas…

  2. More denial from Weigel. Is he forgetting the public confirmation by several cardinals and other trustworthy sources – mccarrick, murphy-o-connor, daneels, maradiaga- that they campaigned for Francis and that since the 2005 conclave, they saw Bergoglio as the progressive candidate they had a chance at electing, and who would then implement their agenda items?

  3. Any (sincere)person who simply watches the trailer of this movie can see that it is a narrative of what the left wants everyone to believe happened, is happening, and what they hope will happen. The activist heterodox will store it away in his big basket of self-gratification, the orthodox will toss it in the trash and those average people who don’t attend Mass will continue not attending while forgetting what the movie was about as they await the next opportunity to put a few more dollars into the pockets of directors, screen writers, etc. who ultimately only care about lining their pockets while plying their dishonest trade.

    • I am appalled at the naivete of the commenters on this forum. I don’t profess to know him only by the electronic medium when working diligently to have child sexual abuse in the RCC in every country exposed.

      He had the courtesy to always reply when the Vatican pointedly ignored requests for records etc. He is unfailingly polite and a man of great integrity.

      I do not have any respect for the RCC though I was raised by a staunch religious order in rural Ireland which were undeniably cruel and vindictive. So much so they’ve now changed their Orders’ name.

      Hanora Brennan
      Ireland

  4. On this Feast Day of St.Anthony The Abbot , glad to know that there are those who do not claim all power of knowledge in interpreting visions , seeing themselves thus as the oracles for the times , to induce fear and lack of trust in God given authorities in The Church .
    True, as in days of St.Athanasius , we do have the massive errors of the death culture , not mostly from any lack of knowledge , instead , may be from focusing solely on what is wrong at the top, whereas one truly needs to instead look for the truth of own sins and all that comes with same .
    St.Anthony , in struggling for purity , embodied the theology of the body , wherein , even in the brain , those areas that control the lower appetites are situated beneath the large upper cortical brain areas and the water flows / cerebral fluid flows downward .
    The honor and reverence that need to be given The Father – would it be that The Spirit has intervened in a special manner , for these times of ours afflicted with massive Father wounds , that has thus attracted the father of lies and confusions in many lives and nations .
    Observations such as how a small butterfly has been given the capacity to smell a tiny tiny bit of perfume from another one ,even seven miles away – to help us to take in better what the odors of evil or sacredness can be – the latter being in oneness with God , lots more powerful , such as the effects of the holy saints .

    Pope Emer. Benedict , possibly having been called to augment the Face of The Father , being there , in the Vatican , like an invisible Father figure , to thus fill up the yearning to see The Father , in many a heart , may be to even offer reparation for the lack of enough honor for The Father , for the past too , that could have set back The Church for 200 years , by many in and out of The Church who used resources to bring the reign of the spirit of the world into many places .

    May the prayers of St.Anthony help to curb the pride of false interpretations of times and visions , breeding of divisions , esp. from his namesakes too so that we can soak in gratitude to The Father 🙂

  5. The Two Popes movie received very high reviews from the Jesuit Magazine “America”
    ” ‘The Two Popes’ is a tour-de-force that takes the Catholic Church seriously”. The Two Popes is also listed as one of the top 11 movies of the year by the same Jesuit magazine. Everything I have read has stated that it is a very accurate portrayal. The author may disagree. However, his is also just one opinion of many who have studied the two Popes and come to varying, valid, conclusions.
    I enjoyed the movie. It appears to be “spot on” in portrayal of the Two Popes.

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