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The Two Popes and St. Stephen

January 12, 2020

OK, so I can’t let the conversation on this film go on without offering my thoughts.

I watched Netflix’s The Two Popes on December 26, the Feast of St. Stephen. In no way are the two stories similar, however, I couldn’t help seeing a connection.

The Two Popes is a film by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles and written by New Zealander, Anthony McCarten (who also wrote The Theory of Everything and Bohemian Rhapsody). It is an adaptation from McCarten’s 2017 play The Pope.

In case you are not familiar with the film, it is a fictional story starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who later becomes Pope Francis.

I don’t intend to do a review on the film (there are lots of great reviews – and Catholic at that – that you can read. See below for some suggestions). I will say that from a film point of view, it is good: It is well written, well shot, well directed and well performed.

I do want to re-iterate that this film is a work of fiction.

While the characters are real people and they refer to real historical events, this meeting between Benedict XVI and Bergoglio never took place. It is possible that the two would have had some of these conversations, but it is unlikely. It is certainly not true that they spent two days together in 2012 before Benedict’s 2013 resignation.

As fiction, it is acceptable that the filmmakers would have altered some facts (presumably to make the story more dramatic). This is the “Hollywood-izing” of a story that I think is acceptable. (For example the representation that Bergoglio had a fiancé when he decided to enter the seminary. This is not true. But it makes the character’s choice to enter the priesthood more dramatic.)

Now, I would say that it is close to impossible to make a film (or say anything, for that matter) that is not biased. Perhaps the whole point of making a film is because the filmmakers have  a point of view.

The biases of The Two Popes’ filmmakers is pretty clear. These are not choices that are made for dramatic purposes.

For example, at the 2005 Conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger is shown to be lobbying to be elected pope. We know this is far from the truth. There is also the idea that Benedict resigned because he wanted Bergoglio to be Pope. Very unlikely.

We also have Ratzinger portrayed as a strict “conservative” who as pope is out of touch with the Church, while Bergoglio is the hip “liberal” who is “with-the-times”. I would challenge these views. Just because Bergoglio may have a more pastoral approach and Ratzinger would have been more traditional or doctrinal, doesn’t mean that one is “liberal” and the other “conservative”. We could probably find instances where the real Benedict was very pastoral and the real Francis very doctrinal. (I also think the movie encourages the false idea that there is such a thing as a liberal or conservative Catholic. These political labels are not appropriate when it comes to describing the Church.) This is why many have described the portrayal of Pope Benedict as a caricature. I would say that the portrayal of Bergoglio (even though his is more likeable), also a caricature.

But again, I’ll leave the details to the Catholic film reviewers.

There are, however, two factual errors in the film that I do think are grave.

They happen in a moving scene towards the end where both men offer Confession to the other. Bergoglio shares some facts about his time as Jesuit Superior during Argentina’s dirty war. While I am pretty sure that most of these facts are true (I’ll have to check with Austen Ivereigh), the viewer may be left with the impression that Bergoglio was complicit with the country’s dictatorship. (BTW if you are looking for a great biography on Francis, Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer is the one to get)

More grievously, when it’s Benedict’s turn to confess, he begins mentioning the Maciel affair. Most of us will remember the case of Legionary of Christ founder Marcial Maciel. The audience never hears the content of the confession but again, we are led to believe that as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger would have known something about Maciel’s abuses and did not act upon it. Worse, that he covered some of it up! The truth is that it was Ratzinger (and then Pope Benedict XVI) who did act and brought an end to that whole mess.

Other than being potentially libelous, these two insinuations can be harmful for the Church.

As I read the Gospel from Feast of St. Stephen (Acts 6: 8-7:2a, 44-59), It hit me that promoting falsehoods to support your own ideas has been around for a long time.

In the case of Stephen, it was the members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen who began to spread fake news about what he was saying. This led him to be taken straight to the High Priest and the Jewish Council. Stephen was questioned, “Did Jesus say that he would destroy the Temple?”

Stephen’s answer is what leads them to grind their teeth at him, rush him out to the edge of town and stone him to death.

According to the written account, Stephen never answered the question. Had he simply responded, “Yes, Jesus said that, but He was speaking of his body” or had he answered by saying that Jesus never said He was going to change the law or the customs that Moses handed down to them – maybe things would have turned out differently.

Maybe not.

I am not comparing Pope Francis (or Benedict) to St. Stephen, although in many cases, I have found similar situations where there are unfounded attacks, lies, intended misinformation and no chance to make a proper defense.

I believe this happens to many people today. Something is said in public and then shared out of context. Those who don’t like the person who spoke the words latch on to that false statement and it goes from there.

It’s been happening since before St. Stephen.

And when we try to challenge the accusations, we can only address one thing at a time and that sometimes confuses things more. Stephen began to respond by trying to appeal to his attackers’ Jewishness – reminding them that God told David that HE did not live in a house made by men… but somehow the argument went sideways and instead of going back to “Jesus is the fulfillment of the Promise” he ends with “you are betrayers and murderers”. Oy vey!

We don’t know exactly how St. Stephen’s trial went. We do know that he was accused falsely by those who disagreed with him and wanted to take him down. They promoted falsehoods about him. It’s quite possible that those who ended up accusing him in front of the High Priest believed the false accusations they were making because they believed those who began spreading the rumours.

In the same way, The Two Popes, promotes biases that the filmmakers likely believe are true.

Let me repeat that I think it is a good film. It’s a good idea. It’s a good script. But it is a work of fiction in the same way that The Da Vinci Code is a good work of fiction. It’s OK to watch these films. It is not OK to assume that everything they profess is the Gospel Truth. Watching The Crown is OK. It is a good show. But no one would pretend to believe that everything that is portrayed in it is necessarily factual. It’s not supposed to be.

St. Stephen’s accusers should have done more research before jumping to conclusions. The outcome may have been very different. Those who watch The Two Popes should also not jump into conclusions.

I can’t help thinking about how last year has been about fake news.  Click here and read what I have to say about that.


Reviews you should check out:

Word on Fire
The Catholic World Report
The  National Catholic Reporter
America Magazine

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

From → English, Opinion

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