Apart from its storyline, however, The Crown has another problem: how much of it is real history and how much is politically driven fantasy? Last night I watched Episode Four, on the Great London Fog of 1952, but Netflix repurposed the historical event into a rather crassly portrayed anti-smoking/anti-carbon message. A quick internet search into the historical event belies what we see on the screen (panicked Londoners dying in the smoky streets as Winston placidly draws deep drags on his smoky cigar). I’ve read several large biographies of Churchill and can easily tell when the PM is portrayed in mere caricature. It’s too bad, really, because the real Churchill, and real history, is so much more interesting (but takes more work to acquire).
I’ve watched some of Downton Abbey and some of The Crown, but I will not watch anything of the recent movie called The Two Popes. One reviewer said it should be called “The One Pope,” for although it portrays Pope Francis with some accuracy, it portrays Pope Benedict as quite the opposite of the real man. My friend Fr. Mark Wagner wrote a review for his parish, which I offer you (with his permission). It’s worth a read, because the sheer visual beauty of this movie will convince most people (even reviewers from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times) that it is real history. The Two Popes is gross propaganda from people working to dismantle the Catholic Church, as you can read in Fr. Mark’s review (below).
This day in history something else happened: we legalized abortion in America. Our real bishops and our real popes have called us to a Day of Prayer and Fasting on the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Even the real “Roe” (Norma McCorvey), the poster child for legal abortion who later became pro-life, called us to prayer and fasting on this day. It’s a shame that real history is so little appreciated. It's so much more interesting and inspiring than political fiction.
Fr. Mark Wagner’s Review of the Movie “The Two Popes”
Last Thursday I went to spend my day off with at my parents’ home, and I was going to suggest that we watch the new movie “The Two Popes”. Much to my surprise, when I went into the house they were just settling down to watch “The Two Popes,” and they invited me to watch it with them!
I was curious about the movie because I had heard some criticisms of it, but I had also met many people who really liked it. As I watched I saw that it was beautifully filmed on location at the Vatican, with first-rate actors who have already received several Oscar nominations.
There are a number of good things about the movie. It shows the beauty of the art and ancient traditions of the Vatican. It depicts the fascinating procedure of electing a new pope. It reminded me of my favorite movie, “The Shoes of the Fisherman” with Anthony Quinn. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is that it is shows a dialogue between two individuals who disagree with one another on many things, but who eventually become friends. Obviously, this is a lovely idea and it is exactly what is needed nowadays with all of the divisiveness that we are experiencing in our country because of politics. Also, the movie depicts the two popes going to confession to one another and giving each other absolution for their past sins, which of course is a wonderful thing, especially for religious leaders (although the truth is that neither pope could really be blamed for supposed “sins” that they confessed to one another.)
The movie presents the figure of our current Pope Francis in a way that is very positive. All of the qualities which have made Pope Francis popular are depicted quite well in the film: that he is humble and down-to-earth and sensitive to the needs of the poor. Unfortunately, however, the qualities of Pope Benedict are not seen in the movie. The real Pope Benedict is quiet, gentle, graceful, dignified, shy and self-effacing. None of this comes out in the movie. Instead, the movie seems to show a completely different man. As I watched the beginning of this movie, I was shocked at the way it portrayed Pope Benedict as ambitious and petty. In countless little ways, the movie presents an unfair picture of the personality of Pope Benedict. It claims that Pope Benedict was aloof: that he refused to answer a letter sent by Cardinal Bergoglio asking for retirement. Then it claims that Pope Benedict summoned Cardinal Bergoglio to Rome to interrogate him and to reprimand him. None of this actually happened. The truth is that Cardinal Bergoglio sent a letter of resignation because all Cardinals are required to send letters of resignation when they reach the age of seventy-five. Pope Benedict did not force Cardinal Bergoglio to come to Rome and receive him in a way that was cold and callous. He did not accuse him immediately of being a “harsh critic” of the pope. The movie even makes the ridiculous claim that Pope Benedict was afraid that Cardinal Bergoglio’s motive for retiring was to show his opposition to the pope. All of these parts of the movie are pure invention, because it is not true that Cardinal Bergoglio was a notorious critic of Pope Benedict. Pope Benedict had no reason to give any more attention to Cardinal Bergoglio than he did to any of the other 120 Cardinals of the Church.
