The Two Popes (dir. Fernando Meirelles) is a preposterous fiction that makes a travesty of a very real, undeniable history as well as a mockery of human suffering and depredations. Any sane human that participates in even rudimentary Vatican watching should walk out of the film and puke.
Skeptics will probably repudiate me harshly. “But what about the adorable performances of Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins?” “What about the script, a theology-tinged re-staging of The Odd Couple in Rome?” Yes, Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who (***SPOILER ALERT***) will eventually be elected Pope Francis, are two cuddly raisins in vestments who ruminate upon their distinct differences, from the shallow (Did you know the Argentine prelate listens to Abba and The Beatles????) to the diabolical (both hear each other’s confessions on collaboration with evil).
But what lies at the core of the picture is a preposterous fabrication.
At the outset, we need to understand that Pope Benedict was the second of two deeply-reactionary hardliners within the Catholic Church’s monarchical hierarchy that took the throne so to role back the gains made by human society with the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. The Church, forced to look itself in the face for its moral failures during World War II and a Cold War they had helped start, adopted reforms that would have brought the faith out of the medieval era.
It gave up on insistence the Mass be said in Latin, a move that finally renounced the charge that Jews bore eternal responsibility for Christ’s death. Perhaps most importantly, with every postcolonial national liberation of the Global South being tarred as “Communist” by the North, Vatican II germinated Liberation Theology by doctrinally introducing the preferential option for the poor, a move that allowed priests to work with their congregations for social justice and thereby offer these peasants a modicum of protection from malicious thugs like the Contras in Nicaragua or murderous landowners in Brazil.
Benedict XVI and John Paul II before him both hailed from countries with deep-rooted conservative traditions. Joseph Ratzinger, a member of Hitler Youth, and Karol Wojtyla, the anticommunist Pole, worked as a team over the decades, smothering South American Liberation Theology and sacrificing its priests to the death squads while slowly but steadily allowing the most reactionary elements of Church theology to make a comeback.
Both these prelates worked closely with the Reagan administration. In so doing, they looked the other way while beasts like the late Marcial Maciel, a pedophile and serial sexual assailant whose Legion of Christ pushed the reactionary line, racked up cash in Church coffers. That perverted Mexican priest’s profile is a stunning counterexample of the way these two popes operated in Latin America when ideology suited their needs. Meanwhile, as the HIV/AIDS virus became a global health catastrophe, it was the absurd promulgation of Church teachings forbidding condom use by HIV+ believers that needlessly condemned entire nations to a deadly plague.
Bergoglio was elected Pope in 2013 as the house of cards was crumbling. The increase of grotesque inequality across the world made Benedict, who sported ornate vestments, jewelry, and accoutrements, look like one of the money changers Christ legendarily exiled from the temple. The 2008 economic crisis had plunged the EU into the political pressure-cooker that eventuated the ascendancy of neo-fascism across the continent, beginning in the very Eastern European countries that had been “liberated” from Communism. Meanwhile, continuous revelations of child sex abuse, combined with Benedict’s absolute indifference if not outright hostility, cratered Mass attendance across the globe. Francis came to the throne as four decades of these political currents had metastasized within the institution.
To be clear, I do not see Francis as some sort of radical revelation. Instead he operates as a rather conservative Christian Democrat with a stupendous press operation led by former Fox News reporter Greg Burke, who is himself a member of the infamously-secretive Opus Dei of DaVinci Code fame. (American political discourse has just moved so far to the right in the past four decades that Christian Democracy, historically a global political project explicitly formulated to combat the electoral and unionization gains of Socialist and Communist Parties, now seems like Bolshevism.) In Europe, Francis’s position on climate change and the welfare state is actually very mainstream for Christian Democracy.
However, since he took the throne, Francis has taken on deep-seated corruption, beginning with the historically-criminal Vatican Bank, which has offered money laundering services to criminals worldwide. His emphasis on pre-existing traditions regarding climate change, ideas originally articulated by his two predecessors, aim to stab at the heart of major petrochemical capitalist interests. His emphasis upon charity and asylum for Middle Eastern refugees in Europe along with ecumenism towards Islam has alienated those in the pews who historically used their faith as a smokescreen for xenophobia and racism (as was the case with the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Le Pen political dynasty.)
As such, reactionaries within the hierarchy with deep ties to actors like Steve Bannon have been trying to scuttle this papacy from the start. Most recently, the highly-publicized letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that called for the Pope to resign over his handling of pervy Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s case, a cynical and disgusting manipulation of the child abuse scandal that intended to return to power those responsible for the multi-decade cover-ups, was the most prominent episode in this civil war.
Into this mix stepped Pope Emeritus Benedict last April with a bizarre screed that blamed the sexual abuse scandals on — what else? — the Sixties. Nevermind that Francis had just held a massive conference to begin the process of rooting out the structural problems, which in a roundabout way would have indicted Ratzinger for his dismal career. Ignore the simple timeline calculations, that goblins like Fr. Maciel were apparently diddling seminarians in the ’40’s and ’50’s, way before the Fab Four hit Ed Sullivan. Nope, it’s all the fault of fags, hippies, and abortion.
In the stupendous (and gossipy to the sensational Kenneth Anger extreme) In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by French journalist Frédéric Martel, released last February, we get a much different picture. The author, who interviewed 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and 45 apostolic nuncios, states the rather obvious, that the Vatican is basically an insane asylum that has been taken over by the self-hating homophobic patients. Most of the closet cases, such as aspiring Maria Callas impersonator Cardinal Raymond Burke, are deeply entrenched with Bannon, Trump, and other ascendant neofascist forces across the globe. They are on the cusp of open rebellion against Francis and parrot the Jurassic Benedict’s theo-political line to the last jot.
Meanwhile in Netflix fantasy land, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins end the picture as bosom buddies, chumming it up over Fanta and World Cup broadcasts. This film had the opportunity to dramatize a truly influential and monumental ideological clash that can and will impact American politics for the next several decades. While Roman Catholicism is a dwindling minority in America, it is a majority on a Supreme Court that can and will make major decisions about our everyday lives in the coming decades, all decisions that will use Catholicism as an excuse for perpetuation of misogyny, homo/bi/trans-phobia, and repression of the underprivileged.