Controversy at the Vatican

The ongoing dispute between two wings of the Vatican hierarchy is getting ever nastier.

The Two Popes, Netflix

By Kevin Madigan

Some six weeks after the release at Thanksgiving 2019 of The Two Popes, controversy engulfed the Vatican and threatened to subvert the image of mutual respect and affection with which the film left its viewers. The controversy, which centered on the issue of priestly celibacy, arose in the wake of a synod at the Vatican in October 2019 on the future of the church in the Amazon, where there is a serious dearth of priests in the remote regions. Some of the bishops present suggested that, to keep liturgical practice alive in these regions, Pope Francis consider the possibility of ordaining mature, married men (viri probati) to the priesthood. A second proposal on ministerial clergy recommended the ordination of women as deacons.1 Substantial majorities of the 185 voting participants supported both recommendations. In closing the synod, the pope promised that he would honor the vote by reflecting seriously upon the “challenge” with which it had presented him.2

Francis’s letter was widely interpreted as a “slapdown”—one of many visited on Sarah by the pope during his pontificate.

At virtually the same moment Pope Francis was promising to consider a change to historic sacerdotal practice, he was publicly quarreling with Robert Cardinal Sarah, the Guinean prelate who had been made prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Worship and Sacraments in 2014—by Pope Francis. To the horror of his many liberal critics, Sarah is considered papabile (a likely or possible candidate to be elected pope); at least, until very recently, he was.3 Publicly correcting an article by the prefect, which had to do with the translation of Latin liturgical texts into local vernaculars, Francis’s letter was widely interpreted as a “slapdown”—one of many visited on Sarah by the pope during his pontificate. In a document issued motu proprio (that is, under the pope’s own initiative), Francis had transferred responsibility for translation of Latin liturgical texts away from the Vatican and toward conferences of bishops and the stakeholders—that is, “the people”—they represent. In short, Francis was harnessing papal power to restrain that of the Vatican congregations (or “dicasteries”) and to augment that of local bishops and congregations. In response, Sarah argued that the Vatican Congregation for Worship and Sacraments should retain authority, on matters pertaining to liturgy, over local episcopal conferences.

In recent decades, the Council’s historic shift of power and prerogative outward has come to be resisted in an ever-more-prickly dispute over the meaning of Vatican II.

We have seen this sort of clash before. Focused on the now-perennial issue of center and periphery in ecclesiastical authority, the debate was central to the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council. In recent decades, the Council’s historic shift of power and prerogative outward has come to be resisted in an ever-more-prickly dispute over the meaning of Vatican II. In the first sentence of his letter, Francis explicitly invoked “the great principle, established by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and its mandate to make the liturgy comprehensible to ordinary parishioners,” to justify his decision. Indeed, “great principle” (magnum principium) are the significant words with which Francis begins his letter, and the title by which it will be popularly known, a reminder of the document’s theological roots in the thinking of Vatican II. That is surely what the pope intended.

A leader of the contrary movement to “reform the Reform,” Cardinal Sarah was, in effect, not simply resisting the pope’s instructions on liturgy; he was piloting a much wider effort to steer through, or stem, currents set in motion by the epoch-making Council.4 We can hardly know the pope’s motivations for making his correction public, but Francis was likely not pleased by Sarah’s assessment of the Amazon synod as an “insult to God,” ideologically driven by “bourgeois and worldly” Westerners intent on promoting an agenda on regrettably functionalist grounds, an “absurd” parochial and regionalist proposal unbefitting the church universal.5 This was an argument Cardinal Sarah had made in the past, and it would soon be heard again. His October blast was simply a moment in an ongoing critique of mounting intensity.

