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The Rock Star Pope

When it comes to cashing in on Pope Francis Fever, Rolling Stone has one-upped Esquire, with its silly "best-dressed man" designation. They didn't even have to make a joke, like the New Yorker, when they made Francis their cover model. The Rolling Stone cover is essentially a joke come to life: Francis, the Rock Star Pope.

The article, though, is no joke. I've seen some dismissive sniffing and some references to "hate-reading" among fellow pope-watchers, but Mark Binelli's piece is not the superficial profile you might be expecting. In fact, there's a lot to admire in it.

Its main flaw, and I will grant Fr. Lombardi this, is its over-the-top dismissal of Pope Benedict, and its occasional resort to what Lombardi aptly called "crudeness." He said "surprising crudeness," but given the venue, there's no surprise; crudeness is an essential element of serious journalism in Rolling Stone, a kind of self-conscious tic, like the gratuitous shots of topless women in HBO's prestige dramas. Hence, this, a few paragraphs in:

After the disastrous papacy of Benedict, a staunch traditionalist who looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares, Francis' basic mastery of skills like smiling in public seemed a small miracle to the average Catholic.

It's too much to say that Benedict's papacy was "disastrous," and the comparison to Freddy Kreuger is not only disrespectful (as intended) but awkward, strained, and inapt. (And oddly dated, for a magazine whose mandate is keeping up with pop culture.) That's not at all what Benedict looks like. Which is too bad, because Binelli is right that Benedict's looks were a liability: in photos he inevitably looked grim and ghoulish, although in person, or on video, I was surprised to find he came off as gentle and shy. ("His voice is disarmingly gentle," Binelli says about Francis -- I wonder if he knows that Benedict's is, too, German accent notwithstanding.)

Still, underneath all the shock-value stuff, I think Binelli has a solid grasp of what the "Francis Effect" is all about. Strip the nonsense out of the above quotation, and you get: "After Benedict, Francis' basic mastery of skills like smiling in public seemed a small miracle to the average Catholic." Exactly right. As is this:

It's a funny thing, papal celebrity. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio had never been an especially gifted public speaker. But now that he's Pope Francis, his recognizable humanity comes off as positively revolutionary. Against the absurd, impossibly baroque backdrop of the Vatican, a world still run like a medieval court, Francis' election represents what his friend Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentine journalist who has known him for a decade, calls "a scandal of normality."

If adolescent crudeness is Rolling Stone's major weakness when it comes to serious journalism, its major strength may be getting the usual suspects to loosen up and drop their guard in on-the-record interviews. (Ask Stanley McChrystal about that.) Thus, the quotes Dominic Preziosi pulled out in his earlier post.

In the comments on that post, Rita Ferrone says, "There are a number of individuals whose zeal for the honor of the previous pope is meant precisely as a rebuke to the current occupant of the office. They are very happy to announce criticism of anyone who says too openly that Pope Francis is a welcome change after Pope Benedict." Yes. Francis's charisma and broad appeal, and the notable contrast with Benedict's image, is a fact, like it or not. And if you read a piece like this too defensively, you'll end up misreading it entirely. For example, at the Register, Edward Pentin complains: "[Binelli] also describes Benedict’s acclaimed apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis as 'wonky' but without explaining further." What further explanation was he looking for? Does he know what "wonky" means? Here's a quote from that document: "The causal influence of the Eucharist at the Church's origins definitively discloses both the chronological and ontological priority of the fact that it was Christ who loved us 'first.'" Theological sophistication and erudition -- wonkiness -- is what Benedict tended to be acclaimed for.

A lot of the stuff that should have been struck from Binelli's article feels, to me, like it was added during the editing process instead. If you read on, his reporting and analysis undoes most of the over-the-top claims he makes -- after that "disastrous papacy" bit, he runs through a colorful list of historically bad popes and concludes, "Benedict XVI would certainly not merit inclusion in this rogues' gallery." He also says,

After he became Pope Benedict in 2005, Ratzinger couldn't seem to catch a break, and he certainly lacked the ability to apply his widely acknowledged brilliance as an academic to snuffing out fires in the real world.

