In The Two Popes Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis - then Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio - portray two very different personalities but also a touching, indeed charming, relationship between the two. The Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’s film is taken up with their - obviously imagined - conversations and discussions. Who might know to what degree screenplay and reality coincide? Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s private secretary, for one.
After Francis became Pope in February 2013, Gänswein retained his role as prefect to the papal household but moved to the monastery in the Vatican gardens where he cared for the Pope Emeritus for the next ten years. On 12 January, with Benedict interred in the crypt of St. Peter’s, and with the help of an Italian journalist, Archbishop Gänswein published Nothing but the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI.
His story is of Benedict’s exemplary papacy. He clearly has a filial love for Benedict. But this is no feel-good story. Not quite as contentious as Spare, the Duke of Sussex, Harry’s tell-all, but a detailed memoir revealing a lot more than Vatican decorum would normally permit, some of it petty.
Previews of Gänswein’s book revealed written exchanges which showed important unresolved disagreements and tensions between the two Popes. There was, it seems, disagreement over Pope Francis curbing the growing celebration of the Latin Mass, his opening up of debate on the question of priestly celibacy in the context of the 2019 Synod on the Church in the Amazon, and his openness to considering the plight of couples divorced but in a civil marriage and not allowed to receive communion. Add to that Francis’ Synodale Weg (Synodal Path), his innovative rolling global consultation on the future of the Church focused on mission, participation and communion. During 2022 the consultation surfaced more neuralgic issues: the ordination of women – entirely off piste for John Paul II - and the blessing of same-sex marriages. The message from his opponents: Pope Francis was capitulating to the ‘modern zeitgeist’.
Publishing Nothing but the Truth, with the moderating and restraining presence of Benedict gone, Gänswein is expressing the views of a minority of bishops. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger, the intellectual German Professor who became Pope Benedict XVI was the ‘continuity’ candidate. But Cardinal Bergoglio, the ‘Italian’ Argentine who personified a global Church and reflected the Latin American origins of ‘the preferential option for the poor’ offered a different compass bearing. He won the second largest number of votes from the assembled cardinals in 2005 and a majority in 2013.
The two Popes shared common concerns and commitments but embodied two different and apparently incompatible visions of the needs and future of the Church, as well as having two different personalities and priorities. Popes don’t just live in an ecclesiastical or theological world. The context in which they grow up, the historical moment, their experience of life differs and matters.
As an adolescent during the Second World War Joseph Ratzinger, forced into membership of Hitler Youth and conscripted into the army, was forming his views of the world. He saw National Socialism, a rag-bag of fascist and racist ideas, reduce his country to an unimaginable nightmare of destruction and genocide. In 1968 as a theology professor in Tubingen he witnessed another rag-bag of political ideas, this time from the student Left, and supported by lecturers, disrupting the university’s intellectual life. He was deeply, perhaps disproportionately, upset. I once asked his fellow German Cardinal Walter Kasper if accounts of the impact of this experience hadn’t been exaggerated. But he confirmed their accuracy. The events at Tubingen had a lasting effect.
After 1968, Rev. Professor Ratzinger turned from contributing to and championing the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council to worrying about to what extremes its ideas might lead. Whilst serving as Pope John Paul II’s head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he censored and silenced theologians, notably proponents of the theology of liberation. Was it for fear of what their ideas might develop into and where they might end up? Is it too much to suggest such anxieties might have had their origins in 1940s Germany?
On the other hand, many would say that it was during the Guerra Sucia, Argentina’s Dirty War, that the future Pope Francis went through his most critical experiences. Between 1974 and 1983 when he was Jesuit Superior, the military regime murdered and tortured at least ten thousand of its opponents. Two of his Jesuits who refused to leave their work amongst the poor were taken and tortured by the military. Reflecting on these events – and others agreed - Francis concluded that he had let his brethren down by failing to confront the regime and by overestimating the effect of quiet influence.
Different formative experiences at different stages of their lives undoubtedly influenced the different leadership styles, personal behaviour, teaching and ecclesiastical priorities of the two Popes. We all have our comfort zones. To all appearances Pope Benedict’s natural environment was a theological seminar, faith seeking knowledge. Pope Francis is naturally at home meeting people, modelling respect for the individual and the simple demands of justice. In 2017 I was amazed to see him, after a grueling day and a long conference, shaking hands with, and being photographed with, each person emerging from the packed aula. His theology is as much about ‘show’ as ‘tell’.
Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and loyal servant to John Paul II, nurtured and enforced unity in the Church. German and Polish experience had taught them that unity based on strength and solidarity was the necessary bulwark against first fascism then bureaucratic communism. Divisive questioning was not to be tolerated. Pope Francis believes in resolving questions that beset the universal Church by opening them up even when they are creating divisions. He is treated with disdain and disloyalty by those who disagree with him.
For the last decade, the whole of Francis’ papacy, there have been not just two sources of authority in the Vatican, but two narratives mapped onto their personalities, mind-sets and teaching. This is not about to stop. The absence of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s restraining influence will, most likely, sharpen the disagreements and intensify disloyalty to Francis. The divisive issues are real and important, but as The Two Popes shows, dialogue in friendship with mutual respect and a shared sense of responsibility is always possible.
Already battle lines are being drawn up over the election of the next Pope. It is time passionate partisans find the words “I am right but you’re not wrong”, and for all to acknowledge that the principle “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” may apply to the papacy as well as to physics.
See The Article 16/01/2023