There’s a classic Jewish aphorism: “two Jews, three opinions.” It sounds like the punch line to a joke, but it’s merely an observation about Jewish willingness to see all sides of an argument and to debate them with aplomb. Rabbi Wolpe references Yeats: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry” as he lovingly notes the Jewish penchant for argument as holy discernment.
One wonders with the two Popes—the active Pope Francis and the retired Pope Benedict—if what is being produced in their quarrel is rhetoric or poetry.
While both Popes are, of course, Catholic, they come from very different streams of Catholicism. That difference was made clear in the recent Netflix movie The Two Popes. The flick followed the unusual transition of power between the conservative Benedict and the liberal Francis. It juxtaposed the European cardinal—a man of the Vatican’s inner court, and the South American Jesuit—a man of the people. Along the way it showed the two popes coming to terms with each other’s worldviews through mutual confession and bearing of one another’s burdens.
I have been hungry for models of leadership which transcend dismissive politics (I define dismissive politics as anything that labels the opposite point of view with words such as “hoax,” “witch hunt” or “fake”). This movie satisfied my hunger.
I found The Two Popes to be particularly appealing because it zeroes in on the story of an unlikely leadership transition between two very different personalities. In 2005 Pope Benedict had campaigned for and welcomed the papacy, while Cardinal Bergoglio had shied away from it. Benedict was elected but eight years in, he has burned out under the pressures, including the burgeoning crisis of priestly pedophilia. He is ready to leave. At the same time, Bergoglio is ready to retire. In order to have his retirement received, though, he must travel to Rome to meet with Benedict.
Yet Benedict holds him off, parries with him for days, and refuses to accept his retirement. As the two men become increasingly transparent one another, first tentatively, then unequivocally, something unlikely happens. The two men come to trust one another, to understand one another. Maybe even befriend one another. When Bergoglio is elected pope, the other beams. “I must back away. Your time has come.”
Sources report that this type of interaction may not in fact have occurred. Yet it speaks to the kind of leadership that many of us long for—transparent, transformative, responsive to the needs of the people, and responsive to the soul within.
At the same time as this movie has come out, a verifiable interaction between the two popes has occurred. While Pope Francis is exploring ordaining married men in remote areas of the Amazon, a new book lauding celibacy for priests bears Pope Benedict’s name as co-author. At first glance, this seems to be in direct contrast with the unexpected quality of leadership Benedict demonstrates in the movie. In the movie he promises not to undermine Francis. In real life, through this book, he seems to be. But a closer look at the facts reveals something else. Since the book’s release, Benedict has protested that he did not authorize his name to be used as a co-author. He has ordered his name be taken off it.
In the meantime, the rest of the world has glimpsed the kind of debate that allows for new opinions and new vistas to arise. While Catholics wonder if two popes and at least two opinions are good for the unity of the church, there may be an upside. A diversity of opinions may actually get people talking, exchanging perspectives, and searching for deeper truths. As United Methodists, who have been confronted with either/or schism know, that kind of exploration has to be good for the church.