I just finished watching Two Popes on Netflix, and I couldn’t wait to talk about it here. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching it if for no other reason than the acting. Anthony Hopkins plays outgoing, highly conservative Pope Benedict and Johnathan Pryce plays incoming, highly progressive Pope Francis (who is his doppelganger). The movie is about their relationship and the eventual passing of the torch from the conservative to the progressive, despite strong disagreements and personality differences. Both share the concern that the Church is losing ground in people’s hearts, losing its effectiveness, but their fundamental views on religion and Catholicism are so different that they seem more likely to be enemies than friends. And yet, an odd sort of friendship forms between them which culminates in Pope Benedict’s private personal conviction (in the movie anyway), that the only future for Catholicism is for him to step down and allow the progressive Francis to lead.

I don’t know if this is a realistic interpretation of Pope Benedict’s views or not (an article on fact vs. fiction in the film can be found here), although it is a known fact that Pope Benedict unexpectedly stepped down which led to Pope Francis (his ideological nemesis) being made the next Pope. Although there was precedent, Benedict was the first Pope in over 700 years to renounce the office. The movie may be a progressive person’s fantasy of the necessity of moving forward. It could be an homage to the beloved Pope Francis. Who knows? To me, the value of the movie was in teeing up the differences between these two views and ultimately explaining to conservatism why progress is necessary. Here are some of the discussions that the movie presents.

Church Authority vs. Personal Morality

In an initial confrontation, Benedict has invited Francis to the summer palace without stating a reason for the meeting. Francis has made a formal request to retire which requires the Pope’s approval (because he is younger than 75), so he has brought his paperwork, assuming that the meeting is to review his request. Instead, Benedict denies his request and through a series of pointed questions exposes Francis’ “radical” ideas about women, divorce, homosexuality, and birth control. Francis speaks his opinions respectfully, but is rebuffed by Benedict who accuses him of lacking humility.

BENEDICT: So what matters is what you think, not what the Church has taught for hundreds of years?

This is the crux of their conflict. In Benedict’s eyes, Francis’ choices are a criticism of the Church (and of him, implicitly). He cites as an example that Francis refuses to live in the Cardinal’s palace in Argentina, but the Pope is living in the sumptuous Vatican. Even when he arrives in Rome, Francis is told by his driver that Benedict wishes for Cardinals to dress like Cardinals, not like bishops or priests. He realizes that he is too casually attired for Benedict’s preferences and asks the driver jokingly if he has a Cardinal’s hat lying around he can borrow as he hasn’t packed his. These outward manifestations are troubling to Francis who feels that people need to connect, not to revere authority, and he has survived the terror of dictatorship in Argentina and seen what poverty has done to people. In most of these early confrontations, Francis is deferential and downplays their differences out of respect for Benedict as the sitting Pope. He admits to his differing views, but calls them merely his own opinions. Benedict sees his evasions and wants him to be more direct.

BENEDICT: You said that the Church is narcissistic.

Francis admits to saying this, and he points out the ways in which he thinks it is true. He is trying to be tactful, but he also wants to make his case for retiring early.

Protecting the Church vs. Protecting the Flock

Their disagreement continues, until finally, in a fit of pique Francis blurts out what he really feels.

FRANCIS: I no longer wish to be a salesman for a product I no longer endorse!

This is probably the harshest statement he makes, and Benedict is taken aback. Francis talks about the Church’s poor handling of the sex abuse scandals, partly to explain his position.

FRANCIS: We fought these battles but all the time the real danger was within us.

Benedict refers defensively about the confession process that the priests who preyed on others followed, and Francis states with anguish:

FRANCIS: Confession cleans the sinner’s soul. It does not help the victim.

Tradition vs. Change

Benedict’s views are mostly couched as a love and respect for the history and tradition of the Church (whether this is accurate or not–it feels a little simplistic to me), and he finds peace and comfort in this static view of an unchanging, reliable God. Francis on the other hand sees God as in motion, not something static, and he is troubled by the Church’s stance toward marginalized people, those whose confessions he has heard for years.

BENEDICT: “Change is compromise.”
FRANCIS: “Life is change. Nothing is static in nature.”
BENEDICT: “God does not move.”
FRANCIS: “He does. He moves toward us.”
BENEDICT: “Then where do we find him?”
FRANCIS: “On the journey.”