Which is, or ought to be, a pretty uncontroversial description of the Benedict papacy.

The one part of Binelli's piece that really felt fresh to me was his analysis of how conservatives and liberals have responded to Pope Francis, and his description of the context of the "Who am I to judge?" remark.

...his answer is never really translated properly. What he actually says is, "Mah, who am I to judge?" In Italian, mah is an interjection with no exact English parallel, sort of the verbal equivalent of an emphatic shrug. My dad's use of mah most often precedes his resignedly pouring another splash of grappa into his coffee. The closest translation I can come up with is "Look, who the hell knows?" If you watch the video, Francis even pinches his fingers together for extra Italian emphasis. Then he flashes a knowing smirk.

The cover alone is a reason to pick up Rolling Stone -- keep it as a memento of the heady Pope Francis honeymoon period. But the article is worth reading, too, and worth arguing with. It's too substantial to dismiss out of hand.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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 I am very happy that Rolling Stone and other secular media outlets find Pope Francis intriguing and hope that his appeal helps to bring Christ's love to those who might not otherwise hear of it. However, even today, Francis made some statements that are unlikely to appear in Rolling StoneTime or in any other organ of the popular media. I think these statements of Francis reflect his deeply personal commitment to beliefs and values that were shared by his predecessors and should be reported on to give a fuller portrait of what this very good man is all about.

Addressing the trustees of the University of Notre Dame, the pope said –

This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134), which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors.

At this morning's Mass at St. Martha's house, Pope Francis, quoting Pope Paul VI, said that it is "an absurd dichotomy to love Christ without the Church, to listen to Christ but not the Church, to be with Christ at the margins of the Church. It's not possible."  To "precisely feel, think, want within the Church" the Christian must embrace "thee pillars" one of which is "fidelity that is linked to obedience. Fidelity to the Church, fidelity to its teaching; fidelity to the Creed; fidelity to the doctrine, safeguarding this doctrine."

I agree with Mollie's exegesis. There is some substance here. After looking at it again, it seems to me altogether possible that someone else put in the nutty remark about how scary Benedict looked, out of a misguided desire to "spice things up," whereas the comment that Benedict "couldn't seem to catch a break" was of a piece with the rest of the writer's style.

If it appears under his byline, doesn't he own it, though?  I'm sure that's not always fair.

I think the stuff about Benedict does belong in the article.  A large part of why Francis is so liked by the general public despite the fact that he has not changed the doctrines that have alienated so many from the church is that he is different than Benedict .... he's friendly, humble, ecumenical.  That just those differences, basically a percieved decency and approachability, would make him so popular, is a testament to the "awfulness" of previus popes.

About half-way through the article, there's an amusing sentence. Binelli writes: "Six years later, in 1998, he became archbishop of Buenos Aires."

No mention of how it came about or who made the appointment. It's as though Bergoglio suddenly descended upon Buenos Aires, took over the archepiscopal palace, and thought: my this salon would make a fine storeroom. "Mah! pass the grappa, per favore.""


I don't understand the crticism of Benedict. I think that he was shy, humble, introverted and intuitively understood the limitations of the papacy in terms of reform and the practical difficulty of ecumenism. That is different than saying that he was not interested in them. It is just that he is real.

Good grief - he was not photgenic. Thank God .. enough of the papolatry! I think Benedict wanted to engage the world in a clear dialogue around negotiating difference.

Plus on the point of the importance of liturgy in terms of formation, I agree with a lot of what he says (not all but quite a bit).

And heck, anyone who can postively engage Nietzsche in an encyclical is pretty aware of how devastatingly insightful Nietzsche can be.

About Benedict, it was on his watch that ... Bernard Law was given a promotion, Vox Clara gave us the great new missal translation, the SSPX was wooed, the Latin mass was encouraged, Catholic/Jewish relations reached a new low ( ...  and  .., he wasn't nice to the Lutherans either (, nor the Anglicans (, he indirectly compared women's ordination to sex abuse (, and made many cruel statements about LGBT people (

Mollie, Thanks for an editor's insights into the structure of the RS piece. I think you winkled out some points that would otherwise be totally lost on the non-pros.