I was very sad to see the way Pope Benedict was portrayed in the movie as having a particular animosity toward Cardinal Bergoglio. First, he refuses to greet him and refuses to give him a hug. The movie then shows him getting annoyed because Cardinal Bergoglio is strolling in his garden: “He acts like he has been here for years.” Pope Benedict is portrayed as being harsh, insensitive, narcissistic and obtuse. He says things like “Nobody likes me too much.” And “I can never remember jokes.” He is depicted as a recluse who eats alone and sends his guest a disagreeable dish with two measly German meatballs. He only seems interested in playing his piano and making sure that Cardinal Bergoglio received a signed copy of an album which he had recorded of his music. Repeatedly the film depicts Pope Benedict as a man who is jealous of the popularity of Cardinal Bergoglio. He seems to be ambitious and annoyed when Cardinal Bergoglio receives votes in the conclave. All of this would be completely out of character for Pope Benedict, who is somewhat shy and self-effacing. He is gentle and refined and graceful. It is astonishing that the writers and the actors of this movie would tolerate such an unfair representation a man’s true personality. I can only think of one reason why anyone would do this: it is because they disagree with his views.
I know from personal experience that there are people who say that they dislike the personality of Pope Benedict even though they do not even know him. When I was studying at the North American College in Rome in 1987, we were told that Cardinal Ratzinger would be coming to our seminary to give a lecture (before he became Pope Benedict in 2005). Many of the seminarians who considered themselves to be more progressive disliked Cardinal Ratzinger, and they made plans to ask him difficult questions when he arrived. They only knew that he was the German Cardinal who worked for the Polish Pope. They knew he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which meant that for many years he had the task of investigating theologians who were thought to be heretical. They assumed that he was a harsh “watchdog” for the faith, and so they called him “the German shepherd.” When the day of his visit came, Cardinal Ratzinger gave a beautiful lecture and then began answering the questions of the long line of American seminarians who had lined up behind a microphone. He patiently answered each question in a way that was positive and thorough. Then after the lecture had concluded he stood in the corridor speaking to the seminarians who still wanted to speak to him late into the night. I remember that for the next several days, everyone in our seminary spoke of how Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had shown himself to be a perfect gentleman and a brilliant scholar. Some had to admit that they were wrong about him. All of us were proud to have met this man who was truly a “prince of the church.”
It seems to me that one of the keys to the personality of Pope Benedict is that he does not allow himself to be swayed by every popular new idea. Perhaps it comes from the fact that he was raised in Catholic Bavaria, the southern part of Germany which is known for its beautiful Baroque Churches and public processions on the Catholic Holidays such as Corpus Christi. This region was permeated with an unabashedly Catholic culture. When new ideas were introduced by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century and by the National Socialists of the 20th Century, the people of Bavaria considered them and collectively responded: “Well… no.” The Nazis forced their children to join the Hitler youth, but they were not able to win transform their young Catholic hearts. In 1941 Joseph Ratzinger had a cousin with Down's Syndrome who was taken away and killed by the Nazis as part of their eugenics program of eliminating all “undesirable” elements of society. The Ratzinger family was persecuted for standing up against the Nazis. They heard the propaganda and said to themselves: “Well… no.”
As a priest and then as a bishop, Joseph Ratzinger did not allow anyone to think for him. At the Second Vatican Council he was considered to be one of the most liberal and progressive thinkers along with Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Over the years, however, he has become known as a spokesman for Catholic tradition. Nevertheless, he has always been fair and open-minded. During his years investigating heresy for the Vatican, he was never known to become angry or agitated as he spoke to the various theologians about their ideas. He carefully considered each new proposal and if it was necessary, he would have to respond: “Well… no.”
Sometimes he has been criticized for wearing the beautiful church vestments which were traditionally worn in Catholic areas such as Bavaria. They claim that it is wrong to wear those things. Pope Benedict quietly continues on, which is his way of saying “Well… no.” Once Cardinal Ratzinger was speaking in a Cathedral in a large American city and a group of radical feminists stood up and began shouting at him and accusing him of being a “Nazi”. In response, simply paused and waited patiently until the protesters could be escorted out of the church.
The second half of the movie is a little bit more pleasant, because it shows a developing friendship between Pope Benedict and the new Pope Francis. However, these imaginary conversations are also marred by an inaccurate portrayal of Pope Benedict. The movie seems to say that the two became friends because Pope Benedict was able to change and conform his views to those of the new Pope Francis. The new pope was finally able to teach the stuffy old pope how to hug and to dance and to appreciate ordinary things like sports and pop music. The movie script even seems to say that Pope Benedict needed a “conversion” because he had lost his faith. He says things like: “Perhaps I need a spiritual hearing aid.” And “I cannot feel the presence of God. I cannot hear His voice.”
Pope Benedict was the first modern pope to retire. This shows that he was not a traditionalist but that he was open to new ideas for the good of the church. As far as we know he did not consult or share his decision beforehand with anyone except his brother and a few close friends. Why did he retire? Some say that he was because he was intimidated by problems within the church. He himself said that it was because he felt it was time for him to dedicate himself to a life of prayer and study. This was the reason he had given three times when he had asked to retire from his service under Pope John Paul II. I think that the reason for his decision to retire might be something much simpler. He had discovered that he could not fulfill his duties without taking a nap in the afternoon. As a German, he did not feel this was appropriate. It never bothered the Italian popes!
The best review I found about this movie was an article in First Things Magazine entitled “Two Popes, Too many Untruths” by John Waters, who writes: “In its core scenarios, the movie is almost entirely fictional. Bergoglio did not in 2012 fly to Italy to meet with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo to ask for permission to retire. The two men did not spend days together getting to know each other. Pope Benedict did not give Cardinal Bergoglio advance knowledge of his intention to resign. He did not tell him that he regarded himself as no longer fit to be pope. He did not reveal that he had decided Bergoglio would be the perfect choice to replace him.”
This article does a good job a showing how slanted this movie is against Pope Benedict: “At the level of story, it is the same old narrative we have been fed by the media from the moment of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope in 2005. He is a ‘dour traditionalist,’ ‘God’s Rottweiler,’ The Man Who Couldn’t Smile or Dance... Aloof and introverted, he eats alone, prefers Latin to other languages, has never heard of ABBA, and cannot dance the Tango. Most damningly, he resists Bergoglio’s attempt to hug him. The script leaves viewers in no doubt as to which pope they are expected to side with.”
The author concludes by saying that these inaccuracies seem harmless, but they are not: “It has been observed that The Two Popes is ultimately frivolous—a ‘holy bromance,’ a ‘buddy movie,’ a sort of ‘odd couple’ remake. So, you know, lighten up! And this is the level on which it is most successful. Yet this is also the movie’s most insidious aspect: It draws you into itself. In the depths of its mendaciousness and shallow moralizing, an engaging and moving story of a personal encounter is told. This means that, as propaganda, this movie is both hugely effective and extremely dangerous.”
These words in defense of Pope Benedict will be read by relatively few people compared to the number of people who will watch this movie on their television screens. It makes me think of the horrible movie “The DaVinci Code” which contained countless inaccuracies about Christ and the Bible. I spent many hours preparing a class for my parishioners which would counteract these lies, but only a handful came to hear me. The movie came and went. Many saw it. They were entertained. The damage was done.
The media presents pretty pictures to persuade people. All we can do is to continue place before the world something which is even more beautiful because it is a living, breathing reality: the church as she is in her true beauty. It won’t help to spend all our time writing and teaching and talking, because such as these can only be cast out by prayer and penance.