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'The Pope' Tells The Tale Of A Roman Catholic Church With Coexisting Pontiffs

As the successor of St. Peter, a supreme pontiff should speak with authority. But our recent popes have seemed all too capable of questionable judgment, all too easily proven wrong, all too human.

Never was that more clear than in the aftermath of the stunning decision of Pope Benedict XVI in Feb. 2013 to retire. The subsequent election of Pope Francis meant that for the first time since 1415, Roman Catholicism found itself with more than one pope — in this case, one emeritus and one active. They had conflicting views on Catholic teaching at a time when the Church desperately needed to provide clarity.

It is this extraordinary circumstance that fascinates Anthony McCarten in The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World. McCarten is a novelist and playwright (his screenplay version will soon become a feature film), and he instinctively accentuates the drama and intrigue in this strange but engaging story.

Though raised as a devout Catholic, McCarten acknowledges from the outset that his faith has lapsed, noting that he now regards the biblical story of the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ as "a tall tale."

Not surprisingly, neither Holy Father gets much deference in McCarten's treatment. Benedict and Francis are both imperfect men, presented here mainly as Joseph Ratzinger, the law-and-order son of a German policeman, and Jorge Bergoglio, the holier-than-thou priest of the Buenos Aires slums.

Their predecessor, Karol Wojtyla, beloved around the world as John Paul II, does not fare much better. In McCarten's view, the failure of church leaders in recent years to deal effectively with the sexual abuse crisis stems in large part from John Paul's record of appointing "ill-qualified bishops who were willing to toe the party line."

The book opens with McCarten's cinematic account of the conclave where the College of Cardinals would select John Paul's successor, including a scene from the Sistine Chapel we are likely to see when his film is produced: "Wooden walkways are specially laid to preserve the ancient floor and long trestle tables with deep crimson fringing are brought in to seat the cardinal electors, adding even more color to a room already adorned with five-hundred-year-old frescos on its walls and ceiling."

Ratzinger, who was John Paul's longtime right-hand-man, was the favorite from the start, though he was less a pastor than a theologian, with little of the Polish pope's charisma. Raised in Nazi Germany, Ratzinger was conscripted into the Hitler Youth as a teenager. He shared the anti-Nazi views of his family, though in McCarten's telling, it had more to do with Hitler's hostility to religion than with his persecution of Jews.

As Benedict XVI, he was known for his vigorous enforcement of orthodoxy and his unsparing condemnation of homosexuality. Just seven months into his papacy, he offended Muslims around the world with his citation of a Byzantine emperor who called the Prophet Mohammed "evil and inhuman." He outraged Jews by lifting the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a notorious Holocaust denier, though he later claimed to have been misinformed about the man.

Jorge Bergoglio, the Jesuit who became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, gets far more sympathetic treatment from McCarten. He describes Bergoglio as determined "to eschew the decadence and ostentation that came hand in hand with the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, committing himself instead to a life of humility and simplicity, helping the poor just as Saint Ignatius of Loyola had directed more than five hundred years earlier."

The Argentine was the runner-up in the 2005 election of a new pope, though he was a reluctant candidate, desperate to go back to Buenos Aires to continue his ministry. When Ratzinger was chosen instead, according to McCarten, Bergoglio was "the happiest guy in the room."

But it was not as though Ratzinger wanted to become pope, either. McCarten makes the case that three of the last four popes — John Paul I, Benedict, and Francis — were profoundly reluctant to take on the responsibilities that come with the papacy, knowing it would sentence them to a life of Vatican imprisonment. "It's a cross," McCarten notes. "It's too onerous. It ends only in death."

Benedict apparently found the pressure impossible to manage. In his 1997 memoirs, written while still serving John Paul II, Ratzinger confessed to an "inability in matters of governance and administration," a serious handicap for someone who leads a church with 1.2 billion followers.

"It is fair to say that Pope Benedict's papacy got off to a rocky start and never really recovered its footing," McCarten writes. By the end, he says, Benedict was like "a frail and confused old man drowning in shallow waters while those closest to him watched."

His shortcomings were so serious, his misery so great, that in McCarten's telling Benedict's decision to retire rather than live out his term seems almost preordained.

But it is the irony in that decision that most interests McCarten: "How could this ultra-conservative protector of the faith, guardian of doctrine, even contemplate resigning when, as he very well knew, he would be surrendering the Chair of St. Peter to the radical Jorge Bergoglio, a man so different from him, in character and views?" McCarten does not find an answer to the question.

Just as mysteriously, a pope best known for his steadfast defense of tradition in the end did "the most untraditional thing imaginable" and thus left Catholics wondering whether tradition actually matters after all.

Bergoglio, as Pope Francis, became an instant rock star around the world with his warm, pastoral manner, his embrace of the marginalized, and his insistence on a spartan lifestyle. McCarten was especially impressed by Francis' 2013 visit to the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of impoverished migrants from Africa had landed in search of refuge. Hundreds more had died at sea.

"Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters?" Francis asked. "We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion."

But Francis does not escape McCarten's critical judgment. Bergoglio's Argentine critics say he hardly behaved heroically when thousands of people were "disappeared" at the hands of Argentina's military dictators, and McCarten notes that Bergoglio's subsequent "confession" brought as many questions as answers.

As pope, Francis was slow to respond to the abuse allegations made against two Chilean bishops, and while in Mexico he declined to meet with victims of Father Marcial Maciel, the notorious abuser who founded the Legionaries of Christ.

McCarten says his examination of the Benedict and Francis story left him with a thought he did not have when he began the project: "not how very different these men are, but how much they share." Both came of age under dictators and were accused of being "bystanders to brutality. Their responses, in common, have fallen short of the mea culpa one might have expected ... and offer mostly a familiar wall of silence, a wall mirrored by the Catholic Church itself in its handling of sexual abuse cases."

In the end, the consequence of having two popes, as McCarten boldly explains, is a weakened church.

"As long as they continue to coexist, they must serve as proof eternal that popes are fallible," McCarten writes, "as any time they disagree, one pope will always be wrong. And a pope who is wrong, and is proven to be so by the mere existence of his twin, his countervailing voice, is no pope at all."

For a church in crisis, any ambiguity in its leadership presents a serious problem, and McCarten tells the story as clearly as it has ever been told.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.