Piffard, NY. Children will teach you a lot about politics, (and movies), if you let them. I have four children, and they are, collectively, a walking billboard for the key insight of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, (which the New York Times Book Review referred to as a “landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself”): Namely, the insight that our much-prized, reasoned-out political, economic, and cultural ideas, the very seat of our individual standards of righteousness, are mostly, well, just temperamental. As Hume said, “Reason follows the passions.” In other words, these much-valued ideological acquisitions are, more often than not, just loose assemblages floating on the temperamental winds coursing through us since the time of our birth.

In my case, some of my children were seemingly born with the sole purpose of using the words “mine” and “yours” early and often. They see the world that way. These beautiful souls are somewhat conservative by temperament. And another one, as a child, seemed not to be able to conceive that those words or ideas existed or had meaning. (This was me as a child, too, or so I’m told.) If dope was her thing, she’d be the annoying dudette who came into your dorm room at college, not knowing you well, and acting as if your peanut butter or ramen was hers. In the microcosmic community of the family, both temperaments are in their own way blessings and challenges, as the temperamentally conservative children need to learn to share more, and the liberal-spirited need to realize that, well, the other members of the family exist independently of themselves and might feel like wearing their shirt the day you spontaneously put it on (what they call “borrowing”) or take it to college because it looks good on you (which they call “stealing”).

Therefore, one notices, (oversimplifications notwithstanding), that on the hot topic of, say….

  1. Animal Rights: Liberal temperaments begin their view of the issue with what humans have in common with animals and conservatives begin with what is different.
  2. Gender: Liberals begin with what the two genders have in common with one another and conservatives with how they are different.
  3. Immigration: Liberals begin by not seeing borders at all (in other words, by seeing what the people of two nations have in common), and conservatives see borders as WALLS (initial emphasis on difference).

Etc. etc. etc.

And, since geography also plays a part in our politics, with the coasts being more liberal and the heartlands being more conservative in predictable ways that lead to the sad death of the metaphorical and literal Socrates (which I describe here), we need to value once again the benefits of rootedness and recognize the curse of hypermobility. When the liberal youth all move to the coasts and big cities so as to be able to ‘express themselves,’ and the conservative youth studiously avoid what they perceive as the nuttiness of the coasts and cities, both geographical regions lose their leaven and become caricatures of themselves. Wendell Berry and Bill Kauffman, as I perceive them, are both liberal temperaments in the heartland (who, importantly, both had formative but temporary experiences on the coasts and cities which gave them the all-important personal encounters, the effects of which show in the real humanism of their writing). In short, we need to rely less on building rigid ideological superstructures and more on our guts, guts kept healthy by a diverse diet of conversation and friendship. We need to have more personal encounters and trust in the general “goodness” of people. In other words, we need to take the seriousness with which we treat this Left-Right stuff down a notch and lighten up!

All of this is by way of saying that I rather liked the lighthearted and imaginative film The Two Popes, a Netflix movie based on some imagined conversations between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. I take it, however, that John Waters at First Things did not:

It has been observed that The Two Popes is ultimately frivolous—a “holy bromance,” a “buddy movie,” a sort of “odd couple” remake. So, you know, lighten up! And this is the level on which it is most successful. Yet this is also the movie’s most insidious aspect: It draws you into itself. In the depths of its mendaciousness and shallow moralizing, an engaging and moving story of a personal encounter is told. This means that, as propaganda, this movie is both hugely effective and extremely dangerous.

Wow. That’s a serious charge! Lightening up is dangerous, we are told, and stories of moving personal encounters can be used as Trojan horses for sinister propaganda. Waters goes on to say this of the screenwriter Anthony McCarten:

McCarten, born and raised a Catholic, has described the movie as “an even-handed, humanistic little piece. It’s meant to be fair. It’s not meant to whitewash anyone, but it is done in a sensitive way.” He is wrong.


“He is wrong.” There’s that seriousness again. This echoes the kind of cadence Waters uses in another castigation of McCarten in the same review:

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten has asserted that the film is meant to speak to a larger debate. “In a world where conservatives and progressives are very entrenched, and moving further apart if anything, and a lot of vitriol, anger flowing both ways, we wanted to make a movie about finding the middle ground.” But the movie does nothing of the kind.

“But the movie does nothing of the kind.” Just more vitriol and anger. And the same contrast between a statement of McCarten’s claimed harmless, humanistic intent, followed by a serious, curt rebuke is offered up at Angelus News by Stefano Rebeggiani:

“I think what sets this film apart from others I’ve done is that it’s very much a debate. It’s a debate between two positions we’re all familiar with — the traditionalist and the reformist — trying to find common ground,” says Anthony McCarten, who penned the movie’s script. The problem is, the movie does nothing of the sort.

