As if being named Time‘s Person of the Year weren’t enough, a leading LGBT magazine has now bestowed Pope Francis with the same honor. The Advocate announced Pope Francis as the “single most influential person for 2013 on the lives of LGBT people” in a year when several highly influential persons, including Edie Windsor and others who battled in US courts to end the Defense of Marriage Act, were also considered.
The Advocate explained its highly unusual decision to select a religious, and specifically, a Catholic, leader:
“The most influential person of 2013 doesn’t come from our ongoing legal conflict but instead from our spiritual one — successes from which are harder to define. There has not been any vote cast or ruling issued, and still a significant and unprecedented shift took place this year in how LGBT people are considered by one of the world’s largest faith communities.
“Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics all over the world. There are three times as many Catholics in the world than there are citizens in the United States. Like it or not, what he says makes a difference…[do not] underestimate any pope’s capacity for persuading hearts and minds in opening to LGBT people, and not only in the U.S. but globally.”
Critics have questioned why the magazine would choose the leader of an outwardly homophobic religious institution for the honor, to which The Advocate responds:
“Pope Francis is still not pro-gay by today’s standard…
“But what Francis does say about LGBT people has already caused reflection and consternation within his church. The moment that grabbed headlines was during a flight from Brazil to Rome. When asked about gay priests, Pope Francis told reporters, according to a translation from Italian, ‘If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?’
“The brevity of that statement and the outsized attention it got immediately are evidence of the pope’s sway. His posing a simple question with very Christian roots, when uttered in this context by this man, ‘Who am I to judge?’ became a signal to Catholics and the world that the new pope is not like the old pope.”
The Advocate thoroughly details the positive words and actions of Pope Francis in less than a year which signal a welcome and openness to love LGBT people. They recall his interview with America where he condemned the bishops’ obsession with anti-equality campaigns and said God sees gay people with love. They recall the impact he has had on bishops, like Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India who recently spoke out against a law criminalizing homosexuality in his nation and demanded priests pastorally speak about LGBT people. They recall the pope’s letter to an Italian gay group, Kairos of Florence, which was respectful and opened a dialogue.
In summary, The Advocate explains that this honor is in part a promise of things to come under Pope Francis as well and the impact he might yet have:
“One could imagine how acceptance of LGBT people might fit into the pope’s case for loving every human being and valuing the contribution made by each to society. With less than a year as pope, Francis still must show whether his aspiration ends at not being our enemy. Will he be an agent for fighting our discrimination worldwide?…
“One thing we know from 2013 is that no matter the dedication of our activists, in the end we are often faced with a straight person who decides our fate…Will any of them consider the pope’s advice against casting judgment?”
Already, it seems most US Catholics have preceded the pope in loving LGBT people and then making the fight for equal rights a common one. The Advocate quotes a statement from Equally Blessed, a coalition of four Catholic organizations (Call To Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, New Ways Ministry) which work for LGBT equality and justice, to explain this phenomenon. The statement reads:
“Pope Francis today uttered some of the most encouraging words a pontiff has ever spoken about gay and lesbian people…In doing so, he has set a great example for Catholics everywhere…Catholic leaders who continue to belittle gays and lesbians can no longer claim that their inflammatory remarks represent the sentiments of the pope. Bishops who oppose the expansion of basic civil rights — such as an end to discrimination in the work place — can no longer claim that the pope approves of their discriminatory agenda. Pope Francis did not articulate a change in the church’s teaching today, but he spoke compassionately, and in doing so, he has encouraged an already lively conversation that may one day make it possible for the church to fully embrace gay and lesbian Catholics.”
We agree with The Advocate about the importance of Pope Francis’ positive affect on the Catholic conversation about LGBT issues. We also agree with the magazine’s point that the key to more permanent change will be if the rest of the Church follows his example of acceptance and love. Change in the church will come not directly from the pope, but from how the rest of the Church–laity and hierarchy–will follow suit. While Catholic laity in the U.S. and many other countries already support LGBT equality, we must remember that in many other nations, this is not necessarily the case. The recent example of Croatia’s referendum against marriage equality is instructive here.
As we’ve noted before, the pope’s influence is not in making policy changes, but in setting the tone and establishing processes that will allow true change to percolate up from below. Pope Francis, with his many positive statements and especially his call for consultation from the laity on matters of marriage and family, is already exerting this type of influence profoundly.
Pope Francis has made 2013 a year of unexpected excitement for LGBT issues. He is the first pope to publicly use the word “gay.” He has corrected church leaders’ “obsession” with same-gender marriage. He has reached out to lesbian and gay Catholics in unprecedented ways. In this year of so many “firsts” surrounding the pontiff, the fact that a pope has been named “Person of the Year” by an LGBT publication–something truly unimaginable for far too long–is definitely one of the most remarkable developments.
–Bob Shine and Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry