I like and admire Pope Francis. Regular readers of my blog and columns know that, as do readers of a book I co-authored with the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock called Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.
So you might expect that I would find much to like in the new documentary movie about the pontiff, "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word."
And I did enjoy many aspects of the film when I saw it Monday evening with my wife and friends. I especially loved seeing the pope alone in a chair addressing the camera extemporaneously on various subjects. He is winsome. And what he says usually makes a great deal of sense, especially when he speaks of environmental degradation, of poverty, of war and of the responsibility of Christians to be disciples of Jesus Christ in their response to these and other challenges.
Francis speaks truth to power. And he represents the power to whom he is speaking.
But let's be clear about this film. If it were about a political candidate we might well label it a puff piece designed to get the central figure elected to office. The subtitle of the film gives away the movie's bias.
So propaganda films naturally leave things out or pay slight attention to some matters. And that's what happens in this film.
There is, for instance, no acknowledgement that this pontiff has made a lot of enemies, who are doing their best to undermine his papacy and to throw up roadblocks as he tries to reignite the important and needed spirit of reform that came out of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. In fact, the previous two popes, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, did a lot to slow down those reforms, if not kill them off entirely.
The film doesn't tell you that, at least not directly.
Nor does it get much into the pope's early days as a priest and bishop in Argentina and how he dealt with the brutal military junta there. As this Guardian piece notes, he has received a lot of criticism for his actions and inaction in those days, though many people think he handled it as well as he could. But none of that is in the film. Nor is there anything about the pope's recent initial defense of church authorities in Chile in the face of charges of sexual abuse and of him later apologizing for getting that wrong.
The closest we get in the film to some information about how Francis is trying to change the church's calcified hierarchy is a clip of one of his annual addresses to the Curia, or top Vatican leaders. Here is a story about what he said in 2014 and here's one about what he said in 2017. I'm glad I wasn't on the receiving end on either of those occasions.
There's more, but you get the point I'm trying to make. The film is not journalism. Rather, it's mostly flattery.
And yet there is so much to admire about this pontiff. I think he's truly a humble man with a great heart. That much viewers of the movie will get. But it's the more nuanced picture of a man struggling to make a difference in a hard-to-change system that the movie mostly misses.
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THE BIASES OF BERNARD LEWIS
The scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis died the other day, and the reviews of his scholarship have been deservedly mixed. This RNS piece, for instance, describes why many Muslims felt he had disdain for Islam. I found I could not read Lewis without recognizing his sense that Islam had little to offer the world and that the world would be better off without it. Scholars are, of course, entitled to their opinions and analyses, but as Hussein Rashid, author of the RNS piece, notes, "Like colonists of a century before, Lewis understood Muslims as violent by nature, irrational, abusive toward women, lacking in culture. He could not conceive of Muslims in the context of modernity." Speaking of Muslims and modernity, I invite you back here tomorrow for a review of a book by a modern American Muslim woman.