Why “Person of the Year”?

At year’s end Pope Francis was named 2013 “Person of the Year” by two very disparate publications, and while the Roman pontiff tends to loom large on the world scene in almost any year, it is not entirely clear why this time around he was selected both by Time magazine and by an LGBT publication, The Advocate.

To be named Time’s Person of the Year used to be a kind of national test of the prominence and importance of a public figure. The magazine defines its choice as “the individual who, for better or worse, had the greatest impact on the news and on our lives” in the course of the year; but except when deliberately given to a genuine bad guy on the world scene such as Hitler or Stalin, the designation has generally been understood to be a kind of honor for the person selected; it meant that this person had “made it”; indeed, this was once considered to be the case for almost anyone who ever got on the cover of Time at all, even if not as Man of the Year.

In the age of the new media and the Internet, however, the importance of being singled out by a news magazine has obviously diminished. Who even still reads Time today? Years ago when living overseas I used to read it regularly to keep up with what was happening in the U.S.A., and I retained the habit for a few years afterwards but then eventually dropped it—I don’t remember exactly when. The oracular tone the publication liked to affect had come to seem a bit much for me.

The readership of such publications seems in any case to have gone down considerably. Newsweek ceased print publication entirely a couple of years back. When Pope Francis was named its Person of the Year, I discovered that Time was no longer even carried in the magazine sections of two pharmacies and a convenience store that I visited. I had to go to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore in order to find a copy I could buy.

Pope Francis is not the first pontiff to be granted the year’s designation by Time, Blessed John XXIII having been so honored in 1962, and Blessed John Paul II in 1994. It may even be a little surprising that Pope Francis should have been chosen after less than a year in Peter’s chair; indeed it becomes somewhat questionable how much of an honor the award really is when we consider what the pope’s competition was. His runner-up was none other than Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who exposed America’s vast anti-terrorist surveillance system by leaking documents that he had illegally obtained. Regardless of what we might think about this surveillance system itself, the fact is that it was authorized by Congress and has functioned under at least a degree of judicial scrutiny. Edward Snowden is thus a law-breaker and a fugitive from justice regardless of his “impact” on our lives and on the news.

Another one of the pope’s competitors for the Person of the Year award was the proud lesbian, Edith Windsor, who successfully sued the U.S. government to avoid paying the inheritance tax on a bequest from her late “spouse,” another woman. Her lawsuit prompted one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in American history, a decision in which a majority of the justices on the high court officially recognized same-sex relationships to be “marriages” if a jurisdiction somewhere has legally declared them to be such. But again, we cannot deny the “impact” of this decision on our lives and on the news.

Yet another candidate to be the 2013 Person of the Year was none other than Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Time correctly characterized the Syrian dictator as a “lethal tyrant,” his accomplishment for the year having been to pursue the civil war in Syria to the point where at year’s end there were some 126,000 dead and refugees numbering in the millions. This undoubtedly also does represent “impact.”

Finally, Texas freshman Senator Ted Cruz was also seriously considered by Time as a candidate, his campaign against Obamacare having contributed mightily to the 16-day U.S. government shutdown in October—again plenty of “impact.” The magazine’s editors certainly do see Cruz as a right-wing extremist rather than any kind of an honoree, however.

This was the company, then, out of which Pope Francis was eventually chosen. The fact that he was selected no doubt does represent a positive outcome of sorts. Still, it is hard to give much credit to Time’s estimate of what is truly important or has had a significant impact on our lives in 2013. That the bishop of Rome and earthly head of the Catholic Church was able to prevail in this particular company surely cannot in and of itself be considered one of the more salient accomplishments of the papacy in modern times.

Then there are the reasons why Pope Francis finally was chosen by Time. In the magazine’s lengthy article describing the background and accomplishments of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who became the first non-European pope in many centuries, it is explained that the Argentine pontiff “has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power.”

Time’s editor ascribed the choice to the fact that “in a very short time, a vast global audience has shown a hunger to follow” Pope Francis. He is credited for “pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs, and for balancing justice with mercy.”

