Two popes on rethinking Christian traditions

2 popes - pope francis and pope benedict

A stitched photograph of Pope Benedict XVI with Pope Francis. Shutterstock.com

Constant Mews, Monash University.

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs. – Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Creatures

The decision of Pope Francis to use a synod of bishops from the Pan-Amazon region (6-27 October, 2019) to rethink the Church’s policy of imposing celibacy on its priests neatly connects concern for environmental destruction with the plight of the Amazon’s First Peoples. Pastoral care, child abuse, and loss of traditional ecological habitats all concern respect for the body. 

Pope Francis, long familiar with the cultural and political extremes of the Latin American situation, is using the need to provide alternative forms of pastoral care to think through a fresh reading of Christian teaching about the body. He does so in the same spirit as in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, which opens, not in Latin, but in Italian, using the words of Francis of Assisi in his Canticle of the Creatures, the first great poem in that language.

Within the long traditions of the Vatican, Pope Francis is engaging in a remarkable project of gently overturning centuries of tradition. 

His willingness to overturn convention first became apparent at his inauguration on 19 March, 2013, through the name he chose. In 2005, Joseph Ratzinger, a learned medievalist, had chosen the name Benedict XVI, to signal he was modelling himself on the traditional monastic values of Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine monastic order in the 6th century. 

Jorge Bergoglio broke with this tradition by taking not the name of a previous pope, but that of Francis of Assisi. This mendicant preacher had transformed religious life in the 13th century by arguing that fidelity to Jesus meant it should be based on values not of stability, but of poverty and humility. In doing so, Francis of Assisi breathed life into an ancient institution.

Pope Francis is endowed with a shrewd political sensibility and awareness of how to turn religious history to positive effect. He’s a visionary, with an awareness of the need to develop a new theology or teaching about the body that recognises the reality of sexuality as much as a new theology is needed about our ecological body, informed by the realities of climate science.      

This boldness of Pope Francis is double-edged. He’s attracting unparalleled media attention for his reforming project. At the same time, his critics are sharpening their swords. The possibility of a coup should not be excluded. In 1378, dissident cardinals responded to the reforms proposed by an Italian pope, Urban VI, by choosing a French-speaking candidate, who took the name Clement VII to signal his preference for a more aristocratic style of government at Avignon. In doing so, Clement VII reinforced a papal schism that would take another 70 years to heal. 

These issues are contemporary. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo integrated the sudden demise of Pope John-Paul I in August 1978 into The Godfather Part III as potentially related to larger scandals within the Church. 

The success of The Two Popes, directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, relies not just on the Oscar-nominated performances of Anthony Hopkins as Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) and Jonathan Pryce as Jorge Bergoglio (Francis), but on the potential for friendship between two men, with diametrically opposed perspectives on society and the body. One is a refined German professor, who loves the beauty of classical music, but is unable to handle the vast nightmare of clerical child abuse, which will end up draining the Roman Catholic Church of its financial resources. The other is a charismatic Latin American, who loves soccer, but has a troubled history in his native Argentina. When confronted with the prevalence of homosexuality in the Vatican, recently documented by Frédéric Martel in his In the Closet of the Vatican (2019), his position is simple: Who am I to judge? 

Martel observes the hypocrisy of those cardinals who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of consensual relationships in public, even though this is what they practise in private.

Pope Francis also inspired Paolo Sorrentino to create both The Young Pope (2016) and The New Pope, now available on SBS On Demand. Jude Law and John Malkovich demonstrate how the College of Cardinals – an institution created in the mid 11th-century as an imaginative response to a notoriously corrupted institution – can still create surprise through the candidates they choose. 

Within the long traditions of the Vatican, Pope Francis is engaging in a remarkable project of gently overturning centuries of tradition.

Cardinals were originally appointed to represent different orders in the Church. Being a cardinal is not a rank of holy orders. There’s no canonical reason why Pope Francis couldn’t appoint female cardinals. In this way he would be true to the underlying principle of those 11th-century reforms – that popes, like bishops, should be chosen ‘by clergy and people’, not through the machinations of political operators.

Reactionary forces in the Church are becoming louder. Cardinal Robert Sarah has written a forthcoming book on priestly celibacy, originally co-authored with Joseph Ratzinger until it was reported (on 15 January) that the former pope’s name would be withdrawn from the cover. There’s potential here for schism, the consequences of which would be catastrophic for the institutional Church. The 11th-century reforms forbidding priests from marrying never speak of celibacy as an ideal, only chastity or fidelity in a relationship.

As the issue of child abuse makes clear, there’s a need for religious authorities – not just within Christian denominations, but in all religions – to rethink their teachings about the body. 

The ideal of chastity needs to be understood as fidelity in any kind of relationship. Just as Francis of Assisi sought to recover Jesus’ teaching in relation to the living world, so the Church needs to revisit its theology of the body in the light of contemporary understanding about sexuality – as important, in its way, as climate science. 

Different religious traditions, including those of the First Peoples of this land, need to offer their wisdom about the body in a way that can help us learn dignity and respect, not just of individuals, but of the ecological body that we share. 


Constant Mews, Professor, Centre for Religious Studies at Monash University.

This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article

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