To them I'd like to add the general observation that the Catholic Church is a difficult object to explain to people who don't care a whole lot about it but have impressions. The impressions might include the idea that Catholics think Latin is God's native language and the Virgin Mary tells the lucky ones big  secrets.  Also, that the Church is run by a secret sect that uses old men in red beanies as a front while it executes various political plots and remotely pulls the strings on financial scandals -- an idea they may have picked up from cocktail party chatter when Dan Brown had his 15 minutes. That's the audience. Rolling Stone is not going to vouchsafe an author the space to explain the concept of the magisterium, parse the doctrine of papal infallibility and draw a picture of the lines of authority between pope and bishops and priests (which even the bishops are murky about now that plaintiffs' lawyers seek the deepest pocket available) just as a warm-up to writing about a pope who kisses babies, has birds land on his hand and generates a lot of attention by simply being himself. "Cut the theology, and get to the beach in Brazil."

Before anyone criticizes a secular author on the pope, let the critic figure out how he or she would handle those technical problems of the art.

Lest we forget, Benedict is still Pope.  Or one of them, at least.

He also wrote an encyclical criticizing laissez-faire capitalism.  And not that long ago.  Conservatives just ignored him; the thought of comparing him to Barack Obama never crossed their minds.

I guess the biggest difference between these two popes is that one of them held that eyebrow-raising news conference in the jet over Rio, and the other one didn't.  And of course, the eyebrow-raiser keeps refusing to live in the luxury to which popes have become accustomed.  I get the sense Benedict probably didn't care that much for luxury either, but he was too reserved and polite to make a point of it.  Just give him a chair, a cat and all the books he can read, and he'll be content, which I guess is pretty much how he's spending his retirement.  Sounds good to me too.  What's fun about driving around in a popemobile anyway?

And yet Francis IS special.  When a pope says "Who am I to judge?" about homosexuals, and says it to a bunch of secular reporters on their own turf, somebody is going to write about it in Rolling Stone.  When he follows that by mentioning how churchmen focus too often on abortion and homosexuality, commentators are going to make note of a papal mind more open than any have seen since that other papal 70-something opened windows all over the Church.  And when he decides to issue an opinion survey to the laity of every nation around the globe, even Catholics may start to think something's up.







"Lest we forget, Benedict is still Pope.  Or one of them, at least."

Beverley -

Oh, no he isn't, and that's why some of the conservatives are quaking in their boots.  "Emeritus Pope" is just a title meaning, "this man used to be Pope". 

Yes, Benedict, at least as pope, got worse press than he deserved, but his behavior as head of the CDF before becoming Pope was the main reason for that.  He treated some theologians extremely unfairly.

If Fr. Lombardi thought this article was "crude", imgagine how he would have freaked if it had been wirtten by Matt Taibbi, my favorite potty-mouthed Stoner.

When I went to The Week, they tried to convince me my pc needed protection. Let's make that ten ridiculous claims.

I doubt seriously that RS caters to ... or cares to ... the kind of person who reads Commonweal, the (real) NCR, America or even First Things.

The fact that they chose to feature Francis with such a very positive review should have Catholic hands clapping overtime. Catholicism, in general, does not get very good press these days, except in the small world of religious reporting that very few people actually read.

I say that RS deserves major kudos for introducing Francis to a readership that, at best, had peripheral knowledge of him outside of sound bites that the secular press delights in.

Was the article "orthodox?" No. Should it have been? Why: RS isn't Our Sunday Visitor, il Stampa or L'Osservatore Romano -- nor does it pretend or claim to be.

Catholics should be happy for anything positive about its (sort of) chosen leader in light of the almost daily dose of increasingly depressing stories about sexual, financial and authoritarian Catholic scandals that dominate the news.


Binelli could have done better in explaining "Mah." Here are some nuances. 

“Mah. Cosa poi fare?”   But What  can I do?

It is harder to translate. 

