a TAle of two popes
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
The delayed UK 2021 Census showed that the number of those identifying themselves as Christian had continued to fall and was now less than half of the overall population. A flurry of news stories brought tidings of secular joy at further evidence of Christianity’s decline, and variations on ‘oh dear’ from the different Churches.
British politicians still generally don’t ‘do God’, nor are they likely to. In this sense they may reflect public opinion, though the present Prime Minister does Diwali. Pan to President Trump outside St. John’s Episcopal church parish house, Washington, Bible in hand. US politicians, predominantly Republicans, for a variety of reasons increasingly do God.
The US Democrats might look enviously at Britain’s comfortable secularity. Evangelicals make up almost a quarter of the US population of 332 million and dominate American Protestantism. They share related commitments and attitudes: to biblical literalism, rejection of ideas other than their own, and for many, strange ideas about the end of the world alongside core Christian beliefs. In November 2020, White evangelical Christians voted 84% for Trump - up from 77% in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. The USA is in fact becoming more secular like the UK. Of people born in the US between 1981 and 1996 the respected Pew Foundation reported that 40% said they had no religion. Yet US politics are becoming more religious.
Since Reagan (1981-1989), Republicanism has increasingly appropriated the themes of its powerful evangelical backers. Thanks to the Republicans a package of religious issues, notably abortion, gay marriage, and gender, forced their way into Congress and the Supreme Court. In the 1970s abortion, Roe versus Wade, was essentially a Catholic issue. It had become a central evangelical concern by the 2020 Presidential election arousing passionate responses on both sides of the argument.
Both the leading British Parties in their pursuit of electoral advantage look over their shoulder at the tactics of the two American Parties. Both have used data collection and targeted campaigning. The Conservative Party has picked up a trick or two from the Republican Party, its wrecking ball tactics, its voter suppression. The Elections Act 2022 demands visual ID on the spurious grounds eliminating virtually non-existent identity fraud. It will have the effect of discouraging minority, younger and poorer voters.
Much of our contemporary insecurity derives from the rise and increased threat of unaccountable, authoritarian regimes, but also from the undermining of democracy by the politics of irrationality, by culture wars, lies and deceit. The takeover of American Protestantism by evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity decoupled faith from reason providing a religious antechamber to QAnon. US democracy itself barely survived the stress-test set by Trump. America’s slide in the last decade into near insurrection at the beginning of 2021, the British government’s rapid descent into the politics of factional farce, give a whole new meaning to the ‘special relationship’.
David Hollinger in his recently published Christianity’s American Fate presents US Christianity as a religious ‘two party’ system mapped onto the two political Parties. He labels the old mainstream Churches ‘ecumenical’: open to multi-culturalism and dialogue, at ease with enlightenment and science, committed to social justice - yet finding its congregations drifting away. The alternative - well-defended, populist, aggressive and burgeoning - Christian communities are immersed in culture wars set on winning at all costs. Reality is, of course, more nuanced with Jim Wallis’ evangelical Sojourners notable for its ‘social Gospel’. Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback mega-church has charted new territory (see the success of his book A Purpose Driven Life) helping minorities and outsiders and working on AIDS and recovery from addiction.
Roman Catholics like the evangelicals now make up nearly a quarter of the US population thanks to the growing number of Hispanic Americans. According to the Pew Foundation, the largely Catholic 32 million Hispanic voters split one third Republican two-thirds Democrat. But interestingly six out of ten White Catholics who attend mass monthly, or more often, voted for Trump in 2020 against 36% for their fellow Catholic Jo Biden. At this time there were 22 Catholic senators of whom 10 were Republican and 12 Democrat compared to 1965 when all but two of the then 14 Catholic senators were Democrats.
Because of the size and wealth of the US Church, the Catholic Church globally has felt the backwash from this growing politicisation. The movement against the present Pope, motivated both by the style and inclusive openness of his papacy, outside the Vatican is primarily US-based. In August 2018 Archbishop Carlo Viganò the Apostolic Nuncio (Vatican ambassador) to the USA from 2011-2016, led attempts to discredit Francis and push him to resign. Viganò was supported by some two dozen US bishops.
The recently elected leading officials of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) give some idea of the Pope’s problem. The President is Timothy Broglio, Archbishop to the military services, who in contradiction to the Pope’s message to get vaccinated called for a waiver for troops not wanting COVID vaccination. Broglio has also linked clerical homosexuality to sex abuse scandals, a widely rejected assertion.
The Vice-President is Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore chairman of the committee on Pro-Life Activities. Victims of the Maryland clerical sex abuse have called for his resignation. Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma is chairman of the key Committee on Priorities and Plans and current Secretary to the Conference. He has spoken out in favour of abolishing the death penalty but has also expressed “deepest respect for Archbishop Viganò and his personal integrity."
The former President of the USCCB, Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Coakley both hold advisory roles to a wealthy business association, NAPA (founded in a late 19th century in a small North California town of that name), which attracts super-rich members with strong right- wing views and Republican sympathies. It promotes in sympathy with powerful figures in the US hierarchy an ecclesial-political agenda opposed in most ways to Pope Francis' vision for the Church and Society, expressed in his speeches and encyclicals and shared to a great extent here in Britain by the Anglican and Catholic leaderships.
The late Pope Benedict who died on New Year’s Eve will perhaps best be remembered in Britain for his Westminster Hall speech on 17 December 2010 about the moral underpinnings of democracy. He found sympathetic listeners. “I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith - the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization”. A message the USA Republicans would do well to heed.
Thanks to the theological common-sense and caution of the Evangelical Alliance in Britain, the Anglican Church and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales as well as the Scottish Bishops, we have avoided the dangerous ecclesial-political convergence of the USA. Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism remain wedded to both faith and reason and have an important contribution to make to our weakened democracies.
The New Year holds many problems for both President Biden and Pope Francis who face heavy pressures that are related but different. The erosion of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic needs urgent remedy. And in 2023 commentators should resolve to remember that while numbers matter when it comes to church membership, numbers, vide the USA, are not necessarily a sign of good health.
See TheArticle 04/01/2023