Two Popes are better than one?

* I don’t think this is a film where spoilers matter, but in case you disagree full spoilers ahead *

Habemus Papam*2

According to the fictional version of Pope Benedict XVI who appears in the Two Popes: “there is an old saying – ‘God always corrects one pope with another’.” This idea of Benedict and his successor as thesis and antithesis animates The Two Popes. However, not in the way you might expect.

When then Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) travels to Rome in 2012 to appeal directly to the Pope (Anthony Hopkins) for permission to retire as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he is surprised to discover the Supreme Pontiff is also considering stepping aside. Neither man is initially sympathetic to the other’s intentions and not only a battle of ideas, but a clash of temperaments ensues. The cerebral traditionalist Pope initially regards everything about the down-to-earth, reform-minded Cardinal as a challenge.

In many films, the two popes would function more as stand-ins for schools of thought than actual characters. However, The Two Popes prioritises, not only, understanding, its central characters as men, but also imagining how despite their differences, they could develop a friendship and reach a mutual understanding.

The film’s Benedict is initially in a sort of spiritual funk, sensing that he is not meant to be Pope anymore, but fearful about the direction the Church will take if he relinquishes his office. However, encountering Cardinal Bergoglio, and realising he can hear God speaking through someone he considers so heterodox, gives Benedict faith that there is a path forward for the Church without “God’s Rottweiler” at its helm.

At the same time, Benedict is able to challenge the Cardinal’s guilt over his ambiguous role during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. Using his relentlessly scholarly mind to deconstruct the illogicality of the future Pope Francis’ unwillingness to extend to himself the forgiveness, he preaches for others.

This very intense focus on just two characters, only works because both Hopkins and Pryce are superlative. Henceforth, I expect to have the same difficulty mentally disentangling the Pope Francis and Jonathan Pryce, that I do separating Mark Zuckerberg and Jesse Eisenberg.

While scriptwriter Anthony McCarten is clearly more sympathetic to Francis’ worldview than Benedict’s, the marriage of his writing and Hopkins’ performance creates a portrayal of Benedict which is no less empathetic than that of Francis.

And crucially given the subject matter and central characters, both the writing and acting of the Two Popes, finds a way of depicting personal faith which reflects that as inexpressible as it is, for Benedict and Francis there is no force more powerful.

Two notes

Before finishing this review, duty compels me to note two things. The first is my one substantive criticism of the film. I do wish relatively more had been made of Benedict’s pre-clerical past. At one point, he says to Cardinal Bergoglio: “we both know that part of what dictatorships do is take away this choice”. Despite this, and the fact that incidental characters twice refer to Benedict as a “Nazi”, his upbringing under the Third Reich, and whatever parallels it might have with Francis’ experiences under Argentina’s Juanta, go mostly unexplored.

Secondly I absolutely, most flag up how legitimately funny the Two Popes is, especially when it depicts the stand-offishly modest Bergoglio confounding the grandiose world of the Vatican. As that world is often personified by Benedict, that means large sections of the film function as an odd-couple comedy.

Understanding

However, this humour is always affectionate, as befits a generous film that promotes understanding rather than conflict. But that is not understanding as some intellectual exercise, rather it is as a lived experience involving other people, who are inevitably replete with nuances and frustrations.

It is also understanding with teeth. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism that: “People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.”

Both Benedict and Francis are men of faith who believe in moral truth. That is what gives the fictional conversations across an ideological divide in the Two Popes such weight and urgency: they are between people who think that words can alter beliefs and that the right beliefs can change everything.

However, McCarten’s script avoids positing anything as simple as one man successfully proselytising the other. Rather, like two marbles travelling in opposite directions, which collide; after their encounter both his popes are put on an altered course, neither of which matches the trajectory either was on before.

That kind of change in one’s understanding might seem weaker than brute persuasion. However, as the Two Popes shows, under the right circumstances, it can be powerful enough to vault someone from the throne of St Peter.

Cable from Korea #5: the march of the Catholics

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Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul

Since 1980, the growth of Korean Christianity has been driven by Catholics rather than Protestants. Why?

The growth of Korean Christianity is one of those facts that is used to give succour to members of declining western church. Like many churches in Asia its expansion has been explosive. In 1900 1% of Koreans were Christian, today 29% are. And we all know who these new Christians are right? Evangelical protestants often worshiping in megachurches. When foreign journalists – and indeed foreign bloggers – want to write about Korean Christianity they usually go to Yoido Free Gospel Church in Seoul, which purportedly has the world’s largest congregation.

This protestant-centric story is not inaccurate but it is out of date. Pew Research notes that:

Since the 1980s, however, the share of South Korea’s population belonging to Protestant denominations and churches has remained relatively unchanged at slightly less than 1-in-5. Catholics have grown as a share of the population, from 5% in 1985 to 11% as of 2005, according to the South Korean census. The growth of Catholics has occurred across all age groups, among men and women and across all education levels.

