The New York Times takes note:
Pope Francis wearing a long, white puffer jacket inspired by Balenciaga. Francis rocking aviators and revving a motorcycle down a busy street. Francis turning the tables in a dim nightclub. Francis in a tactical vest, preparing to fly a fighter jet. Francis sharing a beer at Burning Man.
Over the last few weeks, dozens of photos have appeared showing the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics in strange scenarios, sending social media into a tizzy. Apart from the pontiff himself, the images all have something in common: They are fake, made by artificial intelligence tools that create images from short text prompts.
Many public figures — including the basketball star LeBron James and various Real Housewives — have popped up in A.I.-generated pictures recently, but the images with Francis have made the biggest splash. They have earned more views, likes and comments than many other A.I. photos, according to a review by The New York Times, prompting a race to depict the 86-year-old in odder and odder situations.
“I had to get involved in the Pope thing,” one Reddit user recently wrote alongside A.I. images of Francis practicing martial arts, playing basketball and skateboarding. “Jumping on the Pope bandwagon,” another said, sharing an image of the pontiff speaking to a crowd of bikers.
Francis’s prevalence in A.I.-generated images is the result of a perfect storm of factors, religious experts said. After 10 years as the head of the Catholic Church, he is instantly recognizable around the world. He is viewed as a more approachable leader than his harder-line predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. And when combined with a sudden burst of interest in new A.I. tools, Francis — who in real life is often pictured in formal settings — became the recurring choice of creators to place in the most incongruous scenarios.
The goal, some creators said, was to show that even the pope can kick back, be a daredevil and have fun.
Global religious figures like the pope are natural subjects of political satire and artistic expression, said Jennifer Herdt, a professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School. Francis is ideal, she added, because he “is known for his simplicity, his solidarity with the poorest of the poor,” so when he is the subject of far-out scenarios such as flying a fighter jet, “it’s definitely the height of incongruity, of defying expectations.”