Why The Advocate‘s Choice of Pope Francis for Person of the Year is a Mistake

That Time named Pope Francis “Person of the Year” was not a surprise. But for The Advocate to follow suit is a big bag of whut? for this liberal Catholic. Perhaps the venerable LGBT magazine thought this would be an appropriate birthday present for the pontiff, but the gift, as well as the thought behind it, is misplaced. 

In case the editors of The Advocate did not notice, the Pope’s statement flying back from Brazil for World Youth Day was not a change in Catholic teaching, but in tone.

The Pope’s “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge” is not an encyclical, but a statement. Granted, it was a statement that shocked the world with its compassion, but the follow-up proved that it was not a change in church teaching.

In September of 2013, in an interview with Rev. Anthony Spadaro, Pope Francis made clear that he is a “Son of the Church” on matters regarding the Church’s catechism on homosexuality, abortion and contraception—but that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

What Pope Francis is doing is walking a tightrope. Instead of pushing dogma, he’s pushing a change in tone, not in substance. Because he is carefully eliding the church’s teaching and focusing on compassion, many liberals and media pundits—including The Advocate—believe that he is opening a door to a changed theology. That is not the case. What the Pope is doing is opening a door for discussion, but not necessarily change.

The group Kairos of Florence, a group of LGBT Catholics, wrote to Pope Francis in June of 2014 asking to be recognized as a “people” and not a category. In a reply to Kairos, the Pope was said to assure the group of his “blessing,” but the group has kept the reply from the Pope confidential.

If a mere change in language can move The Advocate to make Pope Francis their Person of the Year over Edie Windsor, whose case helped DOMA to crumble, I’m stunned.

The disappointment that will come in the future when Catholic church teachings do not change will not be a surprise to those of us who know the history of the glacial pace of change in the Catholic church. Personally, unless Pope Francis calls a council on human sexuality, I very much doubt his papacy will change much about the corpus of Catholic teaching on homosexuality—defined by that tradition as ‘intrinsically disordered,”

While I very much appreciate the change in focus and tone from Pope Francis, I would caution everyone: “don’t get it twisted.” Pope Francis is still the Cardinal Bergoglio who opposed same sex marriage in Argentina.

If I had to pick my person of the year for the intersection of religion with LGBT justice, it would be a neighbor of mine, Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, who has decided not to give up his United Methodist credentials for performing a same sex marriage ceremony of his son earlier this year.

By refusing to give up his credentials, he is forcing the United Methodist church to perhaps take him to trial and strip him of his credentialing—simply because of his belief that the Methodist Book of Discipline is discriminatory.

Rev. Schaefer is not just talking, but he is walking the walk—standing up for his son, same sex marriage, and his deeply held beliefs. That is the mark of a person of the year. While I like Pope Francis as much as anyone, I need concrete actions to back up the sentiments. Until the dogma changes, talk is cheap.