Two Popes, an Oscar race… and an unholy row: The real-life scandal engulfing the Vatican


Executives at Netflix must be regarding it as a small miracle. Their big-budget, exquisitely acted drama The Two Popes is up for two Oscars — one for each pontiff — at this weekend’s Academy Awards ceremony.

This means that on Sunday night we could see two venerable Welsh actors clutching a statuette for playing a pope in the same movie. Sir Anthony Hopkins, 82, could pick up his second Oscar after being nominated for best supporting actor for playing Benedict.

And Jonathan Pryce, 72, could emerge as best actor for his portrayal of Pope Francis — or, rather, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, as the film is based on the fiction that the two men meet secretly in the Vatican months before Benedict’s shocking resignation in 2013.

The two actors’ cause has not been hurt by a high-profile row between supporters of their real-life counterparts in Rome. In the same week Pryce and Hopkins’ nominations were announced, the retired Benedict XVI challenged his successor over the hot-button subject of clerical celibacy.

Francis is thinking of ordaining married priests. Benedict is horrified by the idea.

And when Benedict’s name appeared as the co-author of a book that passionately defends the celibate priesthood, Francis forced the frail older man to withdraw his endorsement.

The resulting row between allies of the liberal Argentine pope and his conservative Bavarian predecessor kept The Two Popes in the headlines just as members of the Academy were filling out their ballot papers.

And the scandal was given fresh impetus this week when it emerged that Francis had stripped the head of his household of key duties. The Archbishop of Urbs Salvia, the Most Rev Georg Ganswein, doubles as Benedict’s secretary, and Francis is said to believe he had been involved in the production of the offending book on clerical celibacy.

I suspect Netflix won’t have been displeased by the real-life drama — far nastier than anything that happens in the film — that is playing out in Rome.

And it will be hoping that — to use a Vatican analogy — white smoke will come billowing out of the Hollywood chimney for both their popes.

The film’s producers are unlikely to care that events in Rome demonstrate that the plot of The Two Popes — which suggests Benedict secretly wanted Francis to succeed him — is not just utterly fanciful but pretty close to the opposite of the truth.

But a growing number of Catholics, including me, are seriously disturbed by the film’s popularity.

Our objection isn’t that The Two Popes depicts a purely fictional encounter between two living people. That’s a familiar plot device, and if it bends reality in a plausible direction then we should allow Netflix its artistic licence.

The problem is that the filmmakers are, no doubt unintentionally, helping one of the most powerful men in the world to cover up a series of scandals in which he is personally implicated.

I’m talking about Pope Francis, who is nothing like the quietly self-deprecating moral crusader depicted by Jonathan Pryce. Indeed, there’s a worrying gulf between his public and private images.

Pope Francis presents himself to us as an avuncular ‘Great Reformer’ who’s tough on abusers but a big pussycat with everyone else.

But we caught a glimpse of a rather different character on New Year’s Eve, when the Pope was filmed slapping down a Chinese woman who had grabbed his arm in St Peter’s Square. She wouldn’t let go, and you can’t blame Francis for being annoyed. He later apologised for losing his cool.

Even so, the damage was done. That little glimpse of thunderous anger astonished millions of people who had never questioned the pontiff’s carefully cultivated cuddly image.

But it won’t have astonished anyone who works in the Vatican.

‘You don’t want to be there when he flies off the handle,’ says one official. ‘And the language!’

Until last year, I was editor-in-chief of the 130-year-old Catholic Herald, one of the world’s leading Catholic magazines. This gave me privileged access to leading cardinals, three of whom met me privately on separate occasions to discuss their grave reservations about the direction in which Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church.

That was unusual enough. All popes have cardinals who disagree with them — but those cardinals would normally think twice before voicing their doubts to a journalist who’d cross the road to start a fight. (The Church Times once described me as ‘a blood-crazed ferret’.)

But what really shook me was their personal dislike of Francis. One cardinal, who had worked closely with the Pope, had a look in his eyes that — if he were not a Christian devoted to spreading the gospel of love — I might have mistaken for cold hatred.

The truth is that Francis is the most divisive pope we’ve had for centuries. He seems to hold liberal views on married priests, homosexuality and allowing divorced-and-remarried people to receive communion.

I say ‘seems’ because he prefers to hint at his sympathies rather than make actual policy changes. In the case of married priests, however, it look as if he is going to dip his toe in the water, preparing the Church for the plunge to follow.

He is considering a plan to ordain married men on an experimental basis in the Amazon region of South America, where there is a serious shortage of clergy.

This is what provoked the African-born Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is in charge of Catholic worship, to write a book last year championing clerical celibacy. He’s the only true conservative to hold high office in the Vatican, though the Pope pays no attention to his views.

Many traditionalists had been hoping he’d succeed Francis to become the first black pope. That’s now looking unlikely after last month’s extraordinary fiasco involving Benedict XVI.

Somehow, and the details are still murky, Cardinal Sarah persuaded the ‘pope emeritus’ to send him his own lengthy defence of celibacy.

Benedict agreed — perhaps an unwise decision, given his promise to live in silence in his little monastery in the grounds of the Vatican.

Now he’s agreed to take his name off the book, after Francis reportedly flew into a rage on learning of its publication. Sarah, meanwhile, has also spectacularly lost his temper. The Vatican’s notoriously spiteful spin machine tried to throw him under the bus by putting it about that he deceived Benedict into contributing to the book.

A furious Sarah tweeted that this ‘seems to imply a lie on my part’ and that ‘these defamations are of extraordinary gravity’. He proved his point by publishing letters in which Benedict approved the book project. And, just last month, he held a cordial meeting with the old ex-pope.

One curious feature of the row is the relish with which Francis’s supporters have escalated it. They kept tweeting hysterically that: ‘You can’t have two popes!’ Oddly enough, though, they had welcomed the movie of that name — because it’s based on the convenient fantasy that Benedict wanted Francis to succeed him.

These events make it plain that Bergoglio was the last man he wanted to sit in the Chair of Peter. He’s horrified by Francis’s casual floating of major changes to Church teaching — and offended by his brutal sacking of two of his favourite cardinals, Gerhard Müller and Raymond Burke, from their Vatican posts.

No hint of scandal was attached to either man; their offence was to be doctrinally conservative.

Why are the Pope’s allies so ready to draw attention to the real-life ‘two popes’ furore? One good reason is that it takes Cardinal Sarah out of the running to be the next pope. He has clearly messed up.

But Francis loyalists may also be making another calculation. The row over the ancient pope emeritus is infinitely less damaging than the stories that the media could — and should — be writing about his successor.

Let’s start with the sex scandals. There’s a moment in The Two Popes when Pryce’s Cardinal Bergoglio tears into Hopkins’s Benedict for turning a blind eye to clerical abusers.

I felt like throwing something at the screen. Benedict may have been slow to act against predators, but it’s Francis who has turned a blind eye to compromised bishops, even rehabilitating and protecting them.

In 2010, the Belgian cardinal Godfried Danneels told a young man who had been abused by his uncle to keep quiet. Why? Because that uncle, Roger Vangheluwe, was one of Danneels’s bishops. When the facts came out, the cardinal retired in disgrace.

Then Pope Francis was elected and invited Danneels to a synod on the family. One cardinal told me that the Pope ‘was thanking Danneels for votes’ — the Belgian had been a key Bergoglio supporter at the 2013 conclave.

Soon after his election, Francis was told that there was a huge dossier on Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, a serial molester of seminarians.

McCarrick had been ordered to live in seclusion by Benedict. Francis brought him in from the cold and sent him on key papal missions. He only stripped McCarrick of his cardinal’s title after he was exposed by the media.

One of Francis’s first actions as Pope was to make his friend Gustavo Zanchetta a bishop in Argentina. The appointment was a disaster. Zanchetta was found with pornography on his phone and left his diocese’s finances in ruins.

The Pope accepted his resignation and then created a Vatican job for him — incredibly, managing the Church’s money. An Argentine court has now charged Zanchetta with abusing seminarians and misusing funds.

Yet he remains in the Vatican, protected by his mentor Francis.

Perhaps most disturbingly, back in 2009, Julio Grassi, an Argentine celebrity priest who worked with street children, was convicted of performing a sex act on a boy, one of several alleged victims.

The Argentine bishops commissioned a report attempting to smear Grassi’s accusers — on the instructions of the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. Ambushed by reporters in St Peter’s Square, Francis denied that he had commissioned the report. This is simply not true. He was Grassi’s biggest supporter.

There are other cases in which the Pope has ignored or even criticised victims of clerical abuse. Clearly he is no ‘reformer’ in this area. Meanwhile, the financial scandals are piling up. They involve the Vatican’s investment in a luxury development in Chelsea, a bankrupt Italian hospital and an Angolan oil company. The suspicion is of money-laundering on a vast scale.

Archbishop Angelo Becciu, formerly one of Pope Francis’s most senior financial executives, has been named by the Financial Times as a key player in mysterious investments. In 2018 the Pope made Becciu, who has denied any wrongdoing, a cardinal.

And then there is China. The Vatican has signed a deal with Beijing whereby Pope Francis has agreed to recognise bishops from the state-controlled Catholic Church in return for greater freedom of worship.

China immediately reneged on the deal, the details of which have never been made public.

There were reports last month that one bishop faithful to Rome is sleeping on the streets after escaping his state minders. Francis has said nothing about this or any other abuses of human rights. His silence is shameful and shocking.

None of this is easy to interpret. Jorge Bergoglio has always been a loner, leaving questions about his motivation wherever he has been. But when he was head of the Jesuits in Argentina, he was hated by many priests for his bullying manner.

In The Two Popes, Benedict asks Cardinal Bergoglio about ‘this popularity of yours’ back home. What popularity, ask many Argentinians? Throughout the film, a childlike smile keeps flitting across Pryce’s face. It was a smile rarely seen in Buenos Aires.

Just before the final credits, news photographs take us on a lightning tour of the places Francis has visited: they include Manila, Mexico, Lima, Rio, New York, Seoul, Colombo and Tirana.

Did the filmmakers not notice a startling omission from that list? When he addressed the crowds in St Peter’s for the first time, the new Pope Francis said that the cardinals had chosen a pope ‘from the ends of the Earth’. But not once has he gone back to his homeland, and he won’t say why.

Argentinians are offended but not surprised. They remember the grim-faced Archbishop of Buenos Aires and his propensity for making enemies. When they look at their television screens and see the lovable Pope Francis, they could be forgiven for thinking that it is Jorge Bergoglio, not Jonathan Pryce, who deserves an Oscar.


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