The Advocate has named Pope Francis its Person of the Year. Apparently, there was such a shortage of actual LGBT newsmakers this year that the magazine had to turn to the heterosexual community to find someone to honor.
Edie Windsor, the widow whose case won us the Supreme Court victory for marriage? Evan Wolfson, the lawyer who has devoted 30 years preparing the ground for perhaps the greatest cultural shift in American history? Tom Daley, the athlete who showed us how easy a young man can be with is sexuality? Runners-up, and in Wolfson’s case, not even that.
And what did the pope do to merit this honor? He made a couple of comments.
When Time magazine named the pope its Person of the Year, it spent a lot of time talking about the potential for change that Francis represents. Most notable among those were his “Who am I to judge?” comment about gay people. There were also his remarks about the Church ratcheting back its obsession on gay issues.
These are the slender reeds upon which The Advocate hangs its honors. The magazine obviously knew it was being deliberately controversial. What it didn’t realize was that it was also celebrating homophobia at slightly reduced levels. Here are five reasons why The Advocate was dangerously wrong to pick the Pope as its Person of the Year.
1. He hasn’t actually done anything. This is the hardest fact to ignore. The pope’s words were lovely and welcome, but even Time acknowledged that the change was in tone, not policy. For institutional homophobia, the Vatican is hard to beat. Until Francis takes steps to eliminate homophobia and not just tone it down, he doesn’t deserve to be an LGBT icon.
2. We don’t know the limits of his rhetoric. Francis has only been in office since the spring. He hasn’t faced a situation when his live-and-let-live rhetoric gets tested. Without a doubt, there will be limits to his rhetoric. At some point, he’s going to draw the line. Given current Church policy, we are guaranteed to be on the wrong side of it.
3. It cheapens the community’s most important legal advance to date. On one side, you have the pope saying kind things. On the other, you have a vast phalanx of lesbians and gays, symbolized by Edie Windsor, who have fought a lifetime to have their relationships validated by the government. Isn’t it ironic that The Advocate choose to honor the man who presides over an institution that will refuses to recognize the importance of our relationships instead of the people who won this battle for us?
4. It confusions omission with action. “True to his word, Pope Francis hasn’t used his biggest moments in the world spotlight to condemn LGBT people, as Benedict had done,” the magazine notes. Really? Passing up the opportunity to verbally bash the community is an almost subterranean bar to clear. If we’re going to start handing out medals on that basis, almost anyone would qualify. Even Republicans.
5, It gives the pope a free pass for future actions. By setting its sights so low, The Advocate has given the journalism equivalent of plenary indulgences to the pope — free passes for future sins. If the pope signs onto campaigns against marriage equality or appoints a notorious homophobe as cardinal, well, he can’t be all bad because he still was honored by The Advocate.
None of this diminishes the potential for change that Pope Francis represents. At a minimum, he’s a breath of fresh air. Over the coming years, he may or may not actually work to move the Church away from its homophobia and change the policies that harm us. Any accomplishments he may make have yet to materialize. Moreover, they may never materialize. We just don’t know.
In the meantime, let’s keep the pope in perspective. The Advocate’s justification is that “regardless of the Catholic Church’s long history of rabid anti-LGBT rhetoric, Pope Francis has adopted a decidedly less hostile tone.” (Note that the tone is “less hostile,” not “friendly.”) We’ve just come out of abusive relationships with the two previous popes. That the new one doesn’t beat us doesn’t make him a saint.