Indeed, Cardinal Sarah was the principal protagonist in the controversy that culminated shortly after the new year, when an excerpt of a book was published in a French newspaper. The book, From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, was putatively co-authored by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In 2013, Benedict became the first pope in six centuries to retire. When he stepped down, he took the title “pope emeritus” and promised “he would remain hidden from the world.” In fact, he has found it hard to do so. In April 2019, Benedict released a 6,000-word letter in which he expressed his view on the origins of the sexual abuse crisis. While Pope Francis had explained the crisis in terms of clericalism, the pope emeritus blamed the scourge of pedophilia on the “all-out sexual freedom” unleashed in the 1960s. The editorial director of the Vatican’s communications department, in a scholastic sleight of hand, argued that the responses of the two popes were essentially the same. But the profound differences were all too obvious. Among other things, Benedict’s letter makes no reference to the documents of Vatican II. Much closer to the truth, one commentator observed, “His ideas were almost directly in contrast with those of Francis.” The publication of the letter—and especially the most recent book—has led to calls to reimagine the idea of a pope emeritus.

More serious charges have been leveled, too. After the excerpt of the book was published, some clerics around both Benedict and Francis, as well as some commentators, argued that conservative cardinals, like Sarah, had manipulated the increasingly frail Benedict. Sarah was stung by the charges, but nonetheless called his publisher. At the request of Benedict, he asked that the pope emeritus’s name and photograph be removed from the book cover, along with the introduction and conclusion. It is not clear what motivated Benedict to remove his name; perhaps it was the firestorm of controversy that ensued after its publication. In any event, Cardinal Sarah has insisted that Benedict had contributed some “reflections” on the priesthood and understood that they would be published in the form of a book, with him being credited as co-author. Wherever the truth lies on this issue, the publication of the book seemed to suggest Benedict—or the coterie of bishops for whose views Benedict’s function as a precious imprimatur—was taking a stand against even opening a conversation on the issue raised by the Amazon synod and was usurping a decision that could only be taken by the present pope.

This brings us to the memorable image at the conclusion of The Two Popes, of two men amicably watching the 2014 World Cup together, rooting for two different teams (Germany and Argentina, of course) but joined in brotherhood, their disagreements downgraded to the vulgar enthusiasms of soccer fiends. The movie claims to be “inspired” by true events, but really, this film is a piece of historical fiction. It would be churlish, not to mention tedious, to detail all the events depicted that are not “true”—that is, they did not actually happen. But although it is not accurate, and not a great film, it does, in fact, reveal much of the truth by which it purports to be inspired and, perhaps, speaks more truly than it knows.

The film presents us with two kinds of attitudes—hostile and integral, we might say—toward secular culture.

This is especially the case if we view the film as an allegory and the two principal characters as personifications of styles of thinking and believing in the church, which includes different ways of imagining and approaching those who don’t think like you. The film presents us with two kinds of attitudes—hostile and integral, we might say—toward secular culture.6 We’re also presented with a host of other dualities: Rome and Buenos Aires, Latin and vernacular, systematic and pastoral theology, head and heart, medieval and modern, eternity and change, carmine shoes and standard-issue ones, ambition for and resistance to high office, and so forth. It bears repeating that some of these dualities—perhaps above all, Ratzinger’s zeal for office—have only a very indirect relationship to social and theological reality. These antinomies soften a bit as each of the principal actors opens his heart to the other. But do the two popes really change one another in a deep theological or ecclesiological sense?

I don’t think so. And here is where the film speaks effectively (especially at the beginning, when, for example, “Ratzinger” barks at Bergoglio, “I don’t agree with anything you say”) to the real opposition to Pope Francis’s agenda and the ongoing, ever-nastier dispute between two wings of the hierarchy. Let me mention just of a few of the items on Francis’s agenda. Already before being anointed, Francis had envisaged a world-church of parishes, with a decentered Rome serving rather than directing the bishops. He had angrily repudiated clericalism, deemphasized sexual sin and stressed sin against immigrants, the poor, and the environment, and lobbied for the admission of divorced but remarried Catholics to the Eucharistic table. And he had signaled that he hoped to collaborate as equals with leaders of other religions of the world. Now he is considering ordaining married men and female deacons. Benedict would have been appalled had he known. He cannot now oppose the appointment that he favored, but one wonders whether he would have gone through with his resignation. That cannot be known.

