Reading my latest magazine from AARP, I see that nominees for "2019’s Top Movie for Grown-ups" include "The Two Popes." The film is described as "a witty true story" about a debate between "traditionalist Pope Benedict" and "progressive Pope Francis."

Witty the film sometimes is, and the acting and production values are impressive. "True" is another matter.

The meeting taking up most of the film, between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) seeking to resign as archbishop, is completely fabricated. Says George Weigel, an eminent chronicler of the modern papacy, as history the film is "baloney on steroids."

Informed Catholic reviewers note that the movie caricatures Pope Benedict as a cranky right-winger, cut off from personal contact and buried in his books.

This is a man once hailed as one of the most brilliant forward-thinking theologians — a professor attracting such devoted students over two decades that they still held reunions with him long after he was called to Rome.

He contributed to the documents of the Second Vatican Council as a theological consultant, and served four years administering a major archdiocese until he was appointed to head the Vatican’s doctrinal office. This is not a life insulated from human contact or the times we live in.

And while the film depicts him as lobbying other cardinals to be elected pope, in real life he had long been asking St. John Paul II, without success, to let him retire to a quiet life in Germany.

But not many reviews highlight the film’s equally slanted depiction of its "progressive" hero. The fictional Cardinal Bergoglio tells Pope Benedict he wants to resign because he can no longer help sell a "product" he does not believe in -- that is, the Catholic faith. For example, he makes the astonishingly ignorant statement that the church did not believe in angels until the fifth century. (The Bible alone mentions them hundreds of times.)

When secular media refer to a Catholic leader as "progressive," they usually mean he or she is not interested in defending the church’s strong moral teachings on sexuality or unborn human life. I wonder, then, if those praising this fictional Pope Francis know what the real Pope Francis has said.

He has compared abortion to hiring a "hitman" or contract killer to solve one’s problems, saying it is "the murder of children." He has said that when abortion is used to eliminate a child with an illness or disability, we do the same as "what the Nazis were doing to maintain the purity of the race. Today we do the same thing, but with white gloves."

Pope Francis has decried "a global war trying to destroy marriage," saying that "a great enemy of marriage today is the theory of gender" allowing people to choose which gender they identify as.

In this context he has urged bishops to heed the words of retired Pope Benedict, who he quoted as calling this "the epoch of sin against God the Creator." And whatever the church may ultimately make of his ideas on allowing Communion for some divorced and remarried Catholics, of divorce itself he has said that when spouses agree to end their marriage "they dirty what God has made."

There are certainly issues on which one can find differences between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, and between any two popes. But media and filmmakers do everyone a disservice when they try to stuff church leaders into ready-made categories based on our polarized secular politics. They only succeed in presenting us with four popes: two caricatures, and the two more complex and interesting people who happen to be real.



Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.