pope 300x221 Why The Advocate Was Right To Choose Pope Francis As Person Of The YearYesterday, The Advocate magazine announced their Person Of The Year for 2013, choosing Pope Francis for the title. Since the announcement, the magazine has been defending their choice to some among our movement who take issue with honoring the head of a Church which, doctrinally, is still as anti-gay as it’s always been. With respect to those in our movement who do such incredible work, but who are not happy with the magazine’s decision, we must disagree. Pope Francis is exactly the right choice for the magazine’s Person Of The Year. First, let’s look at the magazine’s reasoning:

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. Sure, we all know Catholics who fudge on the religion’s rules about morality. There’s a lot of disagreement, about the role of women, about contraception, and more. But none of that should lead us to underestimate any pope’s capacity for persuading hearts and minds in opening to LGBT people, and not only in the U.S. but globally.

The remaining holdouts for LGBT acceptance in religion, the ones who block progress in the work left to do, will more likely be persuaded by a figure they know. In the same way that President Obama transformed politics with his evolution on LGBT civil rights, a change from the pope could have a lasting effect on religion.

Pope Francis’s stark change in rhetoric from his two predecessors — both who were at one time or another among The Advocate‘s annual Phobie Awards — makes what he’s done in 2013 all the more daring. First there’s Pope John Paul II, who gay rights activists protested during a highly publicized visit to the United States in 1987 because of what had become known as the “Rat Letter” — an unprecedented damning of homosexuality as “intrinsically evil.” It was written by one of his cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI. Since 1978, one of those two men had commanded the influence of the Vatican — until this year.

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As pope, he has not yet said the Catholic Church supports civil unions. 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.

Francis’s view on how the Catholic Church should approach LGBT people was best explained in his own words during an in-depth interview with America magazine in September. He recalled, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

He said that when he was a cardinal, “I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During [a recent] return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

He continued, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

There are times when words really matter. The Roman Catholic Church will be very slow to change doctrine on things like marriage equality, but it’s important to remember that, of all religious groups in the world, the adherents of the Catholic Church, at least in the West, aren’t quite known for following Church teaching on social issues. Indeed, a majority of American Catholics already support marriage equality, so I would argue that the doctrine of the Church, at least at the moment, is not the most important or influential thing to consider when dealing with the effect of Catholicism on the LGBT people of the world.

The Advocate also is very clear that, in giving Francis this title, they are not claiming that he is some sort of pro-gay hero, but rather the person who stands to have the most positive influence on LGBT people:

When Time magazine named Pope Francis its Person of the Year last week, it rightly pointed out the Catholic Church’s inability to move quickly, calling it “a place that measures change in terms of centuries.” Pope Francis is still not pro-gay by today’s standard. He started his term by issuing a joint encyclical in July with Benedict, in which they reiterate that marriage should be a “stable union of man and woman.” It continues, “This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgement and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation.”

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But it’s actually during Pope Francis’s time as cardinal that his difference from Benedict and hard-liners in the church became apparent. As same-sex marriage looked on track to be legalized in Argentina, Bergoglio argued privately that the church should come out for civil unions as the “lesser of two evils.” That’s all according to Pope Francis’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin. Argentine gay activist Marcelo Márquez backed up the story, telling The New York Times in March that Bergoglio “listened to my views with a great deal of respect. He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.”

For the leader of the largest contingent of Christians in the world, one which is historically as anti-gay as it gets, to express even unofficial support for civil unions — to be willing to move toward us in conversation and in public expressions of support — is a game-changer. It’s a signal to the many Catholics in positions of power, as the magazine points out, that they’re not going to find quite as much support from Church leadership when it comes to working to deny dignity and rights to LGBT people. Indeed, six of the justices on the United States Supreme Court, those who will likely end up making the final decision on nationwide marriage equality, are Catholic:

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 the nine straight people seated on the Supreme Court — six of whom who are Roman Catholic — ever cast a far-reaching ruling that makes marriage equality legal in all 50 states? Will the House of Representatives — of which nearly a third of members are Catholic, more than any other religion — pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? Will any of them consider the pope’s advice against casting judgment?

We don’t know yet, but the fact that we’re having this conversation is stunning.

Jeremy Hooper, one of the greatest activists we have, is not too pleased with the magazine’s choice, pointing out that, as a non-Catholic, he’s tired of being told to care what the Pope thinks:

To be perfectly frank (as opposed to Francis), as a non-Catholic who thinks there is far too much faith encroachment in our public life, I’ve never understood why I’m constantly told that I must care about the Pope and his dealings. I kind of don’t.

And, of course, as a gay man who understands that the Catholic church remains the single most organized opponent against LGBT equality—and not just marriage and adoption; the Bishops are now opposing ENDA too‘—I’m having trouble understanding how our national newsmagazine justifies putting a “NO H8″ sticker on this church’s global face.

The thing is, I agree with these and other thoughtful objections. I, too, am tired of religious organizations dictating political agendas, and I believe the most important work ahead of us in the American fight for LGBT equality involves keeping the line between church and state clearly defined — and I say that as a co-founder of the NALT Christians Project. But the fact of the matter is that religious faith has been with us for all of recorded human history, and it’s not going anywhere. Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of approximately 1.2 billion people in the world, and his words and actions matter. For the past couple of decades, extreme conservative Catholics have formed an alliance with extreme conservative Protestants in the United States in an effort to stop the tide of history, justice and equality, mostly focused on denying the rights of women and LGBT people. Not a day goes by, it seems, that I don’t read conservative Catholic pundits like those at the National Review, publishing screeds about how everything we’ve seen from this new Pope isn’t true, that he’s really secretly just like them. “There’s nothing to see here!,” they seem to be shrieking. They’re freaked out. If the Catholic Church under Pope Francis becomes less and less of a player in the anti-gay, anti-woman movement, simply because the Church is no longer obsessed with those issues, the movement as a whole is weakened considerably.

The Advocate’s editorial director, Lucas Grindley, was making these points yesterday on Twitter, directly addressing those who disagree with their decision to name Pope Francis Person Of The Year:

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During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, organizations like the National Organization for Marriage were able to work freely, knowing that at the end of the day, the head of their church truly was on their side. They don’t have that with Francis, and it’s making them squirm. It’s not just LGBT issues either. This is a Pope who practices what he preaches about serving the poor, going after unregulated capitalism by day and sneaking out of the Vatican to serve them directly at night. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are attacking him as a “Marxist,” and he’s taking it all in stride, refusing to sink to their level.

One of the things about being engaged in this fight for equality and justice is that we have to be extremely discerning about who really is and who really is not an enemy. We have to be steadfast in speaking out against human rights abuses and denials of rights and freedoms, but we also have to be circumspect enough to discern when a person or institution is truly beginning to move in the right direction.

Sure, the doctrine of the Catholic Church hasn’t changed, but with the elevation of Francis to the papacy, the daily headlines sure have. Just today, we learn that Pope Francis has removed Cardinal Raymond Burke from an influential post in the Congregation for Bishops, the group that chooses Catholic bishops around the world. Burke is an anti-gay, anti-woman firebrand who famously said he would deny presidential candidate John Kerry communion for supporting women’s rights.

The doctrine hasn’t changed, but the tone has, and in this case, the tone perhaps matters the most. The doctrine hasn’t changed, but the leading anti-gay Catholic voices in the West are now playing defense. He’s not a pro-gay hero yet, but he’s certainly not an anti-gay hero either. For the first time in many, many years, the head of the Catholic Church is a man who seems to most people, Catholic or non-, to be an all around good guy who wants to lead the Church away from being known primarily as an anti-gay, anti-woman institution. And let us be clear:  if nothing really changes in the Church, if Francis ends up being more like his predecessors than he seems, we will be the first to say so, redouble our efforts and push back. That’s the push/pull game one must master in order to have the stomach to work in this movement long-term. But I truly believe that Pope Francis would like to clean house and change the way things are done around the Vatican. If Catholics around the world follow his lead, and if anti-gay bigots like Brian Brown and Bill Donohue find themselves increasingly isolated in a Church that seems to care less and less about their work every day, then indeed, the history books will record that shift as the most significant thing to happen for LGBT equality worldwide in the year 2013, and for that reason, Pope Francis will have indeed earned the title of The Advocate‘s 2013 Person Of The Year.