Like many commentators, Time assigns great weight to the emphasis that Pope Francis has placed on mercy, healing, forgiveness, poverty, simplicity, and the like; this emphasis, along with his personal, informal, almost casual style, certainly has attracted renewed attention to the Church and perhaps even to the Church’s authentic message. This has been especially notable when contrasted with the almost “professorial” style—and perceived rigidity—of his two immediate predecessors. Some of this is genuine, but some of it also seems to be based on false expectations that Pope Francis is going to change—or could change—features of the Church’s teaching and practice to which so many people object today.

Unlike many of those who have been attracted to what Time calls the “tonal shift” of Pope Francis, however, the journal does sort of understand that the substance of Church teaching is not going to change, indeed cannot change. Pope Francis does not have the power to change it, even if he wanted to, which he manifestly does not. Typically, he even reaffirms his commitment to Church teaching at the very same time that he is delivering himself of the kind of remarks that have elicited yet another version of “hope and change”—yes, that’s what it is!—at least in the minds of some.

But as Time correctly reports, “he has not changed the words, but he has changed the music.” Or again, he is lauded for saying things like: “Don’t just preach, listen … don’t scold, heal.”

Time gets some of this right. Pope Francis certainly has proved to be a very popular figure, and in some ways he has even become a kind of media superstar, as the magazine notes. Yet some of the expectations that he has created are manifestly not going to be realized for the simple reason that they are false expectations. Even Time understands that in the end Pope Francis may do little more for some people than to make them “feel better about the softer tone coming out of Rome while feeling free to ignore the harder substance.” In other words, the pope’s popularity, for many, is based on false expectations of what he can or will do with regard to Catholic teaching and practice, especially the features to which they most strongly object.

Still, Pope Francis does remain at the head of the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church. Whatever he says and does is bound to have an effect on the Church as she continues on her long journey in the world that started back when Jesus commissioned Peter and the other apostles in the upper room. The pope necessarily does establish a tone, and whatever he says does have an effect; but it does not change the substance of what has been preserved and handed down through the centuries by the successors of Peter and the bishops in union with them. Pope Francis too continues in this same line; and meanwhile, the Church herself goes on as before virtually everywhere, sanctifying souls and carrying out her myriad good works, even in the midst of the sins that her members also, unhappily, commit. Pope Francis himself regularly goes to confession, after all, just as Catholics must.

Pope-Francis-AdvocateYet the question still persists of how the special version of “hope and change” conjured up by some on the basis of words and actions of Pope Francis, and even present to some extent in Time’s account, is ultimately going to pan out. What is all too likely is a degree of widespread disillusionment when this particular version of “hope and change” turns out to be illusory. And the same result is especially likely for expectations aroused by yet another publication besides Time. For in mid-December, an LGBT publication with the title of The Advocate, also, amazingly, named Pope Francis as its Person of the Year. This choice appeared to be based on the Argentine pope’s famous remarks tossed off in the interview on his flight back to Rome from his World Youth Day appearances in Brazil. On that occasion the pope said that “if someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

The pope’s disclaimer here of not being able to render a moral judgment has rocketed around the world; it is vastly more widely quoted and acclaimed than his accompanying condition that the homosexual person who is thus not going to be judged needs to be “seeking the Lord”—in other words, needs to be repenting of any immoral actions that may have arisen out of same-sex attractions and relationships. This condition typically goes unmentioned, but it is nevertheless an integral and necessary part of the pope’s position when he declines to be a “judge.”

It is hardly likely, however, that this is the stance of The Advocate. Rather, the stance of this publication would seem to be that of the gay rights movement generally, namely, that homosexual acts and behavior need to be accepted, normalized, and legitimized—need to be seen simply as “different strokes for different folks” with no moral dimension that necessarily applies to them.

That Pope Francis or the Catholic Church might ever agree with such a notion as this is quite beyond anything imaginable. In choosing Pope Francis as its Person of the Year, The Advocate plainly moves far beyond Time in the realm of creating false expectations inevitably bound to lead to disillusionment. The publication admits that “Pope Francis did not articulate a change in the church’s teaching today, but he spoke compassionately, and in doing so he has encouraged an already lively conversation that may one day make it possible for the church to fully embrace gay and lesbian Catholics.”

This is surely jaw-dropping wishful thinking, without even a modicum of understanding of what Catholic moral teaching is and entails. By comparison, Time at least does partially “get it.” Both publications, however, it would seem, in choosing Pope Francis as their 2013 Person of the Year, may well actually have chosen the right person, but almost certainly not for the right reasons.


Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.