Published January 15, 2020
George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference
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 2012, 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 and 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.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.