The Two Popes

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

There is a wonderful movie showing on Netflix which combines fiction and nonfiction to portray two differing theological visions. Called “The Two Popes”, it tells the story of the moment when Pope Benedict XVI (portrayed magnificently by Anthony Hopkins) decides to retire as Pope. The film maker imagines a meeting between Benedict and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires who would be elected as Pope Francis (played equally magnificently by Jonathan Pryce).

Pope Benedict XVI (Pope from 2005–2013), originally from Germany, was known for his conservative theological views and his campaign to rid the church of anyone not following traditional church doctrine and practices. Pope Francis (Pope from 2013 to the present), the first non–European Pope for 1,300 years, has championed progressive views and causes, especially on behalf of the poor.

The film, based on an original play by Anthony McCarten, claims to be “inspired by true events”. That doesn’t mean that the film portrays precisely what happened. We must always be careful with movies claiming to be “inspired by true events” since much of this film and others like it involve scenes which come only from the writer’s imagination for dramatic purposes.

Much of what the film shows actually never happened. Given the wide gulf that separates these two men in how they see God and the Church, it is impossible to think that Pope Benedict would inform Cardinal Bergoglio of his plan to retire.

However, while this meeting between the two men may not have happened this way, the movie does paint an accurate portrait of two opposing theological visions. The playwright creates a striking dramatic moment which provides the impetus for the movie to proceed, and which allows us to examine the conflict between these two visions.

At one point, Bergoglio tells Pope Benedict that he simply cannot resign. It will damage the Church because it has never happened before. Benedict responds that the church is changing and he cannot manage the change. He is the wrong man for the job, and so he has decided to retire. Benedict goes on to announce that in his opinion, Bergoglio is exactly the right man to oversee the church during this time of change.

Benedict can’t manage the change because his theology is rooted in a point of view which says that God is unchanging, and therefore the church cannot change either. We must continue to say the same things in the same ways as we have done over the last 2000 years.

It is a view rooted in the writings of the enormously influential philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who was active in the 13th century. Among other things, Aquinas taught that God alone is absolute, perfect, and unchanging. Everything else is finite and imperfect and subject to change. Aquinas’ view holds that G is static, nonrelational, and essentially timeless. Those who find this vision agreeable argue that therefore the church must keep the faith pure and inviolate. There is no room for change.

Pope Francis disagrees. He holds a vision of theology which says that change in the church is a necessary thing because he believes that God relates to human beings and responds to them in all the different circumstances of life. He understands that God changes in response to us.

A piece of dialogue from the movie highlights these two differing visions of God:

Francis: “Nothing is static in nature or the universe, not even God.”

Benedict: “God does not change.”

Francis: “Yes, He does. God moves towards us.”

Benedict (quoting John 14): “‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ Where should we find God if He’s always moving?”

Francis: “On the journey…”

As he exercises leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has shown himself to be much more progressive in his views than Pope Benedict could ever have imagined. These two churchmen could not be more divergent in their views and approaches.

Pope Francis thinks about God in a way which is open and relational. God is involved in a relationship with creation, and the changing circumstances of life cause a corresponding change within the heart of God.

There is solid Biblical warrant for thinking this way. I hope, over the next few months, to write more about this open and relational way of thinking theologically.

Pope Francis’ remarkable openness has caused concern among the more conservative leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. It has also caused people to wonder if there might be room for them in a church which is espousing new ways of viewing faith and theology and God. He is open to different ways of relating to people. It is a more welcoming vision, and it seeks to draw people into its more inclusive vision.

There is warmth and humour throughout this masterful drama which showcases two massive acting talents. The movie may not be factually correct. It is demonstrably true that some of these events never happened. But the movie does speak the truth about two different ways of viewing our faith — a more conservative view which you’ll find in most of the churches in Cranbrook, and a more progressive view which you’ll find in some of our churches.

If you are a subscriber to Netflix, it’s a movie worth watching.

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