Over at Religious Dispatches there is an interesting article, “Survey Finds Little Francis Effect, Two U.S. Catholic Churches.”
The article says that Pope Francis has a better image in the U.S. than the Catholic church does, which might explain why his popularity is not drawing people back to the church.
The articles speaks of a “significant split in the American Catholic Church into two camps: a Pope Francis camp and a US bishops’ camp.”
Pope Francis Catholics are younger, more likely to be non-white, more concerned about social justice—and they’re Democratic leaning. These Catholics agree with Pope Francis on the role of government in reducing economic inequality, immigration, and climate change. More than two-thirds (68%) of Democratic Catholics say the Church should focus more on social justice issues than on right to life issues.
The bishops’ camp is older, whiter, less in agreement with the pope on income inequality, immigration policy, and climate change—and they’re Republican leaning.
I would be cautious, though, about the article’s claim that there is not a big “Francis Effect” in terms of “an uptick in attendance and the return of disillusioned Catholics.” I’m cautious because this understanding of the “Francis Effect” may be based on unrealistic expectations, and it may fail to take into account the powerful societal trends working against even the most effective pope.
To know for sure whether there is a “Francis Effect,” we would have to know something we never will – namely, what the numbers would like like if Francis were not pope. And we would have to do our comparing with that.
If (to speak hypothetically) the U.S. Catholic under the U.S. bishops would have lost, say, 8% of practicing members these past two and half years under any other pope, but because of Francis we only lost 4%, then that would be a huge Francis Effect, though the U.S. Catholic Church continued to lose members. Or again, if our numbers have stopped declining and begun to level off since March 2013, albeit without gains – this too would be a huge Francis Effect. The big unknown, the big If, is where we’d be without Francis.
And this cuts both ways. Someone pointed out to me that in 2005, the year Benedict became pope, the numbers of adults joining the U.S. Catholic Church began declining precipitously. How much of that would have happened even without a pope so many found it difficult to relate to? We don’t know how much Pope Benedict caused the declines to run deeper than otherwise – because we don’t know how much better it would have gone for adult conversions under a more popular pope.
Whatever the numbers, and whatever they mean… I sure am thankful that we have in Francis a pope that gives Catholic Christianity such a positive face to the world. That is great news – however hard it is to measure its effects.