Imagine, on Super Bowl Sunday, if a sports reporter piped up and said things like, “Hey, since it’s called football, can you touch the ball?” or “Hey, what’s with the blocking and tackling? That’s kind of mean,” or “Hey, touchdowns, those are important, right?”
Yeah, that wouldn’t end well.
No one would tolerate a sports reporter that showed that level of ignorance about a subject he’s chosen to address, but when it comes to the Catholic Church in general and the pope in particular, the under-informed just let their freak flag fly.
Contrary to popular opinion–and the attempts of the mainstream media to portray him as such–Pope Francis is neither a politician nor a pop star. But all popes are public figures and, as such, get a full range of news coverage, from adoration to condemnation (some get both in one papacy).
Normally, the Vatican, which exists in a head space unlike any other, doesn’t get visibly upset about the negative coverage, unless it’s seriously inaccurate (hence the eventual removal from the Vatican Web site of the Pope Francis “interview” with octogenarian La Repubblica editor Eugenio Scalfari, who recreated the chat solely from memory, with decidedly mixed results).
When Time magazine named Francis its Person of the Year for 2013, the Vatican acknowledged it, essentially saying, “Yeah, of course you picked him. Duh.” But it was left to bloggers, Twitter, and other media outlets–including, interestingly enough, Politico–to note errors in Time‘s bio of the pontiff (it originally cited his “rejection of church dogma,” which hasn’t actually ever happened), prompting a rewrite.
The Vatican’s general attitude seems to be gratitude for the nice or neutral coverage and a resigned indifference to the negative and unusual. When gay magazine The Advocate named Francis its Person of the Year in December, the Vatican was unruffled. Of course, it helped that the article was well-researched and well-written. While the writer obviously didn’t agree with all of Francis’s (and the Church’s) position on issues relating to persons with same-sex attraction, at least he understood them and was able to find some (accurate) common ground.
For its February issue, Rolling Stone put Francis on its cover–months after featuring a Tiger Beat-worthy photo of doe-eyed Boston Bombing terror suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnev–accompanied by a long feature piece featuring a lot of purple prose and factual errors about the papacy.
For example, writer Mark Binelli refers to the pope as “supposedly infallible,” which displays a complete lack of knowledge about the meaning of papal infallibility, answers about which are just a Google away. And he refers to Jesus as a “homeless proto-hippie.”
Don’t worry, there’s more.
At one point, for reasons that seem more related to the writer’s inner life than that of his subject, Binelli compares Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s appearance to that of “Nightmare on Elm Street” character Freddy Kreuger, saying, “he looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares.”
Apparently no one told these Catholic teens at the 2005 World Youth Day gathering in Cologne, Germany, that, upon seeing Benedict, they should run for their lives.
In the same sentence, by way of contrasting the two popes, Binelli refers to Benedict as a “staunch traditionalist,” and it’s hard to know whether he means style or substance. Francis’s personal style may be different (probably because the outgoing Argentine native is a different individual, with a different personality, from a different continent, than the shy German Benedict), but doctrinally there’s no daylight so far between Francis and Benedict, or between Francis and Church teaching.
Binelli then hunts down a priest from Opus Dei, an orthodox Catholic group founded by Saint Josemaria Escriva, composed of clergy and laymen (made famous in Dan Brown’s Vatican potboiler “The DaVinci Code,” which featured an albino Opus Dei monk, although Opus Dei doesn’t actually have monks, or nuns).
Father John Paul Wauck takes on the question of what to do with a problem like Jesuit Francis.
The article quotes him as saying, “I certainly have no problem at all with anything the pope says. I do think there has been a bit of selective reading. People are emphasizing certain things and forgetting other things he also said.”
Binelli also quotes Wauck as pointing out that Pope Francis speaks about the Devil “much more than I ever remember Benedict doing.”
As for Francis’s supposed shifts on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, Wauck says, “The pope never said those issues weren’t important. He said that when we talk about those things, we have to talk about them in context. And who would disagree with that? So when people are trying to figure out what kind of guy this is, you have to hear all the bells, not just the ones that sound like, ‘Oh, he’s going to change everything.'”
Thus, with the possibility of an inside hatchet job on the allegedly liberal Francis from the “conservatives” at Opus Dei off the table, Binelli goes on to point out that “Francis has ruled out the ordination of women, for example, and he still considers abortion an evil.”
Actually, in the Catholic view, Christ never gave the Church the authority to ordain women, as Pope John Paul II reminded everyone (he didn’t create the doctrine, he just re-affirmed it) in a 1994 apostolic letter called Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
And as for considering abortion an evil, as a faithful Catholic, let alone a pope, Francis could hold no other position. A Google search on “catholic abortion,” followed by a look the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 2270-2275) would have revealed that.
But, even with all this, what ticked off the Vatican was the attack on Benedict–Binelli describes his papacy as “disastrous”–whose meetings with his successor have been friendly and full of ease and fraternal warmth.
While being happy that diverse media outlets are paying attention to the pontiff, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement, “Unfortunately, the article disqualifies itself, falling into the usual mistake of a superficial journalism, which, in order to highlight the positive aspects of Pope Francis, thinks it should describe in a negative way the pontificate of Pope Benedict, and does so with a surprising crudeness.”
Father Lombardi goes on to say, “What a pity. This is not the way to do a good service even to Pope Francis, who knows very well what the Church owes to his predecessor.”
To Americans used to rough-and-tumble exchanges, this sounds mild. But coming from the Vatican spokesman, it’s the equivalent of a smackdown. At long last, someone in the Vatican–and it wouldn’t be surprising if it came from the pope himself–has decided to push back, at least against those who purport to praise Francis by bashing Benedict.
For many in the Church who love and revere Benedict and have been pained to see this going on–and again, it wouldn’t be surprising if that group included Francis–it couldn’t come a moment too soon.
Maybe for its next look at the Church, Rolling Stone could talk to Terry Chimes, former drummer for punk band The Clash, who had a transcendental experience that led to him returning to the practice of his Catholic faith; or to classic rocker Dion DiMucci, who did the same after much study and reflection.
These particular stones, though, are likely to just go on gathering moss.