The following comes from a Feb. 3 posting by Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska on the First things website.
On my coffee table, I have a book of classic rock posters—from The Who, to Led Zeppelin, to Nirvana, Metallica, and the Grateful Dead. The book was given to me by a brother bishop who knows that, in my earlier years, I listened to many of those bands.
I’m a Catholic bishop, entrusted with the responsibilities of Christ’s apostles. I’ve had the benefit of exposure to the richness of Western culture: to great literature, and poetry, and sacred music. But I’m not immune to the charms, and whimsy, and sometimes profound insight of American popular culture.
I also know that pop culture matters. And that our country’s political and social opinions come more often from the world of Lorne Michaels and Jon Stewart than from the staid pages of even the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. When I talk to young people about gay marriage, they’re more likely to cite Macklemore than Maureen Dowd.
This is why Marc Binelli’s profile of Pope Francis, the cover story of February’s Rolling Stone, is so troubling, and so important.
The profile is an exercise in standard revisionism, bent on demonstrating Francis’ break from the supposedly conservative Church of old. Light on facts, heavy on implication, half-truths and hearsay, the piece remakes Pope Francis as the quiet hero of the liberal left. It uses the scandals of Vatican finance and sexual abuse, coupled with tired tropes about Opus Dei and the Latin Mass, to craft Pope Benedict XVI as a miserly conservative plotter. Pope Francis is the foil: the reluctant, populist leader of a move to liberalize and desacralize the Catholic Church.
It doesn’t matter how much or how little is true. Certainly, the profile contains a great deal of untruth. Inconvenient facts, such as the affability of an Opus Dei source, or the theological orthodoxy of the Holy Father, are dismissed. The piece is unbalanced in its sourcing, and it draws unreasonable conclusions from carefully selected vignettes. Over the next few weeks, bright Catholics will discredit the factual inaccuracies in the article. But what matters most is that Rolling Stone and its collaborators are working to hijack the papacy of a loyal, though often unconventional, son of the Church.
The reason is simple. Sexual and social libertines have little interest in discrediting Christianity. They’re far more interested in refashioning it—in claiming Christ, and his vicar, as their supporters. The secularist social agenda is more palatable to impressionable young people if it complements, rather than competes with, the residual Christianity of their families. The enemy has no interest in eradicating Christianity if he can sublimate it to his own purposes.
The greatest trick of the devil isn’t convincing the world he doesn’t exist—it’s convincing the world that Jesus Christ is the champion of his causes.
Well-formed Catholics know that Pope Francis isn’t breaking new theological ground. His work on economics, for example, is in continuity with a point being made about justice since at least Leo XIII. His call for broader participation by laity, particularly women, was a point of great importance to Benedict XVI. And his expressions of charity and solidarity towards those afflicted with same-sex attraction is rooted in the Church’s best tradition. But the media has driven a wedge between Francis and his predecessors by focusing less on substance than method.
There’s much in Binelli’s essay to criticize. But the piece was effective. The profile, and many others like it, have re-crafted Francis’ public image in the annals of popular culture. He has become a rock star. But if we understand that, and are prepared for it, we have a good chance of using the Church’s pop culture moment, instead of becoming its victim….
To read the entire posting, click here.