“The movie does nothing of the sort.” I wonder if this serious seriousness is the complement, on the conservative side, to the ‘cancel culture’ of the progressives. As an aside, let me suggest that, in fact, it’s actually the seriousness with which we regard these issues that’s at the root of so many of our problems. For example, what is the “woke” culture or gender ideology except the natural liberal temperament of some beautiful souls that’s been juiced and weaponized into extreme seriousness by the elite, whose game is libido dominandi, and who are naturally conservative insofar as they conspire and deploy this garbage in ways to protect their own interests!

The real irony here, however, pertaining to the movie, is that Waters and Rebeggiani and others, (such as Bishop Barron), who comment on the movie in this vein, are actually somewhat correct in their view, but in a way that neither they nor McCarten seem to be able to understand or describe well. They’re right. This movie doesn’t do all that well in finding the “common” or “middle” ground between Left and Right, or between traditionalist and reformist; it does something much more important!

The actual ‘point d’appui’ this movie tracks and illuminates is not the transitional mid-point between Left and Right but a much more subtle and seminal transition that’s implied in, say, the movement from images of citadels and ‘things set apart’ to themes of ‘smelling like the sheep’ (a phrase that captures both difference and sameness). References to pizza, soccer, shoes, and music are used to evoke this. Analogous to this is the contrast in the image of the Church from a societas perfecta to a ‘field hospital.’ Like it not, future popes or bishops are going to have a hard time if they want to live palatially; simple shoes, cars, and living quarters are the new normal for prelates. And if these are “liberal” themes or images then sign me up, but they are not. The fact is that there are elites of both temperaments that would prefer to live ostentatiously and with ‘bling,’ and are allergic to personal encounters, but in the Church of Rome, over the past few decades and hitting something like warp speed under Pope Francis, this has all changed, and the movie captures this.

Both Bishop Barron and John Mulderig (among other notable commentators on the film) counter suggestions in the film of Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) hustling for his own election to the papacy with the truths that all he actually wanted to do at that time was to “return to Bavaria and write his Christology” (Bishop Barron), or be “left in peace to read his books and play Mozart on the piano” (Mulderig). I’m sure this is partially true (though I suspect, human nature being what it is, there was at least a slight draw to power for both of them), but it doesn’t change what I see as the imaginative drift of the movie towards personal encounter and ‘smelling like the sheep.’ Though there’s nothing wrong with Mozart or Christology, Pope Francis in the film would rather leave the Archbishopric of Buenos Aires not for isolation or to be “left in peace” but to return to being a simple pastor of and with the people. If this is standard Jesuit agitprop, well it’s definitely not the kind represented by James Martin so much as it is the wonderful vision of Jesuits like Marcell Jousse or Michel de Certeau.

This same transition is also caught, prophetically, in the feelings evoked by St. Malachy’s famous appellations for the two popes, from “The Glory of the Olive Tree” (Pope Benedict) to “Peter the Roman” (Pope Francis)–where Pope Francis/Peter the Roman is predicted as the end of the line, whatever that portends! Whether these tags were summoned in the 12th century or the 19th, they still evoke the end of one style of ‘doing the papacy’ and the return to something much more simple. But the symbolism is not just a contrived return to the simple times and ways of St. Peter the apostle and the primitive Church. No. That would be to follow the illusion of all revolutionaries. “Peter the Roman” evokes a return with a difference as it doesn’t renounce all the great “Roman” and Latin tradition; It includes it in the form of a higher simplicity that, in moving forward, also brings in the anarchic, Greek winds of Holderlein (Pope Francis’ favorite poet) and Dostoevsky in addition to St. Augustine and Mozart, and maybe even adds a bit of Abba and The Beatles, (for those who have seen the movie).

Finally, (and what the hell, since, as Leon Bloy says, “exaggeration is the means to discriminate between insects and draw us closer to the stars”) there are intimations and resonances in this imaginative movie that call to mind many of the images and themes which poets and astrologers have often used to describe the movement from the aeon of Pisces “the fish” to those associated with the coming age of Aquarius, “the water-carrier”; from themes pertaining to individual struggles to achieve sanctity and to worry about the fate of the individual soul to themes akin more to, say, “Dostoevskian” questions about communal salvation. Or, as John Cowper Powys phrases it, from the age of Pisces, with

all of its characteristic symptoms, of pain and pity, of prison and punishment, of frenzied concern over the fate of the soul when a person died, of torture eternal and redemption from torture eternal, continued with it, filling the whole of Time and Space, and, since the Universe was One and God was one, leaving no single spot in the whole “Ensemble” where beautiful Chance and beautiful Chaos and beautiful Anarchy could introduce a little irresponsible adventurousness

to something that welcomes this irresponsible adventurousness. And from an emphasis on the legal and moral (Pisces) to an emphasis on the wonder-working aspects theurgy and thaumaturgy (Aquarius).

