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Thoughts on Netflix’s “The Two Popes”

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

by Kevin Joshua Cosme

Into the Areopagus

If you’ve ever watched HBO’s Game of Thrones, you’ve probably wondered how the show managed to cast Pope Francis as the High Sparrow.

Ok, not the pope himself but a guy who looks a lot like him. Since his character came out in season 5 of GOT, people have been saying how uncannily Jonathan Pryce resembles our reigning pontiff.

Not only that, Pryce’s character also reminds one of Pope Francis, at least by way of austerity in dress and the spiritual headship of multitudes (but minus the violent religious fanaticism). It made him the butt of jokes and the perfect choice to play said pope in a future project.

MEME TEMPLATE | Jonathan Pryce who plays the High Sparrow (right) in GOT bears a striking resemblance to Pope Francis (left). It was only a matter of time.

Four years and many memes later, wishful thinking turned to reality when “The Two Popes” started streaming on Netflix in late 2019. I had gotten around to watching it only recently and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised and in some parts even moved.

What It’s About

If we liken the plot to a burger, the buns at each end are the conclaves that elect Pope Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis. The juicy, meaty bit is everything that happens in between. Much of it consists of fictional dialogue, but it is gripping, expertly written and skillfully acted. Jonathan Pryce does not disappoint as the future Pope Francis, while Anthony Hopkins, as usual, shows his acting chops as Benedict XVI.

MASTERS AT THEIR CRAFT | Anthony Hopkins (left) adds his own flair to his portrayal of the real-life Benedict XVI (right). (Photo from E! Online)

The film’s Benedict tries to make Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio reconsider his resignation as archbishop of Buenos Aires, but sparks fly as their polarized ideas on theology and Church management collide. Later on, the tables are turned as Benedict confides in Bergoglio his own desire to step down from the papacy, as well as his eventual approval of the Argentinian cardinal’s suitability to succeed him.

While the movie is based on actual events and people, much of it, including Benedict’s and Bergoglio’s conversations, is imagined. Since neither we nor the screenwriters were actually privy to the events that inspired the movie, fiction is brought in to fill the gap. Consequently, I would caution against rashly drawing conclusions from the dialogues and events in the film.

Making Ends Meet

That said, the movie makes for an intriguing watch. The two leading figures are presented as polar opposites for dramatic purposes. Benedict is portrayed as the staunch conservative, defending eternally unchanging truths and strict adherence to the traditions of the Church.

Over on the other end is the progressive Bergoglio, who stresses mercy as the face of God and pushes for a more open Church that is in touch with the world. Their theologies inevitably flow into their convictions on how the Church ought to proceed in modern times.

I will not comment on how accurately the film captures the real-life personalities of Benedict and Bergoglio, but I will say that there is room for both progressive and conservative approaches in the Church.

While there are some non-negotiables that are central to the faith such as the divinity of Christ, many other aspects of the Church’s theology can and should be developed by reasoned discussion.

Truth is Discovered

Theology is basically working out what’s already there, what God has revealed and what we therefore believe is true. Truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of it expands and gets more nuanced over time. The practical consequences that follow is where things tend to get messy.

An example cited in the film is priestly celibacy. The Church has very good reasons for valuing it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s set in stone. As Bergoglio points out in the movie, the Church only asked it of its priests in the 12th century, and even the first pope, St. Peter, was married.

BLACK AND WHITE | The two leads hold opposing views. Props to the dialogue and the riveting script.

Still, I must caution against the secular perspective of thinking that the Church is just making all these things up and so ought to change its teachings to align with contemporary philosophies.

This is the sense in which the media often evaluates the Church and her leaders in regard to, for example, abortion and homosexuality. Any sign of “acceptance” given to either is immediately hailed as progress, but any indication of negative regard is labeled as rigid conservatism. If anything, this speaks more about the relativistic values of modern society than the actual teachings of the Church.

Cause for Celebration

Today is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, two figures of towering importance for the ecclesial community. We commemorate their martyrdom and their significance not only for the Church in Rome but also throughout the world.

TOWERING FIGURES | These marvelous statues from the Vatican depict St. Peter with his key (left) and St. Paul with a scroll (representing the letters he wrote most likely) and the sword he was martyred by. (Photo from

St. Peter is portrayed in the New Testament as the leader of the apostles, and the Church considers him to be the very first pope. St. Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, and much of the New Testament letters were either written by or attributed to him.

They had quite different personalities. Peter was talkative and bold, but also fickle. Paul was strong-willed and feisty, but also a persecutor of Christians before his conversion.

While they respected each other’s mission – Peter was directed “inward” to the Jews and Paul “outward” to the Gentiles (cf. Galatians 2:6-10) – they also came into conflict.

In what is called the incident at Antioch, Paul narrates that “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” Imagine telling off the pope! But Paul had his reasons, and you can read it for yourself to get a grasp of the situation (cf. Galatians 2:11-14).

Working Together

Benedict and Bergoglio were in a sense like Peter and Paul – one directed to internal management and the preservation of tradition (“conservative”), the other directed to mission and expanding the Church’s boundaries (“progressive”).

Yes they were at odds with each other, but the important thing is that they dialogued. That’s what progressives and conservatives should be doing! Each has something to bring to the table, but at the end of the day they ought to remember that they form part of the same community, worship the same God and serve the same Church.

The takeaway is that honest and sincere dialogue, the type that aims to arrive at the truth, ought to be fostered at all times. People are naturally inclined to different views owing to their background and temperament and this must be respected.

There’s room for the “conservative” Petrine types and room for the “progressive” Pauline types. And there’s space for everyone in between. It’s part of what makes the Church universal or “catholic”.

The Broader View

In like manner, the wealth of perspectives to be had in a society offers us a clearer and more comprehensive view of what’s in front of us, and consequently of what can help push us forward, so we rob others of their rightful voice at our own peril.

Societal decline sets in when a dominant group suppresses all the others, especially those airing legitimate dissent. Think of any of the totalitarian regimes of the past and you’ll know where that road ends.

In contrast, we have the model of Peter and Paul, Benedict and Bergoglio, who may not always see eye-to-eye, but who nonetheless come together in candid openness.

GRACE (BEFORE MEALS) | Benedict comes around and agrees to some pizza from the stand Bergoglio found outside.

Through it all, it is the Holy Spirit that has kept the Church standing even after centuries of division and conflict. Considering that the Church is still around after all that, I’d say He’s been doing a pretty good job. We shouldn’t be disheartened when we behold the flawed, human side of our ecclesial community because grace has a peculiar way of turning contradictions into complements.

Happy feast of Saints Peter and Paul!

“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” | The movie ends on a charming note. The two popes, now buddies, watch a football game between Argentina and Germany. Watch the movie to find out who wins.

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1 comentario

31 jul 2023

It's a good movie.

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