Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, later known as Pope Francis, and Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger of Germany, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, were brothers in Christ before being selected for the most holy position at the Vatican in Rome. When Benedict stepped down in 2013 and Francis ascended to the role, it was the first time in more than half a millennia two popes had been alive at the same time.
Francis – for the record – is the reigning pope, but unlike generations before him, the resident pontiff’s predecessor is not only alive but still resides at close quarters within the Vatican. That they disagree on many issues pertaining to the Catholic Church has resulted in a reported split within the organization: hard-line conservative cardinals and priests on the side of the former, progressives leaning into Francis’ more tolerant and inclusive views.
Such an extraordinary situation happening within the traditionally secretive walls of the Vatican is the stuff of Hollywood fodder. So it’s not surprising the relationship between the two men is explored in The Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. Helmed by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener, City of God), the film highlights the Catholic brotherhood between the two men but shows a friendship, and as a result, the Catholic Church under strain.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of Church History at Oxford, told Vanity Fair in 2018 that, “two popes is a recipe for schism.”
A papal conclave was held in 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II. Under consideration to replace the deceased pontiff were both Benedict and Francis, with the former taking the position once participating cardinals had cast their votes. Reportedly, Francis, formerly as archbishop of Buenos Aires, then cardinal, and president of the Bishop’s Conference of Argentina, had little interest in the papacy, preferring instead to continue his ongoing work in Argentina.
Benedict reinforced traditional practices despite the Church struggling to find its place in the 21st century
Prior to becoming pope, Benedict was known for his rigid views on Catholicism. Ordained as a priest in 1951 in his native Bavaria, Benedict went on to become a highly regarded theologian, knowledgeable in the intricacies and fundamentals of his faith. Though originally a liberal theologian, his views would narrow and much of his prolific writing concerned upholding the traditional Catholic doctrine.
Described in the media as “the pope of aesthetics,” Benedict reinstated much of the pomp eschewed in the years following the adoption of Vatican II which did away with many of the visual excesses of the Church. Following his appointment, as the world grappled with a struggling economy, Benedict would don fur-lined vestments, reintroducing the bright red shoes favored by popes long dead, as well as wearing gem-encrusted rings and pectoral crosses.
As the Church struggled to find its place in the increasingly secularized 21st century, Benedict saw such visual excess and adherence to doctrine as a way of signaling a return to and reinforcement of the traditional practices and views of Catholicism. Though prayer and work remained uppermost, Benedict saw strength and unity in the outward, physical expressions of his faith. “All the great works of art, the cathedrals – the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches – are a luminous sign of God, and thus are truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God,” Benedict once said.
Francis' tolerant views were scrutinized during Argentina's dictatorship
The child of Italian immigrants, Francis graduated from technical school before beginning his religious training. A teacher of literature and psychology, he studied theology and was ordained as a priest in 1969. Noted for his humility and focus on mercy, Francis’ religious career in Argentina has come under scrutiny due to allegations concerning the role of the Church and his actions during the country’s brutal military dictatorship that was in place from 1976 to 1983.
As head of the Jesuit order in Argentina from 1973 to 1979, Francis has been accused of a complicit silence as the powers-that-be carried out murder and abductions, all while enjoying the backing of the Church. The period had a lasting effect on Francis according to scholars and also The Two Popes. "As archbishop, he faced a monumental task, and he was even accused of collaboration with the dirty war, which he strenuously denied and was ultimately cleared,” Ramon Luzarraga, theologian-in-residence at the University of Dayton, told The Guardian in 2013, adding that if the then newly elected pope can "restore the credibility of the Church there [in Argentina], he can handle the scandals that have befallen the Church worldwide because he knows how to connect to people."
When Francis took over, the Vatican became more minimalistic and modern
In 2013, at age 85, Benedict would become the first pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to resign from the position, reportedly due to his age and waning physical stamina. Vowing to stay “hidden from the world” in his new life, Benedict anointed himself with the title Pope Emeritus, a moniker many faithful saw as a signal he would not remain as tight-lipped on Church matters as vowed.
Francis, the first pope from Latin America and champion of the marginalized and poor of the world, became the 266th Pontiff at the age of 76. In direct contrast to Benedict, Francis immediately adopted a less showy, more humble outward appearance, vowing to continue to live simply, as he had done throughout his career in the Church.
Francis’ vision of Catholicism includes embrace of change, a Church for modern people in modern times. Benedict advocated for strict adherence to tradition and doctrine, a pure Church rigid in its foundations. The two views, and the rare occurrence of two living popes, has reportedly fueled a factional split within the Vatican. Conservative ideologists still supportive of Benedict on one side, loyalists to Francis’ more pastoral, inclusive leadership on the other.
While Benedict stepped back after retirement, in 2019 he wrote a letter publicly undercutting Francis
During his successor’s early years as pope, Benedict did, in fact, step back from the spotlight, favoring a life of prayer and contemplation in the newly refurbished convent he now occupied within the Vatican. Yet his existence encouraged conservative voices within the Church, who saw Francis’ liberalism as damaging to the Church, particularly in relation to his views on divorce, same-sex marriage and clerical sexual abuse.
While their rare, physical meetings appear cordial, concerns of a simmering rivalry took on a new focus when Benedict broke his silence in April 2019. Though officially in retirement, he penned a 6,000-word letter putting the blame for the Catholic Church’s ongoing clerical sex abuse crisis on a permissive culture stemming from the 1960s, progressive theological ideas and the disappearance of God from public discourse in the West.
The letter publicly undercut Francis, whose views on the subject had already been made public. The reigning pope lay the blame for the sex abuse crisis directly on the Church, citing a systemic abuse of power and the pursuit of prominence and authority within the existing Church hierarchy.
Such differing viewpoints is what many faithful feared would result from having two living popes – contradictory stances on important issues which lead to confusion among the flock and reasons to choose sides over preferred versions of truth. The letter and resulting aftershocks supported claims that Benedict still retains vast influence within the Vatican hierarchy and among global worshippers.
Despite tension between the popes, Benedict believes in the power of unity
In the fallout from Benedict’s missive, the Vatican called for unity. In a rare interview granted in the months following the very public split, Benedict told Italian magazine Corriere Della Sera that there is currently only one pope, Francis. And though he did not directly address the reported divergence between himself and his successor, Benedict made it clear that no matter what happens now or in the future, the Catholic Church will endure.
“The unity of the Church has always been in danger, for centuries,” Benedict is quoted as saying. “It has been for all its history. Wars, internal conflicts, centrifugal forces, threats of schisms… In the end, the awareness that the Church is and must remain united has always prevailed. Its unity has always been stronger than internal struggles and wars.”