The Advocate’s selection of Pope Francis as its Person Of The Year for 2013 signals a major shift in the Catholic Church’s LGBT tone

Hurst, Evan
Recently, The Advocate magazine announced its Person Of The Year for 2013, choosing Pope Francis for the title. Since the announcement, the magazine has been defending its 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 has 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 worldwide,” Lucas Grindley wrote in The Advocate. “There are three times as many Catholics in the world than there are United States citizens. 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 — 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 of them recipients of 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.

“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, he 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 he ‘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.'”

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:

For the leader of the largest contingent of Christians in the world, one that 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 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.

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.

Sure, the doctrine of the Catholic Church hasn’t changed, but with the elevation of Francis to the papacy, the daily headlines sure have. Earlier this week, 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. For the first time in many, many years, the head of the Catholic Church is a man who seems to most people, Catholic or not, 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 earned the title of The Advocate‘s 2013 Person Of The Year.

Evan Hurst is the associate director of Truth Wins Out, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization that fights anti-gay religious extremism. He can be reached at

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 20, 2013.