If you want to judge the success of Pope Francis's campaign to change the tone of the Catholic Church, look beyond his selection as Time's Person of the Year to its context. Francis, a socially conservative religious leader, was chosen as the most influential person on Earth in the same year as a landmark Supreme Court decision throwing open the doors for equal marriage rights in the U.S., a right that Francis, and his church, officially oppose. In a just few short months since his election, the new Pope has transformed how many people, including the media, talk about the Church — without actually modifying what the church believes.
In a way, Francis is the John McCain of popes; the bearer of the Straight Talk Express of Catholic messaging. Like the "Maverick" who wins Democratic friends simply by not repeating Republican talking points, he changes everything without changing anything.
Even Time itself seems to be confused about what Francis has actually accomplished. One of the best clues to the magazine's thinking behind the selection is a correction they appended to a slideshow of the Person of the Year's top contenders. "An earlier version of this post suggested that Pope Francis rejected some church dogma. He does not," the correction reads. The original text claimed that "The first Jesuit Pontiff won hearts and headlines with his common touch and rejection of church dogma and luxury," which caused Catholics and religion journalists everywhere to bang their heads against the wall in frustration.
But it's very easy to see why Time got it so wrong. The Pope's tenure so far includes a series of highly symbolic moments and quotes that seem to challenge and sometimes rebuke Church tradition. They've also won him lots of plaudits from journalists and non-Catholics. His approval rating among Catholics is up as well, even if rumors of a world-wide, Francis-inspired boost in church attendance aren't entirely true. The power of those symbolic moments dwells in anticipation of what the Pope might do in the coming years. His most media-friendly moments haven't translated into the reforms many on the left seem to assume are around the corner. There have very few official pronouncements from his office, and none have deviated greatly from previous Popes. And chances are, they won't.
As Time writes, Francis has "captured the imaginations" of millions of people, including many members of the press and liberals who usually chafe against Church pronouncements. His re-emphasis of the church's anti-poverty work is, among other things, in direct conflict with the conservative fiscal policies popular among Conservative American Catholics. He wants the church to stop being so "obsessed" with social issues, an idea that, again, some conservatives seem to really hate. He takes selfies. The examples go on.
Just a week after his election to the papacy in March, Francis washed the feet of juvenile prisoners in Rome, including those of a Muslim woman. The symbolic importance of this act should not go unmentioned — tradition dictates that the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual be performed only on men. Francis's choice worried traditionalists, who thought that perhaps a Pope willing to humble himself before a female Muslim prisoner might also open up the church to women priests. Those traditionalists shouldn't have worried. In September, the pope excommunicated a priest who supported women's ordination. And even as the pontiff praises the role of women in the Catholic community, he's more or less stayed the course on his predecessor's firm stance against the activism of progressive American nuns.
This is not to say that the Pope is a bad choice for Time's Person of the Year, an award that has gone to "You" and "Protesters," after all. Francis's ability to win over those who oppose the dogma he protects is itself evidence of his influence, and his public relations savvy. His recently-issued apostolic exhortation — essentially his official platform as Pope — is a stunning indictment of income inequality that demonstrates just how good the church can be on systemic economic injustice. There are many reasons to award the impressive anticipation generated by Francis's short tenure.
But if Time really wanted a Person of the Year whose actions catalyzed meaningful reform, they had a much quieter contender a few places down on their list: Edith Windsor, whose Supreme Court case against the Defense of Marriage Act opened up access to federal benefits for same-sex couples across the nation, and shifted the tide on equal marriage legislation in the states.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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