Time magazine has picked Pope Francis as its Person of the Year, which is a bit surprising given that, well, he hasn’t really done that much. (It’s nothing like the storm over the security state that NSA leaker Edward Snowden unleashed.) The magazine’s justification is that Francis represents a lot of potential for change, but it’s his stand on gay issues that really set him apart.
The five words that have come to define both the promise and the limits of Francis’ papacy came in the form of a question: “Who am I to judge?” That was his answer when asked about homosexuality by a reporter in July. Many assumed Francis, with those words, was changing church doctrine. Instead, he was merely changing its tone, searching for a pragmatic path to reach the faithful who had been repelled by their church or its emphasis on strict dos and don’ts.
Proving that 2013 was a turning point for LGBT issues, Time named Edie Windsor as a runner-up. “Right now Windsor is the matriarch of the gay movement,” the magazine concludes. “She has accelerated a positive shift that was already taking place.”
Which raises an interesting question: in the long run, who can do more good for the LGBT community? Windsor has secured a place for herself in history that can never be challenged. The pope has spoken a good game so far, but it’s all been rhetoric. Yet, with millions of followers around the world, the pope has a far greater reach and can influence opinion — and behavior — on a massive scale.
But will Francis fulfill that promise? What if he’s just a small incrementalist, who keeps the Church policy on homosexuality but just doesn’t talk about it? Is there partial credit for easing institutional homophobia without eliminating it?
Right now, all we have are the questions. The answers will follow in time. In the meantime, though, Time has honored the pope on the basis of what changes he might make. To use a religious reference, you can’t blame us for being doubting Thomases.