I began my serious study of Torah when I entered Yeshiva University in 1960. I had no intellectual baggage and so was willing to listen to all points of view that I heard in the classrooms of the university, perspectives that represented a variety of different approaches towards leading the religious life.
The two voices that were most influential were my History professor and my Talmud instructor. Interestingly, both were rabbis and both possessed PhDs from Harvard, one in History and one in English. I had never before met rabbis with those kinds of academic credentials. Simply being in their classrooms was inspirational.
The History professor over the years espoused an increasingly liberal approach to Jewish law and its application in the twentieth century; the other presented a more conservative approach, more traditional in its commitment to Jewish law but still valuing what the secular world had to offer.
The above narrative greatly simplifies a complex and ongoing discussion in contemporary religious circles, but it touches on the main dilemma in The Two Popes, a film depicting the intellectual conflict between two serious, but divergent, religious thinkers who have vast influence on their disciples.
The film focuses on one of the most significant transitions of power in the twentieth century, namely the changing of leadership of the Papacy in 2013 from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis, formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
The film opens as Cardinal Bergoglio requests permission from Pope Benedict to retire in 2012. The Cardinal is disturbed by the current direction of the Church and wants to spend his senior years away from the limelight and Church controversy.
Pope Benedict, troubled by instances of scandal within the Church and by personal self-doubt, summons Bergoglio to Rome. Bergoglio, who is the Pope’s polar ideological critic, is unsure why he was summoned. In a series of personal meetings, the inner thoughts and spiritual struggles of both men are revealed. They both have past secrets that continue to haunt them to the present day, yet both are men of great spiritual accomplishment in the public arena. Discussions come to a head when Benedict reveals to Bergoglio that he plans to resign the papacy and that he wants Bergoglio to stay within the Church hierarchy in order for him to be considered as his successor.
Their conversations touch on major theological issues such as morality, tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, the role of God in the world, the mission of the contemporary Church, and the degree of change necessary to continue to be relevant in the modern world to millions of people who believe in the sanctity and integrity of the Church.
Bergoglio’s point of view about the low esteem in which the Church is presently held is caustic and painful for Benedict to hear: “We have spent these last years disciplining anyone who disagrees with our line on divorce, on birth control, on being gay. While our planet was being destroyed, while inequality grew like a cancer, we worried whether it was alright to speak the Mass in Latin, whether girls should be allowed to be altar servers. We built walls around us, and all the time, all the time, the real danger was inside. Inside with us.”
Benedict’s counter position is expressed in his comment about the value of building walls to preserve the Church’s purity: “You talk about walls as if they are bad things. A house is built of walls. Strong walls.” Bergoglio responds: “Did Jesus build walls? His face is a face of mercy. The bigger the sinner, the warmer the welcome. Mercy is the dynamite that blows down walls.”
This debate persists in religious circles: how to reconcile and accommodate the illustrious and sacred traditions of the past with an ever-changing future. Referencing Jewish tradition, a Talmud teacher of mine, Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, said that a rich and holy tradition can accommodate itself to the changing contemporary world as long as the parties to the debate share basic assumptions, such as belief in God and His Torah, and living by His commandments. Once there is such basic agreement, then there is room for alternate approaches. Thankfully, Popes Benedict and Francis share common assumptions, and so they find a way to work together for the common good.