Editorial: Rolling Stone's spin

In less than a year, Pope Francis has become an icon. In media alone, Time magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, The Advocate and Vanity Fair (in Spanish) have all cashed in on the popularity of Pope Francis by using his photo on their covers. The most recent cover story, however, was Mark Binelli’s piece in the Feb. 13 issue of Rolling Stone. The nearly 8,000-word article titled “Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin’,” told the story of Pope Francis through multiple interviews and on-the-spot reporting. It covered many angles, included much of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s biographical information — and exuded a continuous disdain for the Church throughout. It only took Binelli seven paragraphs to thoroughly lambaste Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his pontificate, calling him, among other things, a “dour academic.”

“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,” Binelli wrote, “Francis’ basic mastery of skills like smiling in public seemed a small miracle to the average Catholic.” 

Pitting Popes Benedict and Francis against one another has been a favorite tactic this past year of journalists attempting to mold Francis’ pontificate so that it fits a particular agenda. But none has done it with the same level of contempt as Rolling Stone.

While Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi praised the article’s appearance as “a sign of the attention that the novelties of Pope Francis attract from many different quarters,” he also came out forcefully against it. “Unfortunately, the article disqualifies itself, falling into the usual mistake of a superficial journalism, which, in order to shed light on the positive aspects of Pope Francis, thinks it needs to describe the pontificate of Pope Benedict in a negative way, and does so with a surprising crudeness,” Father Lombardi said. “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.”

The secular media want Pope Francis to fit into a particular box, but his track record as 'a faithful son of the Church' is proving difficult to fudge.

While the two popes are in sync on the essentials of the Faith, contributing editor Russell Shaw pointed out in an article last week that the media takes a different approach. “Much media commentary and analysis since [Pope Francis’ election] has focused on the dissimilarities between them,” Shaw writes. “And much of it, coming mostly from ‘progressive’ Church sources, has been to Pope Benedict’s disadvantage.”

The problem is that the secular media are in a tricky spot. They want Pope Francis to fit into a particular box, but his track record as “a faithful son of the Church” is proving difficult to fudge. His overwhelming popularity — driven in part by his candid and down-to-earth manner and in part by the humility with which he practices what he preaches — makes him impossible to ignore. The solution, then, is to compare and contrast him with the shy, intellectual Pope Benedict, resulting in sloppy journalism that distorts the facts about both.

With that said, it’s undeniable, too, that Pope Francis has earned some of his headlines by speaking up on some of the Church’s thornier issues, such as careerism in the Church, the role of women and same-sex orientation.

Our advice to Catholics, and to all people with a genuine curiosity about our new pope, is to go to the source. Read his writings, read the Catholic press and its reporting of his talks, and subscribe to The Pope App on your smartphone.

As for Rolling Stone? It should probably stick to Lady Gaga.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor