Real-life ‘Two Popes’ drama plays out at Vatican

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Pope Francis visits his predecessor, retired Pope Benedict XVI, at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery at the Vatican in this Dec. 21, 2018, file photo. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY —  Since December, the faces of the actors from Netflix’s movie “The Two Popes” have beamed out from poster on a Vatican-owned building just off St. Peter’s Square. Jonathan Pryce, who plays Pope Francis, and Anthony Hopkins, who plays Benedict XVI, have both been nominated for Oscars for their performances in a film that gets to the heart of theological tensions in the 21st-century church.

In recent days, Rome has been plunged into a real-life “Two Popes” drama following Benedict XVI’s contribution to a book on clerical celibacy, largely written by Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Holy See’s lead official on the liturgy. It’s been a fast-moving embarrassment that once again raises questions about the role of “pope emeritus,” a title created by Benedict.

The drama erupted Jan. 12, when details of a book emerged that publishers presented as a “co-authored” work by the retired pope and Cardinal Sarah defending mandatory celibacy for priests in the Latin-rite church. The timing of the publication was crucial, given that Francis is about to release his response to the Synod of Bishops’ deliberations on the pan-Amazon region. Bishops at that assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of ordaining married deacons to serve as priests in remote areas.

In the book, “From the Depths of Our Hearts,” Cardinal Sarah urges Francis not to allow any exceptions for married priests in the Amazon, arguing there is an “ontological-sacramental link” between celibacy and priesthood, and warns that non-celibate priests would be seen as “second class.” Benedict XVI roots his arguments in Scripture and tradition, stressing that priestly ministry requires a single-minded service that includes renouncing marriage.

Then, in a jointly written passage, the cardinal and the pope emeritus call on the church to cease being “impressed by poor arguments, theatrics, diabolical lie, and fashionable errors that want to devalue priestly celibacy.”

But Archbishop George Gänswein, Benedict XVI’s private secretary, says that the retired pope did not “co-write” this passage, nor should he be described as a co-author of the book. The front cover has Benedict as the lead author using his papal name. This is unusual given that every theological work he has written since his 2005 election as pope is signed “Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI,” so as to delineate between his role as theologian and the Petrine office.

Questions were also raised about how much involvement Benedict could have had in the project. Aged 92, he is increasingly frail and now struggles to speak or write.

Archbishop Gänswein, acting on Benedict’s instructions, has asked for the retired pontiff’s name to be removed as author, and said there was a misunderstanding over his involvement in the book. The pope emeritus, he explained, offered an essay but did not agree to joint authorship, nor did he see a proof of the book. 

Cardinal Sarah stressed that Benedict was shown everything, and knew their project was going to be a book. Nevertheless, on Jan. 17 the pair had a meeting and the cardinal said there is no longer any misunderstanding.

Many in Rome and abroad believe this episode underlines the need for some clearer guidelines on the role of a retired pope. It’s unsurprising, given the Catholic Church has been handling an unprecedented situation since 2013 with two men in the Vatican who wear white and are called “pope.” The situation has been manageable due to Benedict’s loyalty and Francis’ magnanimity.

Yet the powerful opposition forces lining up against Francis can’t resist the temptation to pit him against Benedict, in a bid to undermine his papacy. On the question of celibacy, Francis is fairly traditional: He’s repeatedly pledged not to change the rule, but has heard the case for why there could be exceptions. Any attempt to falsely paint Francis as breaking with tradition is never missed by a small, yet vocal minority, in the church.

Inside the Casa Santa Marta, Francis is unperturbed. The pope says facing opposition is only natural in an organization made up of many millions of people. His style is not to enforce one position or another, but to open up processes, as he did with the Amazon. This is his vision of a synodal church, one that seeks to emulate the disciples on the Road to Emmaus whose hearts burned with the Gospel as they walked with Jesus.

He’s also offered guidance to retired prelates, of which there are a growing number in the Roman Curia. In a 2018 ruling, “Learn to Take Your Leave,” he said retirement for retired cardinals should include a “new plan of life, marked as much as possible by austerity, humility, prayers of intercession, time dedicated to reading, and willingness to provide simple pastoral services.”

In the future, this might be applied to retired popes.  


  • pope benedict xvi
  • pope francis

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