Because it sums it all up and you can say it anytime you want … for almost any occasion.

“Should we have steak or chicken?”


“How far is it from your house to the airport?”

Mah …

“Her husband is so dumb!”

Mah …

My philosophy professor used to say "ma che" all the time. Usually it was because he thought your question or objection was far fetched. Whenever we talked about him "ma che" was always part of the conversation. 

Papa Francesco comes across better to Rolling Stone, and to the rest of us, than his Panzer Pope predecessor only by contrast:

Instead of Benedict flouncing around in medieval papal costume accented with Prada and Gucci accessories, trash talking Muslims, lecturing Western democracies about "moral relativism" while conducting a world-wide cover-up of clerics raping and sodomizing children, presiding over a corrupt curia that has turned the Vatican Bank into a money laundering operation -  and now we have a pope who looks and acts like he actually lives in the 21 century.

No wonder Francesco is Time magazine's Man of the Year:   Francesco is a pope who is not so self-referential that he can don a Bozo clown nose for a selfie with a newly wed couple in the piazza; a pope who invites an infatuated small boy to sit on his throne chair while he finishes speaking publicly;  a pope who has the humility to pronounce ["Who am I to judge?"] about gays [priests specifically] when for centuries the church has staked the papacy on just that notion of omnipotence; a pope who can look his curia courtiers and sycophant hierarchs in the eye and tell them they are "the leprosy" on the church and that they should better have "the smell of the sheep" upon them.

What a difference a papal conclave can make!  Rock Star Pope, indeed!

Bill - I really do appreciate your discourse on "mah" :-).  I have to say, though, that I took away from Binelli's explanation much of what you are illustrating.   "Who am I to judge" perhaps could be summed up in a heartfelt "mah",  yes?

It is surely overall a good thing to have Catholicism - and the pope, no less - receive positive press in Rolling Stone. Hopefully some 16-year-olds and 26-year-olds might make their way back to their local parish, find a decent priest and community, and be on a journey that they might otherwise not engage. Having said that, I must say that the RS piece did not make me think highly of RS' reporting. Compare it to the Time piece accompanying the Man of the Year. Quite apart from the problematic Benedict characterizations, or the rather silly comment about the Opus Dei priest not being conservative because he'd read a Steely Dan autobio (c'mon! talk about open stereotyping! imagine if someone had written something like that indicating a stereotype of "liberal Catholic nuns" - we'd be rightly criticizing it!) what troubled me reading the piece was a seeming tone-deafness in thinking about Francis in any way other than as either for or against standard American Left positions. The authors says at one point, "True he has ruled out ordination of women and still considers abortion an evil." Whoa. Talk about two wildly different issues - and this is all his set-up to the interpretation of the "meh" remark, which not only displays a wildly inaccurate account of infallibility (again, I'm not asking RS to know every doctrinal nuance, but if they were covering an environmental story, we'd expect them to get the terms generally correct, to know what fracking is and not make elementary mistakes, and indicating that every word which comes out of a pope's mouth is thought to be infallible is just an elementary mistake), but also seems to "paraphrase" in ways that seem problematic. His preferred "who the hell knows" is nothing like Francis' "who am I to judge," which, given what we know about his belief in God's mercy and compassion, and the compassion we are supposed to show to all, is a humble statement about not judging. It is not a statement of some kind of existential uncertainty. He concludes the "interpretation" by saying Francis "flashes a knowing smirk." Knowing what? The implication is evidently that Francis is right-thinking by RS standards, but of course, he can't come out and just say that. Wink, wink - we know what he really thinks. This is papal spinning on the George Weigel, "what-Benedict-wrote-and-what-Justice&Peace-wrote" level. We rightly take Weigel and WSJ and other outlets to task when they routinely spin Catholic statements in sloppy and downright incorrect ways, making texts and statements "say" things that accord with their American view of the world which distort them. Perhaps it is an enjoyable come-uppance to see the spin going the other way. But we shouldn't treat RS any differently.

Bishop Conley of Lincoln, NE weighs in on the Rolling Stone article.



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