The Two Popes, a forthcoming film from Netflix, dramatizes conversations between Pope Benedict (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) and Cardinal Bergoglio, the man who would eventually assume the papal office as Pope Francis. Inspired by true events, the film is ultimately a work of imagination since the details of their conversations are largely conjectural.
The film sees the key difference between the two men as their respective attitudes toward orthodoxy and reform—a contrast that should interest Protestant viewers as much as Catholics. In ways both large and small, it repeatedly shows a preference for Bergoglio over Benedict and, by implication, for reform over tradition.
It is telling that the film devotes nearly a third of its run-time to Bergoglio’s biography and nary a minute to Ratzinger’s background before he is elected pope. This structural imbalance is disconcerting, since there are ample differences between the two men that the film could explore while considering their qualifications to lead the Roman Catholic Church during a period of social and political turmoil.
Early on in the film, viewers eavesdrop on a group of unnamed cardinals as their votes are tallied to determine who will replace Pope John Paul II. Nineteen votes for “a real change,” one says of the tally for Cardinal Bergoglio. But Cardinal Ratzinger “really wants” the position, another observes as his votes are announced. Ratzinger’s ambition is placed in stark contrast to Bergoglio’s humility.
In the wake of Benedict’s election, the film inserts a series of television commentaries to underline its interpretation of the vote. The split between the two dissimilar cardinals indicates that there is “no true unity” in the Roman Catholic Church, they say. The preference for Ratzinger means that the “Church voted to make overdue reform more overdue.” Those who are against Ratzinger claim that people are abandoning Catholicism “because it’s too conservative.”
It is to be expected that a popular film simplifies complex theological ideas, but The Two Popes does so to the point of unfairness. For example, once Ratzinger is pope, he scolds Bergoglio with the axiom that any church that is married to the spirit of the age will find itself a widow in the next age. (There is, one would think, some alternative to advocating reform besides being married to the spirit of the age.)
Beyond the preference for one pope over another, or a generic interest in historical accuracy, why should these conversations matter—particularly to Protestants? The difficulty of preserving tradition while addressing cultural shifts is not a uniquely Roman Catholic problem. And while Protestant leaders lack the reach and consolidated institutional power of the pope’s office, they too carry an enormous responsibility in guiding their churches through turbulent cultural waters.
Orthodoxy as the foundation of reform
While the film dangerously assumes that making progress and enacting reform are more important than honoring tradition, defenders of orthodoxy should not simply assume the opposite. A survey of Scripture and church history shows that tradition grounds reform, and the rejection of either is unhealthy.
One of the most critical New Testament texts for understanding tradition is found in 1 Cor. 15:3-4, where Paul “passes on” (tradidi in Latin, whence comes our word “tradition”) teaching that he has received. Rather than simply repeating the traditional teachings, however, he deploys them in new, contested circumstances. The Corinthians’ situation is complex, but they seem to be ignoring the relevance of Christ’s resurrection (which they affirm) for their own future identity. In any case, these are new circumstances. Paul then cites tradition comprising truths about past events (Christ’s death and resurrection) and interpretive claims about the significance of those events (“according to the Scriptures…for our sins”), and the tradition speaks through Paul to a new situation.
Paul’s ensuing argument integrates both orthodoxy and reform. He appeals to authoritative, “right thinking” about Christ’s death and resurrection, but he also animates that truth to “re-form” the Corinthian churches—he even reforms Christian teaching about resurrection by expanding it and articulating further applications. If teaching grows, then it changes. Therefore, in 1 Cor 15, Christian teaching about resurrection “changes.” But this is a change from sapling to tree, not from oak to beech. It is the development of doctrine, not switching from one thing to another. What Paul does not do is change (switch) the bedrock tradition: there is no alteration to the teaching that Christ died for our sins and rose according to the Scriptures. Orthodoxy is the foundation of reform.
From a Protestant perspective, the Reformation constitutes a pivotal act of reform, but Martin Luther calls for the Catholic Church to switch its teaching and praxis. Yet Luther’s logic is instructive, as he consistently argues that Rome has done the switching. The selling of indulgences, the claims of the papacy, the abuses of sacramentalism—the Reformers insist that these have broken from orthodoxy by shifting the foundations, and debates then ensue about who is more orthodox.
Luther does not oppose all development of the Scriptural doctrine—he even accords authority to the early ecumenical church councils. What he does denounce, however, is reform as switching, of which he accuses the Church. Now orthodox reform must correct unorthodox reform. But for Luther and other Protestants, semper reformanda in no way contradicts the stable foundation of sola scriptura.
An intriguing analogy can be drawn between Luther and a more recent Christian protesting reformer named Martin Luther. Like Luther, Dr. King appeals to the foundations of American “orthodoxy” (the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bible) to argue that Americans are not living up to their own traditions: “…they are not only standing against the noble precepts of your democracy, but also against the eternal edicts of God himself.” Even in political activism, orthodoxy grounds reform.
In fact, the same can be said for Catholic doctrine vis-à-vis the twin foundations of Scripture and tradition. No document has proven more seminal for grasping the dialectic between reform and orthodoxy in recent centuries than newly-sainted John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Doctrine develops, or reforms, but does not switch foundations. Far from being a cultural progressive kneeling to the zeitgeist, Newman converts to traditional Catholicism in large part through studying the church fathers.
Newman may be the most illuminating figure for understanding the relation of orthodoxy to reform in view of The Two Popes. Beatified by Benedict and canonized by Francis, Newman complicates false dichotomies between orthodoxy and reform, and he recalls Paul’s image of architects building (developing) teaching to address new circumstances (1 Cor 3:9-15). This reformulating of orthodoxy is then judged by its fittingness to the foundation, which is Christ.
Perhaps , Benedict is not someone who stubbornly clings to power he doesn’t want for the sake of conservative Catholics but is instead a leader deeply concerned that new generations build upon solid doctrinal foundations. Francis might not be someone who wants to tear down and rebuild the Roman Catholic Church, but rather someone who wants to ensure that its doctrinal truths are applied carefully and consistently to a new situation. An historically and theologically informed understanding of orthodoxy and reform should help us to appreciate that these two popes may not be as antithetical as the film would have us believe.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is a professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.
Thomas P. Dixon is assistant professor of New Testament at Campbell University.