Tuesday 21 January 2020

Paddy Agnew: 'The truth about the two Popes'

The cinematic portrait of two pontiffs is entertaining viewing - but it owes more to fiction than historical fact, writes Paddy Agnew

The movie: The Netflix producton of The Two Popes stars Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce
The movie: The Netflix producton of The Two Popes stars Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce

Is the Netflix film The Two Popes merely a stylish "grumpy old men" movie or is it something much more serious? Do the film's many historical inaccuracies and its colourful inventions make it a dangerous conceit? Or in its beguiling, brilliantly acted "imaginings" does it touch on some of the most serious issues currently facing not just the Catholic Church but also mankind worldwide?

Having carried out my own, limited straw poll among Vatican colleagues and insiders, the answer is probably a bit of both. For the benefit of those who have not seen the film, it needs to be said that this is the story of an intriguing, imaginary dialogue between the current Pope, Francis, and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who of course is still alive and living, at the age of 92, within the walls of the Vatican.

At first glance, you might feel entitled to be sceptical about a film which is based on a meeting that never happened, which furthermore contains historical inaccuracies, out of context papal quotes and an erroneous timeline. Yet, the film is so stylishly produced, the script so well written and so brilliantly acted by Anthony Hopkins (as Benedict) and Jonathan Pryce (as Francis) that, for those not intimately familiar with Vatican affairs, it seems to have a real ring of truth.

When Reuters' senior Vatican reporter, Phil Pulella, returned home to the USA this Christmas, the film came up a lot in conversations with friends and relatives. He noticed that, not surprisingly, most people believed the film to be a faithful account of the way things unfolded. Many were surprised when he pointed out that much of the film was pure fiction.

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For example, the Rome meeting between Benedict and Francis, first in the gardens out at Castelgandolfo and later in the Apostolic Palace in Rome, allegedly in 2012, a meeting which forms the central "plot" of the film, never happened. When Francis made his last visit to Rome as Cardinal Bergoglio, rather than being warmly received and entertained by Benedict, he was largely ignored and shunned by the Curia and he later described his week in Rome as a horrible experience.

It is not just that there were no nights of pizza, Fanta and World Cup matches together for the two Popes. That is clearly a harmless invention, a massive dose of poetic licence. More important than the actual details of where and when they met or how they bantered about Eleanor Rigby around Benedict's piano is the fact that in 2012 there were real tensions between Cardinal Bergoglio, on the one hand, and the Roman Curia and Pontiff, on the other. There was no cosy chats around the papal hearth.

To be fair, however, The Two Popes does outline many of these differences in its imagined dialogue which underlines divergent positions on issues such as the poor, homosexuality, climate change, granting communion to the divorced, Francis's more humble lifestyle, all issues that have featured large in the Francis pontificate.

Here, however, the film is open to accusations of a little PR whitewash. For example, it has Cardinal Bergoglio apparently urging Pope Benedict to take a harder line on clerical sex abuse. Yet, the reality is that when he was elected in 2013, Francis was behind the ball game when it came to clerical sex abuse, certainly not as abreast of the issue as was Benedict.

The film even seems to suggest that Benedict had been remiss in his handling of notorious paedophile, womaniser and father of six, Fr Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ. Yet, in truth, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the then Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004 had reopened old investigations into Maciel.

It was made clear that the CDF was not prosecuting Maciel only because of his age (84 in 2004) while in the first year of his pontificate, Benedict ordered Maciel to retire from active ministry to a life of "prayer and penitence". Maciel was not defrocked, rather he was moved to a house for priests in Jacksonville, Florida where he died in 2008.

This might not seem like a very hard line but, during the same period, Cardinal Bergoglio was either ignoring or obstructing the victims of clerical sex abuse in his huge Buenos Aires archdiocese. Remember, Francis is the Pope who, in a book called On Heaven and Earth, published in 2010, told the Argentine rabbi Abraham Skorka that the clerical sex abuse problem did not exist in his archdiocese, saying: "In my diocese it never happened to me..."

No clerical sex abuse in the 15 million-strong megalopolis of Buenos Aires? Really?

To be fair to Francis, he was always someone who, by his age and by his formation, would have found it difficult to fathom the horrors of clerical sexual abuse. Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that Francis has had the humility and honesty to learn from his mistakes.

He has moved on, experiencing his own "road to Damascus" moment in 2018 when he realised how he had called it all wrong in relation to then burgeoning Chilean abuse crisis. However, to suggest now that Francis was a trailblazer on the sexual abuse trail is pure PPR, Papal Public Relations.

As too is the notion that Benedict, far from feeling antagonistic to Francis, had him marked out as his successor. There is no reason to sustain this. Benedict had beaten Francis in the 2005 papal election (early in the film), all right, but they were in many ways diametrically opposed. Furthermore, Benedict talked to almost no one about his resignation.

What, however, is true is that from the moment that he found himself on the seat of Peter, with the previous incumbent still alive and living just 400 metres away up the hill in his own large residence (formerly a monastery) in the Vatican gardens, Francis has handled the "other" Pope with great delicacy and diplomacy.

Francis would seem to have a genuine fondness and respect for the now very frail 92-year-old Pope Emeritus. Furthermore, he regularly invites him to the most important Vatican set pieces, he takes newly appointed Cardinals up the hill to meet Benedict and he regularly says that having Benedict live in Vatican City is like "having my grandfather at home".

For his part, Benedict regularly says that "there is only one Pope, Francis", most recently in a Corriere Della Sera interview last June.

The real two Popes have handled this whole potentially controversial issue wisely. Theologians and Vaticanisti, however, ask awkward questions. Namely, was Benedict entitled to appoint himself Emeritus (Honorary) Pope at all? Should he not rather call himself Emeritus Bishop of Rome? Should he continue to wear white and live in the Vatican?

After all, the Congregation of Bishops 2004 document, Apostolorum Successores, offers the following advice about how retired bishops should behave: "The Bishop Emeritus will be careful not to interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the diocese... He will want to avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan Bishop..."

Of course, Benedict is a retired pope, not just a retired bishop. The whole unprecedented office of Emeritus Pope was invented by him himself during the "interregnum" period between his February 2013 shock resignation (first in 500 years) and the March 2013 election of Francis.

In deciding to appoint himself Emeritus Pope, Benedict was probably much aided by his trusted private secretary, German Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, whom he had appointed Head of the Papal Household just a couple of months earlier. Curiously, Archbishop Gaenswein continues to serve "Two Popes" - moving from his office of Prefect of the Papal Household to his role as live-in, private secretary to Benedict.

What is true is that many observers have seized on the "confusion" of the contemporary existence of two Popes. The media-savvy Italian politician, former interior minister Matteo Salvini, is just one of many who occasionally don a T-shirt that reads: "Benedict is My Pope", a sentiment that prompts regular, but exaggerated "schism" scares.

The film The Two Popes is clearly no document of historical record. Yet, it is very entertaining and it touches on a raging worldwide debate between conservatism and a progressive attitude to many issues, not least climate change.

Furthermore, the fact that a huge poster promoting the film is currently displayed on a Vatican-owned building in Via della Conciliazione at the entrance to St Peter's Square would suggest that someone in the Holy See understands good publicity when they see it.

As one senior Vatican cleric said to me last week: "The best thing about it (The Two Popes) is that it has people talking about the Church and church issues..."

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