“Pop culture is important, and powerful. The sign value of Pope Francis' pontificate is immense. And liable to misinterpretation,” he said he said in a Feb. 3 essay for the First Things website.
“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.”
He criticized the February 2014 issue of Rolling Stone magazine’s cover story profile of Pope Francis by Mark Binelli.
The profile, subtitled “The Times They Are A-Changin',” claims that Pope Benedict XVI's papacy was “disastrous” and “reactionary” and insults his appearance. It depicts Pope Francis as an example of “papal celebrity” and a “change agent” who is creating a “gentle revolution.”
Bishop Conley said the piece was “an exercise on standard revisionism” that tried to show the Pope’s 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,” he said, adding that it depicts the Pope as a leader of “a move to liberalize and desacralize the Catholic Church.”
The bishop rebuked this effort, saying that Rolling Stone and its collaborators are “working to hijack the papacy of a loyal, though often unconventional, son of the Church.”
He suggested such misrepresentation arises from “sexual and social libertines” who are not interested in discrediting Christianity, but in “refashioning” it and claiming Christ and the Pope 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,” Bishop Conley said.
He added that Catholics who are well-formed know that the Pope is not breaking new ground, on economics, efforts at increasing women’s participation, and charity to those with same-sex attraction.
“But the media has driven a wedge between Francis and his predecessors by focusing less on substance than method,” he said.
Rolling Stone's effort to reshape Pope Francis' public image should “spur committed Christians to work in secular and social media, in radio, film and television.”
“…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,” he said, adding “our willingness to work in and with secular media will determine the extent to which we can control the telling of the story.”
He said that he suspects Pope Francis is “keenly aware” of the risky choices he is making, citing the Pope’s preference for “a bruised Church which goes out to the streets" than "a Church suffering from self-absorption.”
“Those ‘streets’ are the world where people live and where they can be reached, both effectively and affectively,” the Pope said in his Jan. 23 message for the World Day of Communications.
Bishop Conley added that Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 also noted that Catholics can introduce the world to Jesus Christ 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.”
The bishop emphasized that Catholics should take “far more seriously” their mandate to live “charitably, joyfully and boldly in discipleship of Jesus Christ.”
He said the Gospel promises that “authentic commitment to the truth” that refuses to separate social justice form orthodoxy and piety will “lead to conversion.”
A Rolling Stone piece on Pope Francis was an attempt to “hijack” the papacy for secularist causes, but Catholics should be prepared to use the Pope’s “pop culture moment” rather than become its “victim,” Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln has said.
Pope Francis, Pop Culture