Vocation: Peace vs. Call to Action

They each talk about their own personal vocation.

BENEDICT: When I was a young man…I always knew what God wanted of me, but now I don’t know . . . When I first heard that voice of God, it gave me such peace.

FRANCIS: The world can be chaotic, and there’s beauty in that.

Later in the film, Benedict also talks about how perspective changes with time.

BENEDICT: Perhaps the path only looks straight to us looking back. On the way, we feel lost.

Throughout the film, Benedict’s heart app continually interrupts the dialogue with a reminder that he must exercise. It continually says “Don’t stop now. Keep moving,” as if Benedict and the Church need a constant reminder that God’s work is active, not about traditions and comfort.

Worthiness Evaluation vs. Pastoral Care

Benedict challenges Francis on having given communion to those who were divorced, although they are not considered “good” Catholics.

FRANCIS: I believe that giving communion is not a reward for the virtuous. It is food for the starving.

Their disagreement deepens.

FRANCIS: Our church is moving in directions I can no longer condone. We are not connected to this world. I changed. Nothing is static in nature or the Universe. Even God. God moves towards us. We have spent these last years disciplining anyone who disagrees with us.

To make his point, Francis shares a joke about a young man who goes to the Priest.

FRANCIS: A young man asks the Priest, “Father, is it permitted to smoke while praying?”

BENEDICT: [sputtering] No, of course not! This is wrong!

FRANCIS: [smiling] The priest replies, you are asking the wrong question. Instead ask “Is it permitted to pray while smoking?”

BENEDICT: Oh, I see. [smiling vaguely]

Benedict admits he can never remember jokes. Francis sees God as having a sense of humor, but Benedict is portrayed as seeing God being more serious and not humorous. But he admires that Francis has a popular following, and he recognizes the ability to connect with people that Francis has.

Voluntary Retirement of Leaders

The entire film is based on the idea of Church leaders being able to choose to step down from their role. In the film, Francis has submitted his papers requesting early retirement, which requires papal approval for those under the age of 75. Benedict requests an in person meeting which is the basis for the movie (although fictional), and during that meeting, he not only declines Francis’ request, but he reveals his own plan to step down to allow Francis to become Pope. It’s like a game of papal hot potato (which would be even funnier in Spanish where “papa” means both pope and potato).

FRANCIS: “If you step down, you will damage the papacy forever.”
BENEDICT: “What damage will I do if I stay?”

Francis’ most fervent case against becoming Pope is one that (unlike the rest of the movie) paints him in an unfavorable light. He explains at length that during the dictatorship in Argentina, in order to attempt to protect his Priests and their order, he does not openly oppose the dictator who is a cruel thug, torturing and murdering any who oppose him. He even celebrates mass with him. He encourages Priests to leave the slums, and when he doesn’t back their decision to stay in harm’s way, they are tortured for months. In refusing to oppose the dictator, his reputation in Argentina suffers greatly, and his view of himself. He sees himself as having failed. In an ironic reversal from the argument about the sex abuse scandals, Benedict also takes him to task, although mildly, for protecting his own Priests but not the people, although he sees the success of protecting the ones he could protect.

BENEDICT: “Dictatorships take away our ability to choose.”
FRANCIS: “Or reveal our weaknesses.”

Nevertheless, it is this self-perceived gross failure in his youth (he was in his 30s) that causes him to change. He becomes more humble, listening to confessions for years and years, deeply listening to and empathizing with those who are seeking absolution, and he becomes more committed to justice in the world and more willing to speak up because he failed to do so at a crucial time.

What is ultimately remarkable about this film is that, although Benedict is largely portrayed as past his expiration date, he is the one who chooses to step down. He foresees his own irrelevance. He ultimately isn’t narcissistic and lacking in humility. As he explains to Francis, God corrects the mistakes of one Pope with another, and he looks forward to living to see his own corrections.

  • Do you wish our leaders were allowed to step down or does having a quorum remove the issue because there are so many built in backups and alternate voices?
  • Do you think ordinances should be a reward for the virtuous or food for the starving?
  • What do you think of Francis’ joke about smoking while praying vs. praying while smoking?
  • Do you see some of our leaders as more like Benedict or Francis?