In a short time, Netflix will unveil its new movie called ‘The Two Popes’. I always get a little nervous when the mainstream media try to comment on spiritual and religious matters, but I am trying to keep an open mind, especially for the questions it surfaces.
In a sense, it was inevitable that someone would write a reflection on this most unique moment in Catholic History. There has been more than one pope claiming to be the “true” Pope before. But they were usually anti-popes born of the disagreement over the validity of elections, dogma, etc.
But now, we have a Pope Emeritus, retired, who is one of the foremost theologians that the Church has produced in the 20-21st centuries, and the other is his validly elected successor who is the first Jesuit ever to be elected Supreme Pontiff.
Both of them are saintly men. They have different theological perspectives, but it would be misleading to posit a contradiction between them. Unfortunately, there are factions within the Church that have made of each to these two popes the symbols of their causes.
Pope Benedict has become the standard-bearer of the conservative wing of the Church. They see in his theological precision a necessary antidote to the onrushing and overpowering secular culture that seeks to supplant the teaching authority of the Church.
Pope Francis has similarly become the symbol of the liberal wing of the Church that seeks to move into new areas of human consciousness and adapt its approach to the needs of the world.
The partisans of Benedict see the future of the Church as a smaller, fervent body of believers (the so called Benedict option), while those of Francis see that the Church is a “field hospital” that is charged with bringing everyone into the safety of its bosom. They see a larger, more diverse and more accepting Church.
Sometimes, distinctions elucidate and clarify, but sometimes they confuse and contradict one another. It is important that we as Catholics prayerfully ponder and consider the truth in both sides of the argument and not rush to an acceptance of one side exclusively and a rejection of the truths being offered on the other side. Partisan arguments and fights are destructive whether they are in the field of Politics or Religion.
We must begin this task by looking at the two men who are the symbols of these two seemingly opposing viewpoints of the future of the Church. One must immediately admit that, based on what is public about them (i.e. their actions and words, writings and decisions), they are both very holy men who want what is best for the Church. They both have sacrificed a great deal for the Church and have even suffered for the Church. These statements are important because what the world is trying to do is highlight their differences and make of one of them ‘the good guy’ and the other ‘the bad guy’. We must begin by saying that these are two good guys!
But they are different in temperament and ideas. My main argument in this reflection is that both are complementary to one another and that we need to listen to both to get a full picture of the future of the Church toward which God is beckoning.
This may be the very reason why God has allowed this strange and unprecedented moment to exist: to have two saintly Popes living at the same time. While it is true that Benedict is a Pope Emeritus, Pope comes from the word that means Father. Since a father never stops being a father, one can rightly say that these are two paternal presences ordained by God. And this is true, as I have already mentioned, in a situation when there is no ‘anti-pope’. So this situation is unprecedented and thereby willed by God. Hence, it is valid to try to ask: “Why?”
Perhaps the humility of both Benedict and Francis are meant to speak to the pride and arrogance of the modern world, as it were underlining the essential nature of that virtue. Benedict’s careful, theological conservatism protects the Tradition of the Church, while Francis’ more liberal approach of fearlessly testing the spirits to discern how to go forth in the future (a very Jesuit approach!) moves us into new areas of consciousness.
It could be that God is taking this extraordinary step to guide the Church in these very confusing times.
The image I would use is that of a sailboat. Francis’s approach is like the sail that catches the wind of the present moment and uses that energy to power the boat. Benedict, on the other hand (but the same body!) stands for the rudder which controls the direction of the boat. Without Francis, the boat would just sit there; but without Benedict, the winds would cause it to go in different directions, perhaps dangerous ones near the shoals and reefs.
God has given us two holy Popes to help us create a balance that is admittedly difficult to maintain (especially when partisans of each approach lobby to be the only one), but is essential to move the Church to her safe and divine harbor of faith.