Rolling Stone has done gaudy before. Its writers have weathered Lady Gaga's meat gown, Madonna's frills and external bras, Bowie's androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust and more. Yet its cover story gets goggle-eyed at Catholic trappings — the "absurd, impossibly baroque backdrop of the Vatican" — just to show Pope Francis as moderate and low-key. And a liberal, modern, progressive (i.e., good) pontiff. All that and more goes into the cover story of the current Rolling Stone, painting Francis as a huge surprise to a dusty, arthritic institution: a sweet man bursting with idealism, pushing the Roman Catholic Church to shed its benighted notions of politics and morality.
GetReligionista Mark Kellner wrote a breezy, well-deserved diss to the Rolling Stone article. Now let's peel a few layers off this onion.
What Stone writer Mark Binelli gives us is an expanded version of hopeful chatterings last year by liberal media, when Francis was elected. Granted, Rolling Stone celebrates colorful writing, but Binelli's story reads like an odd mix of naïvete and cynicism. Case in point:
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."
Whatever Piqué meant (and her articles aren't linked from the Rolling Stone piece), it's doubtful that she would have mixed periods centuries apart, like Baroque and medieval, in a single sentence.
It gets worse -- nine times worse, according to Damon Linker of The Week, who lists nine ridiculous claims in the Rolling Stone article. Linker rightly scorns, for instance, the incredible comparison of Pope Benedict XVI with Freddy Kreuger:
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.
Comments Linker: "Let's ponder the spectacle of a journalist likening a head of state and the spiritual leader of about 1 billion people to Freddy Krueger. Not because he made a habit of terrorizing teenagers, mind you. But because of what he 'looked like.' "
And when Binelli wades into politics, he's clearly out of his depth. Now, no one expects seasoned political writers at Rolling Stone; but theoretically, someone at the magazine should have copyread his piece. They might have caught this:
The touchingly enduring Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Bulworth/Aaron Sorkin fantasy in which a noble political figure finally tells the American people the truth tends not to happen in real-life democracy, you may have noticed. There's too much money, too many special interests infecting electoral politics. Such a scenario could probably take place only in an arcane throwback of an institution like the Vatican, where secret ballots and an utter absence of transparency made the rise of an unknown quantity like Bergoglio possible. Had the race instead been for an obscure House seat in Kentucky, the opposition research team would have reduced his campaign to rubble within a couple of weeks.
Leaving aside the 18th century-style first sentence, the paragraph contradicts itself. First it says that too many dollars and special interests taint American democracy. Then it says the dysfunction can happen only in a "secret" institution like the Vatican.
And keep in mind that this is supposed to be a bad thing that forces the election of a bland, traditional pope rather than a colorful reformer.
Yet as the Rolling Stone story says again and again, Francis is anything but bland.
This blind spot in the story is all the more evident in a link to a sidebar, a list of conservatives who went liberal. That list includes the likes of Colin Powell, David Souter, Charlie Crist, even Richard Nixon and George Bush Jr.
So our warped political system has often worked in the opposite way described by Mr. Smith. And the "arcane throwback" workings of the Vatican often produce popes who don’t behave in ways expected by Rolling Stone.
The article devotes several paragraphs (though late in the story) to Francis' background in Argentina as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio. It dutifully chronicles his populist ways and liberal social leanings:
Foreshadowing his behavior as pope, he rejected many of the princely trappings of his new office, getting around town via bus, residing in a simple apartment and cooking his own meals on weekends. ... Much of his attention was focused on the dispossessed: He wandered the city's worst neighborhoods, kissed the feet of AIDS patients in a hospice, heard confessions from prostitutes on park benches, disguised himself in a poncho to march in a slum procession, stood up to drug dealers who threatened one of his priests. ... [Bergoglio], in Evangelii Gaudium, lashes out at "ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace ... reject[ing] the right of states ... to exercise any form of control" and calls the deification of the free market "a new tyranny ... which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules."
So, um, how does this public track record square with the image of a man whose past was opaque to those who made him pope?
One of the things the writer seems to miss is that Catholic beliefs don’t fit neatly into the left/right, conservative/liberal, traditional/progressive dualisms. The 19th century Pope Leo XIII produced a ringing endorsement of worker rights — a document reaffirmed on its 90th anniversary by John Paul II in his own encyclical. And for a generation, the American bishops have woven a "seamless garment" of teachings against not only abortion and homosexuality, but war and capital punishment. They’ve also long called for universal healthcare and programs against poverty.
Amazingly, Binelli includes content that contradicts his view of Francis as a leftist, "progressive" pope. He looks up Father John Paul Wauck, a member of the conservative organization Opus Dei, who has worked both for American Republicans and Democrats. How involved is Francis in the cultural wars, he's asked? Wauck's reply should have made the journalist rethink his thesis:
"I certainly have no problem at all with anything the pope says," he tells me. "I do think there has been a bit of selective reading. People are emphasizing certain things and forgetting other things that he also said." ... [H]e notes that Francis' comments about the church's obsession with gay marriage and abortion did not propose any real doctrinal changes. "The pope never said those issues weren't important," Wauck says. "He said that when we talk about these things, we have to talk about them in a context. And who would disagree with that? So when people are trying to figure out what kind of guy is this, you have to hear all the bells, not just the ones that sound like, 'Oh, he's going to change everything.' "
The priest was right. And the journalist should have listened, rather than just take notes.
Oh, and if you're wondering how else to write up church trappings, try this feature from the Religion News Service. It's colorful, detailed and firmly non-goggle-eyed.
IMAGE: Caricature of Pope Francis by DonkeyHotey from Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0).