“From its very beginnings, Christianity has been fond of buddy tales, i.e. stories in which two great defenders of the faith become close friends.”
Netflix’s recent release, The Two Popes, which debuted in November, is a charming film about the friendship between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. The footage is excellent, the artwork is gorgeous, and Anthony Hopkins (Pope Benedict XVI) and Jonathan Pryce (Pope Francis/Jorge Mario Bergoglio) were born to play those roles. Yet, great and enjoyable works of art can still be criticized for being propaganda, and I am afraid that The Two Popes is a case in point.
From its very beginnings, Christianity has been fond of buddy tales, i.e. stories in which two great defenders of the faith become close friends. One might be inclined to believe that Saint Peter and Saint Paul were great friends, but it is more likely that they disliked each other. So, at the very least, one must approach with some skepticism a film about two Popes being so overwhelmingly fond of one another. There have been no reports of open hostility between Benedict XVI and Francis; however, they do come from differing political factions (the former supported by conservatives, the latter supported by liberals) that have been at odds within the Vatican. And, as much as we may want to think of the Vatican as a saintly place, it is by no means free of the dirty-trick-politics that takes place in every other country of the world. So, while not necessarily hostile, I would consider it more probable that Francis and Benedict XVI’s relationship is colder and more distant than what is portrayed in The Two Popes.
Catholicism also has a long history of hagiography, biographies of saints told in the best light possible and lacking in critical approach. The Two Popes is all but a hagiography of Pope Francis. In the film, he is portrayed as eschewing fancy foods; he, instead, prefers to eat a simple meal of pizza. Benedict XVI plays somber music on the piano; Francis prefers to sing Abba tunes and dance the tango. Benedict XVI is a hermit who wants to run away from world problems. And so he hides in books; by contrast, Francis is a man of the people. As the film tells the story, Francis is unwilling to become Pope, and he only gives in at the very last moment.
In an age in which populism is becoming a common trend in politics, we are becoming increasingly aware of the tactics politicians use in order to present themselves in such a light.
Certainly, this is the image that Francis has fought hard to present. He washes prisoners’ feet and goes to eyeglasses stores without bodyguards. I am not at all moved by these gestures. In an age in which populism is becoming a common trend in politics, we are becoming increasingly aware of the tactics politicians use in order to present themselves in such a light. Long before Francis, another pontifex in Rome, Julius Caesar, pulled off the same trick. He famously staged a ceremony in which a laurel crown was to be placed on his head (thus proclaiming him as king), only to immediately reject it—all to huge popular acclaim.
Is Francis playing this game? Perhaps. At some point, he may have been genuinely humble. But, that humility has likely become little more than a publicity stunt, a form of what evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller calls “virtue signaling.” Washing prisoners’ feet is just a ploy to tell the rest of the world, “I am holier than thou.” Precisely for that reason, Francis makes sure there are cameras around whenever he is seeking to display how humble he is.
The Two Popes portrays speeches in which Francis speaks out against inequality, the neglect of immigrants, lack of accountability, and so on. Part of the populist style in politics is to criticize easy targets (who on Earth would be happy with immigrants dying on the Italian shore?). This becomes especially true if the target of denunciation is far removed from the denouncer’s inner circle. This is the kind of tactic the Soviets liked to employ; criticizing racism in the United States, for example, proved to be a convenient way of diverting attention away from the far greater oppression going on in the other side of the Iron Curtain. For Francis, it is quite easy to score points and get applause lines by targeting President Trump in his criticisms; yet, somehow, the Pope prefers to not mention human rights abuses when visiting Cuba or Myanmar. And even less would he like to comment on the Church’s sex abuse scandal or murky Vatican finances.
Most portrayals of Francis are hagiographies, but one particularly interesting indictment of Francis is Henry Sire’s 2018 book The Dictator Pope. Sire himself comes from the disgruntled ultraconservative faction in Catholicism, so his claims must be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, they do provide an interesting angle. Sire claims that during the 2005 conclave, one liberal wing of the Vatican (the so-called St. Gallen mafia) tried to elect Francis as Pope but to no avail. Then, in 2013, the same group tried again—this time successfully. Apparently, this group was desperate to have a Pope that would reform the Church’s mismanagement of finances and clerical sexual abuse, and they thought that a liberal such as Francis was perfect for the job.
The problem is that Francis is a very confusing man. He is a master at playing the “plausible deniability” game. One day he says that he is nobody to judge gays, and then another day he says gay marriage is the work of Satan.
One would get the impression that Francis is committed to this task because some heads have rolled. But, as Sire tells it, this has all been very selective, and the apparent reforms have just been tactics to settle old personal scores; Francis has chosen to protect some of his own “buddies.” In fact, corruption in the Vatican remains rampant, and Sire even claims without direct evidence that Francis diverted Vatican funds for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Sire relies on informants who allegedly are deep in the Vatican bureaucratic apparatus, but, as with many investigative reports, we simply cannot be certain about their trustworthiness. Sire certainly has an ax to grind, given his ultraconservative orientation that differs so much from that of Francis. Sire is of the variety that believes Vatican Council II was a catastrophe and claims that Francis’ ultimate goal is to destroy the Church from within, by relaxing doctrines and turning it into a liberal boogeyman.
I, for one, would be very happy with a Pope allowing women in the clergy, approving of gay marriage, divorce, and other liberal niceties. The problem is that Francis is a very confusing man. He is a master at playing the “plausible deniability” game. One day he says that he is nobody to judge gays, and then another day he says gay marriage is the work of Satan. Nobody really knows on what side he stands. And this is true of nearly every debate he engages in.
Benedict XVI was not a particularly charming guy, and that is certainly how The Two Popes portrays him. He was very conservative (a troglodyte, I dare say), and I despise many of his views regarding women, homosexuality, the history of the Church, the role of science in the modern world, etc. But, he was not playing games. He spoke his mind; he did not care what others thought about it, and he was very consistent in his views. By contrast, one never knows with Francis.
It may be that—as opposed to Benedict XVI’s intellectualism—Francis simply is not as intellectually sophisticated , so he can come across as confusing. Perhaps he has not given enough thought to what he says, as Juan Jose Sebreli argues in his criticisms of Pope Francis. I doubt that. It seems to me he knows very well what he is doing. This is, in fact, an old trick in politics. One can please a crowd by virtue signaling (as in the example of Caesar and the laurel crown), but you can also receive popular acclaim by playing the trial and error game in what you claim: you say something, you wait for the crowd’s reaction, and then you say something new that adjusts better to the crowd’s previous reaction. If you speak to different crowds, then say different things to each crowd and voila!, you win the popularity contest.
This is undiluted populism. Sire argues that Francis learned this trick from the political history of his native Argentina. Sire is likely onto something here. Unlike any other country in the 20th century, Argentina perfected the populist style, under the leadership of Juan Perón. Perón would listen to fascists, communists, liberals, and conservatives alike. And he would tell each of them that he agreed with their priorities. Naturally, in the eyes of Argentines, Perón, thus, became a “man of the people.”
The Two Popes narrates at some length Francis’ strange relationship with the Argentinean dictatorships of the 1970’s and 1980’s. As the film tells it, Francis hated the right-wing juntas but reasoned that he would help his ecclesial community by appeasing the generals so as to avoid further human right abuses. This is exactly the same type of excuse that has been offered for Pius XII’s lukewarm approach to Nazis.
Sure, perhaps both Francis and Pius XII did the right thing, and their approach ultimately saved lives. But, at least in the case of Francis, it likely had more to do with his own personality. He reminds me of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who played political roles with Louis XVI, the Revolution, survived Napoleon’s purges, and came back to play a part in the Bourbon restoration. Lafayette may have done great things, but ideological consistency was not his strong point. Francis is likewise an ideological chameleon. One may be inclined to believe that Francis one day says one thing and the next day says the opposite simply because—in the world of Catholic reform—one has to do things slowly in order to accomplish them. But I think it more likely that Francis’ ultimate goal is not reform itself but, rather, pure popularity and comfort with power. If the grassroots of Catholicism underwent a sudden shift to conservatism (as seems to be the case with Islam in the last three decades), I would bet Francis would no longer be the seemingly liberal Pope the Left now loves.
In The Two Popes, in contrast to Francis’ hipness, Benedict XVI comes across as the not so likable guy. It is clear who Meirelles (the film’s director) prefers. By contrast, I believe Benedict XVI is the greater man. Despite being very conservative, he did more for reform than Francis has done so far. We do not know why, exactly, Benedict XVI resigned. But, rumor has it that it was because he simply found the Church ungovernable and stepped down so that someone fresh could actually begin reforms. That was a very meaningful step and sent a powerful message. Francis, by contrast, says much and does little. Benedict XVI tried to do a job and—upon noticing that he could not do it—wisely stepped down. Francis’ focus is unlikely to rest on evaluating whether or not he is capable of fulfilling that obligation; rather, he clearly enjoys being the popular Pope, and that is more important to him than actually enacting reforms.
I don’t know if Francis is, as Sire would have it, a dictator pope. It seems strange that Sire would call him that, given that—by its very nature—the Papacy is not exactly a democracy (in what other country is the ruler officially considered infallible, apart from the Vatican and North Korea?). But, even if Francis is not a dictator himself, he is promoting the kind of political style that—very worryingly—is being imitated by dictators and dictator-wannabes in the 21st century. In our modern times, dictatorial power is no longer so much about being a ruthless despot but, rather, about capturing power and remaining in office through publicity stunts and pleasing the crowds. In other words, populism.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80