The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World
By Anthony McCarten
Flatiron Books, 2019, 233 pages
It’s safe to say the average, church-going Catholic layperson fulfills their mass obligation every Sunday, but is unaware of much of the labyrinthine complexities of their religion. In regards to the papacy, the laity see popes come and go and assume it’s all a smooth, glorious process controlled by the Holy Spirit. Well, not hardly.
In this book, the author, a self-professed, nominal Catholic, examines that unique episode in recent papal history when Joseph Ratzinger aka Benedict XVI resigned and Jorge Bergoglio aka Francis I was elected.
Ratzinger had been conservative pope John Paul II’s right-hand theologian and head of the modern equivalent of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. In that capacity, his energies were largely aimed at reigning in radical and liberal clerics. When JPII died in 2005, 78-year-old Ratzinger was elected as his replacement, much to the chagrin of liberal prelates. But the new pope’s health was already deteriorating at the time of his election and developing crises within the church (e.g., financial improprieties, clerical sexual abuse) convinced him to step down in 2013. Ratzinger was the first pope to resign since 1415. Bergoglio was elected pope thirteen days later.
The two men are polar opposites. Whereas Ratzinger was shy, withdrawn, and uncomfortable in public, Bergoglio is casual and confident to a flaw. Whereas Ratzinger was a passionate defender of conservative dogma and doctrine, Bergoglio is a pragmatic liberal who is very willing to “soften” church teaching in order to make the institution more “relevant” and “pastoral.”
How could the cardinals have elected a staunch, hardline conservative in 2005 and a progressive liberal in 2013? Bergoglio was somewhat of an unknown commodity in the minds of many of the voting cardinals. Only after he was elected did they realize how far to the Left of Ratzinger he actually was. Conservative and traditionalist Catholics rue the day when Francis was elected and pine for the end of his tenure.
Plenty of background information is provided on both men. The author does a good job of examining how each man’s individual history shaped their conflicting ideologies. The reader is also made privy to the patronage, infighting, and political maneuverings that are part and parcel of a Catholic cleric’s rise to the papal office.
Evangelical Vatican-watchers will enjoy this examination of one of the strangest chapters of papal history. Ninety-nine point nine nine percent of Catholics could not be bothered.
Postscript 1: The office of the pope is a man-made institution and cannot be found in the Bible. For more information on the papacy, see the article below:
What does the Bible say about the pope/papacy? – Got Questions
Postscript 2: The Netflix-produced film, “The Pope,” based upon this book, is currently in post production. Anthony Hopkins plays the conservative, pope Benedict XVI, and Jonathan Pryce portrays the progressive pope Francis. There’s no release date scheduled as of yet.