One of the most engaging films of last year was The Two Popes. In this portrait of an imagined bromance between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who resigned his office seven years ago and was given the honorific title of pope emeritus, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins excel. A white-robed odd couple, they pace the Vatican gardens overcoming mutual mistrust and eventually bonding over football, as the pair watch Germany play Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final.
It’s a good movie, for which Pryce, who plays Francis, has just received an Oscar nomination. But unfortunately for the Catholic church, Fernando Meirelles’s film is also a flight of fantasy. By contrast, the real relationship between Francis and Benedict is becoming increasingly troubling and, for the incumbent pope, destabilising.
It has emerged that the conservative Benedict, 92, has co-authored a short book in which he mounts an impassioned defence of consecrated celibacy in the church, and restates its incompatibility with the competing vocation of family life. This is a direct response, we are told, to a high-profile synod on the Amazon last October. The synod concluded that in remote regions where the mass could not be celebrated, the possibility of non-celibate priests should be considered. This has now become yet another battleground in Catholicism’s culture wars, as some conservatives spy the thin end of a wedge that could open the way for married priests throughout the church.
The celibacy debate is about the nature of love, as well as the meaning of sexual desire. There is an undeniable nobility to the traditional notion of the celibate religious life. In the ideal of priesthood, the dedication of oneself to God is combined with a selfless commitment to love all of God’s people equally. Theologically speaking, this is a call to imitate divine love, which requires nothing back. Humanly speaking, pulling this off is a rare accomplishment indeed. Trying to formalise the aspiration, through the celibate rule, can lead to the unhealthy suppression of more ordinary instincts for erotic reciprocity. This is an important issue and, as with the ordination of women, there should be a bigger, broader discussion about it.
Benedict’s intervention is, of course, designed to close such a possibility down. When he became the first pope to stand down, he pledged not to interfere with the decision-making processes of his successor. But there is form when it comes to his backseat driving. Last April, he published an article linking the church’s abuse scandals to the permissive sexual culture of the 1960s. That hampered Francis’s efforts to locate the blame where it surely lies – within ecclesiastical power structures of patronage and impunity.
Francis is expected to outline his position on the Amazon synod’s recommendation next month. When he does so, he should ignore Benedict’s latest shot across his bows. After all, in 2009 the previous pope agreed to accept married Anglican priests who had chosen to convert. And, for the church, there are obvious practical merits to getting the mass said in places where it would not otherwise be said. Above all though, the 21st century Catholic church needs to talk more about difficult subjects, rather than close the debate down by theological fiat. Two popes in the Vatican might have made for good cinema, but this is not helping the church.