I have been waiting for Netflix’s The Two Popes to be released for a while. It is a visually gorgeous, well-acted movie. It is also a disturbing piece of revisionist history.
It’s clear from the outset that the movie aspires to rebuild the corporate media mythology of Pope Francis. Pope Francis’s reputation has been thoroughly tarnished in recent years by a number of events – well, more like trends – in the church.
Pope Francis has failed to address the existence of predatory priests and has been credibly accused of engaging in a cover-up of abuse scandals involving those at the highest ranks of the church.
Francis failed to reform the Vatican bank and the corruption during his tenure is shocking. It has been revealed that money raised from the faithful for charitable works instead was used to fund the Vatican’s budget deficit and to speculate in luxury real estate in London in hedge fund-like investments. Only about 10% of the funds ever made it to charity. Dozens of Catholic dioceses in the United States have filed for bankruptcy over settlements with abuse victims while the Vatican under Francis spends money like it is going out of style. The reality of the Vatican stands in sharp contrast to the Hollywood mythology of Francis as a humble man who devotes all his attention to the poor.
Francis has distracted from these issues by making radical changes to the church’s core practices. He has made changes to the catechism on a whim. He is considering allowing married clergy. He’s held ceremonies deifying plants as a tribute to his environmentalism. He shrugs at the idea of a schism, whereby conservative Catholics would leave a church that is already suffering catastrophic losses in participation. It’s not a great time for the church, and Francis has been a willing participant in the church’s myriad problems.
All this is to say that there is an incentive to try and whitewash some of Francis’s leadership failures. And it’s clear that is what this movie tries to do.
I often joke that Francis is primarily loved by people who are not Catholic. Hollywood liberals love the idea of Francis because they feel a political kinship with his socialist background and believe (incorrectly) that he will eventually change the catechism to endorse LGBT folks. But they hate Catholicism; you will never find any of these folks in a pew. What they want to see is the political conversion of a group of people they otherwise believe subscribe to a litany of dumb superstitions. Although loved by non-Catholics, Francis drives many traditional Catholics away. And there are a lot of traditional Catholics.
What you see in The Two Popes is Hollywood fan fiction. It is not even a remotely accurate portrayal of Benedict’s scandalous retirement from the papacy or the internal dramas and intrigues that drove him away. In fact, the movie outright dismisses a conflict with the Curia as contributing to Benedict’s renouncing the papacy, which is absolutely false. The movie suggests that the conservative Benedict came around to thinking ultra-liberal Francis would make a better pope than he would, and that is why he left. It’s incredible.
While the movie lavishes praise on Francis, it is an absolute hatchet job on Benedict – which is stunning, as Benedict is a thoroughly decent person. Benedict is a deeply intellectual hermit, who established himself as a renowned theologian before becoming pope. He was a prolific writer. In the movie, Benedict is portrayed as a machine-politics wheeler and dealer who connived his way into becoming pope and then decided he didn’t want it after all. More Rahm Emanuel than Thomas Aquinas. It’s like the screenwriter has no idea whatsoever whom he is talking about. About the only accurate thing the movie shows about Benedict is that he really loves music.
At many points in the movie, the conversation becomes comically heretical. For example, in one exchange between Francis and Benedict, Francis explains that the church is a plastic, ever-changing organization. He says that there was no discussion of angels whatsoever in the church until the 5th century, “and then they were everywhere.” (This argument is used to justify Francis allowing people who are in a state of mortal sin to participate in the Eucharist contrary to church dogma.) But anyone who has ever bothered to read the New Testament knows there are dozens of references to angels in the text. An angel informs Mary that she will give birth to Jesus for crying out loud. No serious biblical scholar, let alone a cardinal in the Catholic Church, would make such a preposterous claim.
Then the conversation really goes off the rails. Francis informs Benedict that not only does the Holy Catholic Church “change,” but God also “changes.” This is directly antithetical to the beliefs of the church, and well, pretty much every Protestant denomination too, while we’re at it. I cannot imagine Francis would find that line particularly flattering. But when Hollywood does religion, they know so little about the topic that they are bound to include some stupid stuff.
The climax of the movie is when Benedict confesses to Francis that he covered up crimes committed by the founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel. This is vile slander and I almost did not finish the movie at that point. Truly, the church should vocally condemn the movie on this disgusting plot device alone.
We are also treated to numerous instances of Benedict being called a Nazi for no reason other than the fact that he’s German, which has to be the most 2019 thing ever. Hey, I don’t know anything about this guy, but he’s old and white and he has traditional beliefs, so he’s “literally Hitler,” as the kids say.
One of the biggest issues with this movie is that the performances of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, being excellent actors, will be quite convincing to non-Catholic audiences. It’s like they are exploiting the ignorance of those who are not capable of discerning the fact that this movie is a fabulist trainwreck written by someone who clearly needs to brush up on their theology and cultural literacy. It’s revisionist history and the most dangerous sort of revisionist history at that.
The more I think about this strange movie, the more I think it is a brilliant example of why the absurdist political agenda of corporate media is becoming a major problem in our public discourse. This is fundamentally dishonest content, but not quite propaganda. (The church surely does not want people to believe the pope is an illiterate heretic. But in the era of Francis, perhaps I should prepare myself to be surprised.) I am reminded of a tweet by New York Times author Maggie Haberman, who suggested that Edelweiss was a Nazi anthem for no other reason than the song is used in the opening to The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s bastardization of Philip K. Dick’s story. It’s a stunningly stupid claim made for a stunningly stupid reason, but now her legions of followers believe it too. This entire movie is like that but on a larger scale. We live in an era where the tech industry has made information very easy to come by, but disinformation even easier.
I think, in general, there is now a lot of garbage content about religion in the digital space. Evangelicals have been similarly plagued by people who left the church (and in some cases, have fully transitioned to atheism) speaking viciously and falsely about their former communities. I’m sure this has always been the case, however. It’s just now the unreliable narrators have grander platforms financed with junk bond offerings and their ignorance is unrelentingly amplified.