They get rock. But this is way beyond their reach or grasp.

Rolling Stone magazine followed the trend or path of several other secular, popular press publications and put Pope Francis on its cover, accompanied by a lengthy cover story inside. How did they handle it?

Fr. Steve Grunow, theologian and CEO of Fr. Robert Barron’s Word On Fire media ministry, sees it this way.

Pope Francis is hot right now, by which I mean that his SEO ranking continues to impress and media outlets remain fascinated by this first pope from the global south. Not a bad thing, but also not a new thing. Some decades ago a pope “from a far country” was the preoccupation of the media, namely Blessed (soon to be saint) John Paul II. Benedict XVI received his own share of media attention, there was a kind of fascination with him, but minus the accolades that Pope Francis currently enjoys.

Benedict never caught a break during his pontificate.

Which brings me to the text of the article that lay beneath the cover image of the smiling Pope Francis on the cover of Rolling Stone. What precisely is the article about? Not so much Pope Francis himself, but someone and something else. That someone in question is Pope Benedict and the something in question is a Church. Pope Francis is, according to the author of the article, a repudiation of both. Really?

The article has been written by Mark Binelli and it seems to be his purpose to present the Holy Father as a Clintonian-style Democratic liberal who will cast off the conservative overlay of traditional Catholic teaching (especially in regards to sexual morality) and unleash the ideological progressivism that is latent with the Church. I guess in this construal of things the previous pontificate of Benedict XVI is to be accepted as a shill for the ecclesial version of Reagan-style Republican conservatism.

The narrowness of Binelli’s worldview is breathtaking. But people give us what they have. The vision in which everything is but a participation in the American political ethos is a totalizing vision that serves many as the ultimate explanation of all things. This totalizing vision is evidently Binelli’s creed.

But more striking than Binelli’s totalizing vision of the American political ethos, is the venom which he spews in the direction of Pope Benedict, who is characterized by the author as akin the horror villain Freddie Krueger and whose pontificate is situated in relation to some the most notorious men who have been pope. What gives here? Is any reasonable person expected to take anything written in the article subsequent to his screed against Pope Benedict seriously? Some do and the article panders to this sentiment that has been used to malign Pope Benedict even in the years prior to his election as Successor of Peter. The dialectic at play in the article is evidently that Francis is the anti-Benedict, the new antithesis in contrast to an old thesis. The synthesis that is meant to emerge from this a Catholic Faith wholly accommodated to secular modernity- which along with the American political ethos, we are expected to believe is the measure of all things.

That last part is the money line, really.

Fr. Steve and National Review Online’s Kathryn Lopez were my guests on radio Thursday for a roundtable discussion of media fascination with the pope, and the Rolling Stone story in particular. We really didn’t get past the Rolling Stone piece, it’s so lengthy and filled with so much material to discuss. Not that it had depth and heft of any theological or philosophical kind. It did not. It was an offering from the cult of personality to a distorted reflection of itself. And Francis just happened to be a convenient prop to hold up that reflection.

As Fr. Steve said early out of the gate, the writer made it sound like ‘this guy is one of us and reflects our beliefs.’ And by nasty contrast, Benedict not only did not, he was a nasty guy who headed a “disastrous papacy” that represented an archaic, corrupt, desperately behind the times, oppressive regime behind the walls of an “absurd, impossibly baroque backdrop of the Vatican.”

This was a hit piece on Benedict, and by extension, the magisterium of the Church he led, consistent with his predecessors on matters of faith and morals. What Rolling Stone’s writer needs to realize, said Fr. Grunow, is that Francis is “not the CEO of Corporation Church.”

But besides the business model, there’s the political, which is really underlying this piece. And the writer and magazine’s editors and other media outlets would benefit from Fr. Grunow’s insights that American media commentators tend to see the world through the lens of American political ideology.

Perhaps Pope Francis, whose vision of the Catholic Faith is illuminated by a Light different than the contrary lights of secular modernity, knows that a Pope is not measured by the standards applied to political authority or executive office or celebrity, but in his willingness to bear witness to a Faith that has endured since the time of the apostles. Maybe [writer Mark] Binelli believes that Pope Francis does this better than Pope Benedict, but none of the categories of understanding he employs in his article evidence that he actually knows what the Apostolic Faith is or what Francis and Benedict themselves believed about it. Binelli doesn’t even try in this regard and this is the main reason one comes away from the article with the sense that the purpose of the piece was to convince us that if Pope Francis isn’t the person described by the author, he should be. This isn’t journalism in service to truth, it is propaganda in service to ideology.

And though that would have been the best final line on this piece, Fr. Grunow actually delivered one on the radio show, right near the end of an hour of compelling conversation. On a positive note, he said, the smiling face of Francis on the cover of Rolling Stone may represent the first time that magazine prominently featured someone who is free, a person with freedom from slavery to obsessions, freedom from imprisonment to idols. “He’s saying what the world offers is not replenishing the human spirit. Leave that behind, that doesn’t renew your spirit. There’s encounter, there’s trust building, there’s a truth telling that liberates. Pope Francis is a free man, he’s not held bound by any of those spectacles, but I just don’t think they get it.”

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....