More certain is that, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, as pope and as pope emeritus, he acted in opposition to almost all elements of the current papal program. His time as prefect was marked by a series of attempts to restrain or reverse theological developments growing out of the Council, a trend that continued during his years as Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict had favorably commented at the beginning of his papacy on the hermeneutics of reform or continuity and deplored what he called the hermeneutics of discontinuity or rupture, even revolution. His disappointment with “discontinuous” developments culminated with his 2013 statement, made in a meeting with Roman clergy, just before promising to seclude himself in prayer in retirement, which expressed regret with “innovations” and novelties not rooted, he argued, in the Council. One Italian theologian has rightly observed that “Benedict . . . one of the fathers of Vatican II” is now “full of remorse” over his role at the Council. The introduction to the volume of his writings on Vatican II (2012) certainly seems to distance him from some of his own achievements.

Yet that distance has widened in the post-resignation period of Benedict—so much so that the pope emeritus appears no longer in control of the agenda he helped to create. To begin with, it is hard to imagine that Benedict could have co-authored a book with Sarah. He sleeps much of the day and finds it hard to speak, even more difficult to write. Since the beginning of Francis’s pontificate, Benedict’s entourage has viewed him and his writings as an authoritative counter-magisterium to the incumbent pope. On many occasions, they have fed the anti-Francis media with news and “scoops.” Now, the increasingly frail Benedict seems to have been recruited, perhaps against his will, unknowingly, in a bid to impede Francis from permitting married priests from being ordained in the Amazon.

If Benedict’s handlers succeed, what sort of victory will they have achieved? Perhaps they will proclaim a victory for tradition. But at what cost? Disobedience to the pope? Damage to the pastoral life of the church? To its unity? One of the ironies of Ratzinger’s time as pope and as emeritus is that he seemed to be trying to modify a conciliar legacy for which he, one of the most distinguished theologians at Vatican II, was in part responsible. The retinue that now surrounds him seems intent not on modifying but on reversing that legacy.

The Two Popes portrayed the friendship between Benedict and Francis as dialectical but nonetheless always characterized by mutual loyalty. Benedict’s court seems determined to transform that friendship into an irresoluble conflict of factions. Whatever his views on Vatican II, the Benedict I know would have deplored this faithless development.


  1. In 2016, Francis created an official commission to study the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, but it was unable to achieve consensus or give a “definitive response” on the question.
  2. Since this article was submitted, Pope Francis rejected the proposal of the Amazon synod bishops to ordain married priests.
  3. Sarah has resisted the widespread perception that he is a thoroughgoing critic of the pope (Cindy Wooden, “Cardinal Sarah: To Oppose the Pope Is to Be Outside the Church,” Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse, October 9, 2019). Many of his colleagues in the episcopate have complained about Sarah’s use of apocalyptic language. See his “two-beasts” speech.
  4. Somewhat more sensitive was the way in which the dispute epitomized a growing chasm between European and African bishops, especially on matters of social ethics. Some African bishops have been especially critical of Walter Kasper, cardinal and—ironically—president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (2001–10). Kasper has suggested that African attitudes on some social issues are a “taboo,” which strikingly suggests the profound degree to which debates in contemporary Catholic dogma seem be rooted in culture.
  5. Interview in Corriere della Sera, October 7, 2019; see “Cardinal Sarah: Ideological Push in Amazon Synod an ‘Insult to God,’ ” The Catholic World Report, October 9, 2019.
  6. As in H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (Harper & Row, 1951).

Kevin Madigan is the Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School. The author of many books, he most recently completed the textbook Medieval Christianity: A New History (Yale University Press, 2015).

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