So if you look at a snapshot of Korean Christianity in the present, it’s fair to note that Protestants comfortably outnumber Catholics. If, however, you are interested in its expansion, it is Catholics you need to consider because for thirty years now they are the ones who’ve been doing the growing.

Part of the reasons may be political. Andrei Lankov, a Russian professor based in Seoul, wrote that:

…in the 1960s when Catholicism came to be associated with the ideas of progressive change and the introduction of modern political ideologies. In the 1960s, South Korea’s Catholic church hierarchy began to drift leftward. This was a time when South Korea was run by a military dictatorship – remarkably efficient at managing the economy but also quite ruthless and brutal in dealing with political dissent and the country’s labour movement. The Catholic Church firmly positioned itself on the side of the pro-democracy resistance. A special role was played by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who in 1968 became the archbishop of Seoul.

Under the leadership of Cardinal Kim, the Catholic church took a remarkably active leadership role, always ready to criticise the government and its perceived brutal use of force against government opponents. Outraged, the KCIA, the South Korean political police, arrested Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-sun, one of Cardinal Kim’s lieutenants and an outspoken critic of the military rule, but had to release him soon, bowing to pressure from local Catholics groups and from overseas.

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When military rule finally came to an end in 1987 and Korea at long last became a democracy, the Catholic church was widely credited for its role in this seismic change. Needless to say, such perceptions significantly boosted its popularity: Church leaders were seen as relevant, dedicated and ready to risk their life and freedom for a great cause. Indeed, while Catholic churches across the globe face increasing difficulties and dwindling numbers of believers, the Korean church is thriving. In the mid-1990s the Catholics constituted merely 6 percent of the total population, but in twenty years the number nearly doubled, reaching 10 percent.

On the other hand a New York Times report on Pope Francis visiting Korea, suggested culture and the travails of the protestant churches also play a role:

While the Catholic Church has been flexible in embracing Koreans’ centuries-old Confucian-based rituals of worshiping ancestors, a widely cited survey by the Christian Ethics Movement of Korea last year found Koreans complaining about Protestant churches’ “exclusive attitude toward other faiths.” A leading Protestant preacher in recent years outraged people by declaring from the pulpit: “Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus.”

People have also watched some of South Korea’s Protestant megachurches — among the largest in the world — degenerating into internal squabbling as pastors attempted to bequeath their churches to their sons, triggering factional strife.

I don’t yet know enough to say whether some all, some or none of these explanations are right. But I’m curious to investigate. There can be few other major denominations in rich countries that have doubled in size recently.

The Pope’s lessons in how to judge people

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I’ve done a couple of posts lately on Christian sexual ethics. I’ve argued that conservatives overemphasise them and draw the wrong conclusions from the bible; while liberals unduly neglect them. So I thought I would be remiss not to mention what Pope Francis has said recently on the subject.

His holiness has given a long and widely reported interview with a Jesuit magazine. I’ve waded through all 12,000 words of the English translation provided by an American Catholic magazine. Much of it seems rather esoteric to someone not initiated into the history of Jesuit order. However, amongst the clerical arcana are some profound passages.

What struck me is not that he has come up a convincing standard for sexual morality. He explains that the “teaching of the church…is clear and I am a son of the church”, which means sticking with the flawed doctrine that abortion, homosexuality and contraception are sins.  The interesting part comes when he talks about how to apply these rules.

The question of judgement is a difficult one for Christians. Doing so offends injunctions to humility by implying we are pure enough to call out others. Not doing it, leaves us unable to speak about morality. Pope Francis seems to have an instructive attitude to how to treat those on who it is necessary to pass judgement on.

For a start, he emphasises that morality has many facets. He warns against allowing the core message of salvation to be obscured by “the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently” and that the Church does not need to talk about sexual morality “all the time.” Recognising that there are many parts to morality allows Francis to conclude that someone falling short in one aspect does not make them a total moral failure – hence he can acknowledge the existence of gay people of ‘good will…in search of God.”

Most significantly, however, is Francis’ affirmation of the humanity of gay people:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.

This is a timely reminder to all Christians of that central message of salvation. That someone sins does not mean god stops loving them nor does it give any human the right to hate them.

I realise that for the many people who’ve been damaged by the Catholic Church’s retrograde teachings on sex and relationships, the Pope acknowledging that they are human will seem like a rather puny gesture. I think that’s their right and that they are probably right to see it that way. However, for me while I disagree with what Francis thinks is wrong, I find his attitude to those he thinks have done wrong to be worthy of praise. I would be a better person if I could adopt it.