It’s important to note here, too, that where most reviewers of the Left and Right looked at this transition in the movie in terms of a supersession of one way of doing things over another, or a victory of sorts in the political pendulum swing, and were elated or depressed accordingly, I saw something that was much more organic and imaginative going on. The beautiful conceit of the movie, which reflects a higher reality, as I see it, was that Benedict prophetically saw, and humbly chose and conducted, as it were, this next orchestral movement (Mozart anyone?) symbolized in the good, archetypal aspects of Francis, (which is not all there is to Pope Francis, for sure, which he’d be the first to admit). What better tribute or portrayal could there be, after all, to one of the most cultured and sensitive minds of our time, than to discern the signs of the time and act accordingly in this way? I find good in the movie as it’s a miracle of sorts that anything about the Church was put forth by Hollywood that wasn’t just a hit piece, and nobody can deny that the movie, overall, made the Church out to be more than just an assembly of rogues, fools, and fraidy cats, which is the norm. I watched it with my daughter Lucy, and seeing a sensitive portrayal of two intelligent, kind, conscientious leaders who listened and learned from one another and could agree to disagree made her proud to be Catholic. So, two cheers for Two Popes, and enjoy your popcorn.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Sounds like fantastical wish-casting. What evidence is there that Francis would rather be “a simple pastor of and with the people”? If that’s true, he now has a shining example, in Benedict’s resignation, that he can do that! It seems obvious he wants to be the Simple Pope, where the latter half is easily as important to him as the former.
    Francis is pope. Obedience is perhaps the most important, and most difficult, of virtues, though it is anathema to the modern world. It does make it very, very hard to comprehend Benedict’s choice to resign.

  2. Not having seen the film (and this review hasn’t persuaded me to), I will limit myself to disagreeing with the premise on which this review rests: that there is no “There” there, that could make the negative reviews rational rather than just over-wrought. (Incidentally, your link to Waters’ FT review doesn’t work, but I found it, as well as Weigel’s review at that same site). I get the desire to “lighten up,” I really do. But as the late great Philip Rieff observed, the “theater” is one of the great tropes of our time, where, being fundamentally rootless, we play out endlessly our visions of the new and the different because we lack any real ground on which to stand. That view is in fact deleterious, and I don’t see anything in this review to refute Waters’ claim that the film perpetuates such a view.

    You don’t have to be a dour legalist to conclude that sometimes, in some circumstances, we simply can’t “just get along.” So, on reading this piece, and then re-reading Waters’ FT piece, I think Waters’ take is perfectly defensible.

  3. Aaron: Thanks for your comment. “Good hope is found at the bottom’. I’ve been in a John Cowper Powys kick for the past few weeks, during the watching of the movie and the writing of this article/review, (I go back to him every year at this time; always dreary in Upstate New York.), and that line is from Rabelais. Powys, who Henry Miller said, “To encounter is to arrive at the very fount of creation,” (strong praise!), thought the same and more of Rabelais. Reading Powys, (and Rabelais) in my experience, is a great counterpoint to reading Rieff.

    This issue is hope. Jacques Ellul is profound on this.

    Compare Rieff’s “Psychiatric Study of Jesus”, from Charisma with Powys’ “The Secret of Jesus” in Mortal Strife, (from which the quote in my article was taken). What one finds in Powys are intimations (like there are in William Blake and many others), and in this act of the great play we are living in now, about how the next act in this piece might unfold, if we attune ourselves to it. I alluded to them briefly in my article but could go on for pages.

    Another gem from Powys:

    “Below the surface of our present age, psychic forces have been released, and are obscurely stirring and heaving, that cry out for a new Pantagruel to interpret them. With some of these forces Rabelais would have profoundly sympathized, confronted by others he would have been completely at Sea. One by one the wild-eyed heads of these new-born Ideas emerge, and emerge from queer directions and unexpected quarters. But one thing we are already permitted by Destiny to note; namely that the impulsion behind them is from below [where “good hope is found!”] and yet not from hell!

    One more:

    “I feel that this mystery of love has played its part in the world’s history and has finished its cup of mingled ecstasy and pain; and that something else, something more honestly comprehending, but less vibrantly pitiful, something as friendly, but not as possessive, something profaner, gayer, lighter, more detached as well as more humorous, is about to take its place.”

    Oh happy fault! Jesus can even redeem what Rieff calls “spray on charisma”.

  4. Elizabeth: I would have preferred you had said “imaginative” (like the movie), and I would have said “Exactly!”, as most reviews, like Waters’, are lacking that entirely, which that’s heart of the problem in the Church, but thank you nonetheless.

  5. A wonderful review (also “clever” if that word’s not a snark). I think what pushed the dyspeptic Waters into a sputtering frenzy over the movie was not merely the touch of caricature in its portrayal of Benedict. It was the (to the First Thingers) “extremely dangerous” notion that we’re seeing an imaginative and vivid depiction of the great shift in the source Church: from a European center to a one in the global South. And from a self-referential Church to one increasingly devoted to going out to the peripheries, to the landscapes of the refugees, the garbage pickers, the discarded. A pity so many in the American Church don’t realize their own poverty amidst these hopeful signs.

  6. I enjoyed your review. My family is registered at a rather fundamentalist parish, & I have to agree that they’d wield a bit more influence if they were simply happier people. After all, Jesus saved them, & not all those “others.” Why the perpetual Pat Buchanan bitter beer face?

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