Our Pop Culture Moment
by James D. Conley
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.
Among other things, the profile should spur committed Christians to work in secular and social media, in radio, film, and television. There was a time when newspapers and magazines of a certain size had a knowledgeable religion reporter—perhaps not personally religious, but informed enough to treat religion on its own merits. For a variety of reasons, those days are mostly gone. And so if we want to prevent secular media from hijacking religious realities, we need religious people at the helm—using the ordinary avenues of media to present a compelling witness to truth.
Catholic media is important—I admire tremendously the Catholics committed to it—but our willingness to work in and with secular media will determine the extent to which we can control the telling of our story.
I’m sometimes asked whether Pope Francis knows that he’s subject to media misinterpretation. While I don’t know him personally, I would suspect he is keenly aware of the choices he’s making, and the risks they pose. That’s why last week on the Church’s World Day for Communications, Pope Francis remarked that “if a choice has to be made between a bruised Church which goes out to the streets and a Church suffering from self-absorption, I certainly prefer the first. Those ‘streets’ are the world where people live and where they can be reached, both effectively and affectively.”
The preference of the Holy Father, like the preference of Jesus Christ himself, is to engage the world, to run the risk that journalists like Binelli will write unfounded, agenda-driven profiles.
Because, as Pope Benedict XVI said in 2013, by “patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence,” we can introduce the world to Jesus Christ.
In short, we take risks because we trust in the eternal victory of Jesus Christ.
Postmodern profiling by Rolling Stone should be taken seriously. But far more serious is our mandate to live charitably, joyfully, and boldly in discipleship of Jesus Christ. And the potential of living that mandate is limitless.
It is the simplicity of Pope Francis, and his charity, which are misappropriated. His generosity and humanity are remade as a shibboleth of heterodoxy. And as a foil, the humility and academic brilliance of Pope Benedict are characterized, with a fair bit of anti-Teutonic stereotyping, as Machiavellian scheming. But these images are laughably inaccurate, and fleeting.
The promise of the Gospel is that authentic commitment to the truth—and a refusal to separate a commitment to social justice from a commitment to orthodoxy and piety—will lead to conversion. The path of Pope Francis might lead to “media martyrdom.” But martyrdom sows the seeds of conversion.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict wrote that “[St.] Paul was not of the opinion that the chief pastoral task was to avoid controversy. Nor did he think that an apostle should have above all good press. No, he wanted to arouse, to awaken consciences, even if it cost him his life.” In different ways, rooted in different personalities, Benedict and Francis have both demonstrated commitment to that ideal. So should we.
Pop culture is important, and powerful. The sign value of Pope Francis’ pontificate is immense. And liable to misinterpretation. But our task is to wed sign and substance. To use the new-found fascination of the world for the Holy Father for the quiet, personal conversations which lead to conversion. To use piqued curiosity to speak, from the heart of a disciple, to suffering souls.
If we live in fidelity to the Gospel, we’re vulnerable to far more than pop-culture persecution. But persecution is a part of the Christian mystery. And, if we live authentically, openly, and faithfully, persecution will lead to victory.
Most Reverend James D. Conley, STL, is the Catholic bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska.