The great Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once called the Roman Catholic Church ʺthe most formidable religious institution in the history of America and of the world.ʺ1 One distinguishing doctrinal feature of Catholicism is the claim that the pope is the official leader of Christendom. Of the three branches of Christendom (Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism), Catholics uniquely view the pope as sitting in the Chair of St. Peter, and thus as the Vicar (or substitute) of Christ himself on Earth.

Since 2013 the Catholic Church has had two living popes—a situation that has not occurred since the Middle Ages (1415). Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927) retired unexpectedly in 2013 and now is known as pope emeritus. Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio in 1936) succeeded Benedict and has served as Catholic pontiff for the last seven years. Interestingly, both popes grew up under military dictatorships in their homelands (Ratzinger in Germany and Bergoglio in Argentina).


This very rare occurrence of having two living persons who have carried the prestigious title of Bishop of Rome has made for an engaging new film entitled The Two Popes (2019). The film’s screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles (both self-admitted nominal Catholics) have created a captivating and imaginative story of these two extraordinary ecclesiastical figures in dialogue with one another. Splicing together factual and historical information about the two persons, the movie portrays an imagined meeting and relationship between the two prominent churchmen during Benedict’s papacy. The result is a gripping and believable biographical drama. The elderly German Pope Benedict is played by Anthony Hopkins and the role of the younger Argentinian bishop who will become Pope Francis is performed by Jonathan Pryce.

Two Historic Figures: Catholic Conservative versus Catholic Progressive?

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger was recognized as one of the most important conservative Catholic theologians and church leaders of the twentieth century (he is a specialist on the theology of St. Augustine). A close confidant of legendary Pope John Paul II, Bishop Ratzinger served as both prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as dean of the College of Cardinals. He has been an ardent defender and, one might say, enforcer, of traditional Catholic doctrine and values.

Pope Francis is in some respects a pontiff of firsts. As an Argentinian, he is the first non-European pope in over a thousand years and the first from the Americas. He is also the first member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to be elected pope. While holding the line on most traditional Catholic doctrines and values, Francis is viewed as being a reformer and somewhat progressive on the application of certain Catholic values, and equally progressive on particular political issues (climate change and the rights of migrants are good examples).

Fictional Dialogue #1: Sparring & Jousting

The heart of the movie focuses on a meeting between the two leaders held in Pope Benedict’s summer residence outside of Rome. When they come together for the first time there is a lot of sparring. The banter reflects a conservative-progressive jousting match. Here are some choice topics and quotes from the exchange:

When Pope Benedict interrogates Cardinal Bergoglio concerning some of his statements about doctrine, Bergoglio insists that his words are often “misquoted” or “taken out of context.”

Pope Benedict responds: “Might I suggest you try telling the newspapers the opposite of what you think—your chances of being quoted correctly might improve.”

When Benedict complains about Bergoglio giving communion to the divorced, Bergoglio shoots back: “I believe that giving communion is not a reward for the virtuous; it is food for the starving!”

Benedict retorts: “So what matters is what you believe but not what the church has taught for hundreds of years.”

When it comes to the discussion of whether the Catholic church should stay the same or change, we get this interchange:

Benedict: “God does not change.”

Bergoglio: “Yes he does. He moves toward us.”

In their tête-à-tête the men discuss other controversial topics such as the priest sex scandal, the church’s decline in numbers, and priest celibacy.

Fictional Dialogue #2: Empathizing & Sharing

After the heated exchange above, the two meet again in the evening and find themselves empathizing with one another as friends and brothers in the Catholic faith.

Benedict: “The hardest thing is to listen. To hear his voice. God’s voice.”

Bergoglio: “Sorry. Even for a pope?”

Benedict: “Perhaps especially for a pope.”

In a lighter moment, while Benedict plays the piano the men exchange amusing quips about the Beatles.

Assessing the Movie

The acting is excellent. Hopkins is a master at delivering lines and Pryce seems to have gotten into the very persona of Bergoglio (again, now Pope Francis). Hopkins captures Benedict’s seriousness about truth, while Pryce reflects Bergoglio’s natural humility and concern for the poor. Visually, the scenes from the Vatican are quite stunning.

This film realistically reflects the way thoughtful people honestly interact about the big topics of religion and politics. It also shows how people who strongly disagree with one another can somehow learn to empathize with each another and find important common ground. This seems a prudent lesson for our fractious time.

The Two Popes is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I highly recommend it. It is genuinely a movie to make you think.

Reflections: Your Turn

Catholic or not, do you have a favorite pope? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.


Check out more from Reasons to Believe

  1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960), 12.


About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.

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