The Two Popes

By on February 1, 2021

A year ago, Netflix streamed a wonderful movie called “The Two Popes”. Combining fiction and nonfiction, the movie is actually about two differing theological visions.

The story imagines that moment when Pope Benedict XVI (portrayed magnificently by Anthony Hopkins) decides to retire as Pope. He decides to meet with Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires who would be elected as Pope Francis (played equally magnificently by Jonathan Pryce).

Pope Benedict was known for his conservative theological views and his campaign to rid the church of anyone not following traditional church doctrine and practices. Pope Francis, the first non–European Pope in 1300 years, has championed progressive views and causes, especially on behalf of the poor.

The movie, which is based on a play by Anthony McCarten, is “inspired by true events”. Even so, many of the scenes could come only from the writer’s imagination for dramatic purposes. But it does paint an accurate portrait of two opposing theological visions. McCarten has created a striking dramatic moment which allows us to examine the conflict between these two visions.

At one point, Bergoglio tells Pope Benedict that he cannot resign; it has never happened before, and it will damage the Church. Benedict responds that the church is changing, and he cannot manage the change. He is the wrong man for the job, and he has decided to retire. Benedict’s opinion is that Bergoglio is the right man to oversee the church during this time of change.

Benedict’s theology is rooted in a vision which says that God is unchanging and therefore the church must not change. The church must conserve the values of the past 2000 years.

His view is rooted in the writings of the enormously influential 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas. Among other things, Aquinas taught that God alone is absolute, perfect, and unchanging. Everything else is finite and imperfect and subject to change. Aquinas’ view holds that God is static, nonrelational, and essentially timeless. Those who agree with this vision argue that the church must keep the faith pure and inviolate. There is no room for any substantive change.

Pope Francis disagrees. His vision is that the church must change because God has a relationship with creation, responding to us in all the different circumstances of life. God does change, because a true relationship requires it.

Listen to the two men state their vision:

Francis: “Nothing is static in nature or the universe, not even God.”

Benedict: “God does not change.”

Francis: “Yes, He does. God moves towards us.”

Benedict (quoting John 14): “‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ Where should we find God if He’s always moving?”

Francis: “On the journey…”

Pope Francis thinks about God in a deeply relational way. God’s relationship with creation is such that as we change, there is a corresponding change within the heart of God.

Many find this a difficult way of seeing God. However, there is solid Biblical warrant for this vision. Indeed, Pope Francis’ remarkable openness has caused concern among the more conservative leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. It has also caused people to imagine that there might be room for them in a church which is moving towards new ways of viewing faith and theology and God. He is open to different ways of relating to people. It is a more welcoming vision, and it seeks to draw people into its more inclusive vision.

There is warmth and humour throughout this masterful drama which showcases two massive acting talents. The movie may not be factually correct, but it does speak a truth about two different ways of viewing our faith.

It’s worth watching.


  • Yme Woensdregt

    The Rev Dr Yme Woensdregt was a priest in Kootenay Diocese, BC (1953-2023)

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