Is There a “Francis Effect”? A Caution

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.


  1. I can only speak anecdotally, but the parish I have served for 16 years has experienced a “slight” uptick in attendance since Francis became pope.

  2. Disappearing more slowly is not a worthwhile achievement. A new approach which merely slows a decline is not a successful one, and could not be reasonable defended or maintained on that basis.

    To the extent our mission relates to numbers, and it does only in part, an approach whose outcome is decline is a failure. At least to the extent which Popes and liturgy impact on Church membership, as in my view they have a much smaller impact than we would all like to think.

    1. @Scott Smith:
      I disagree. To decline more slowly is a hugely worthwhile achievement if the alternative is to decline more rapidly! Of course it would be better not to decline, and even better to grow – that’s obvious to all of us. But if your only point is to downplay any positive effect Pope Francis might have, that’s just being cranky.

  3. While I would agree that numbers – either as a goal or as a mission – are difficult to parse with accuracy, I don’t think it is a Francis vs. U.S. Bishops divide. Sure, there are some examples of some notorious actions taken by some bishops that might seem anti-Francis, but in general? No, I don’t think so. More to the point, the congregation at large, that is, the people whose noses you’re counting, don’t care about what is essentially politics.

    As an old white guy who listens to Gospel while it is proclaimed, I think Francis has his programs channelled to follow that message. That seems appropriate to me.

  4. I find Patricia Miller’s assessment to be unbalanced at best. She paints a monolithic picture of “the Northeast”. The two churches I frequent in southwest Connecticut are quite different demographically. One is predominately white or Latino. The ancestries of the other church’s parishioners reflect all corners of the globe. Perhaps at one time not so long ago Catholicism in New York and New England was predominately white. This is no longer the case.

    Both the churches I attend are liturgically conservative. This conservatism is not in my opinion linked to any particular ethnicity or background. I would not jump to conclusively associate tall-candle Catholicism with the GOP, even if this association is often true.

    One tangent Miller neglected to explore is the popularity of Pope Francis despite his refusal to relax Humanae vitae, ordain women, or endorse same-sex marriage. To his great credit, on multiple occasions Pope Francis has exhorted the faithful to respect and display compassion towards same-sex oriented persons. Still, not a few have been alienated by Pope Francis’s inaction on certain so-called “liberal” issues. I am amazed that Pope Francis’s approval among American Catholics has maintained incredible highs despite the aforementioned hot buttons.

    Miller’s focus on ethnicity is quite inaccurate. I would say that each Catholic, regardless of background, has his or her own particular and unique understanding of Pope Francis and his policies.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      Why in Heaven’s name would he waste his political capital “changing” something that is as generally (if cordially) disregarded as is the official position on contraception?

      That sort of wheel-spinning doesn’t strike me as Francis’ style, any more than it would be for him to plunge into any of the duels to the death over this or that point of ritual trivia that consume the energy of lit-niks from every point of the ecclesial compass. (Spoiler alert: It ain’t just the trads.)

      Will he take on the dragons that anybody really cares about? Darned if I know. Will he apologize to the nuns of this country for the intellectually scrofulous assault to which they’ve been subjected? It would be nice, but we’ll see. That’s the kind of gesture that some statistically non-trivial number of U.S. Catholics would respond to.

      Contraception? My heavens and earth, the first thing he’d have to do is explain the stated policy to anybody under the age of 50, allowing plenty of time for guffaws. He’s only here three or four days.

      1. @Pat Towell:

        All well put; thank you. I agree with you that Pope Francis would be wise to apologize for the treatment of American nuns. He’d do well to mention this in one of his sermons during his American visit. Yet apologies are most due from prelates who smeared the religious orders’ reputations.

  5. I’ve posed this question to some of my students (is there a Francis Effect?)–interestingly, they take the historian’s position: we don’t know yet, do we?

    I think one thing we can be grateful for, as Fr. Anthony suggests, is the positive face Pope Francis brings to the world. What a blessing, and a joy, to have words like “the beloved pontiff,” “authenticity,” and “100% true” showing up on the lips of news reporters (

    When’s the last time it’s been even a question whether or not a Roman Catholic Pope was “the most popular person in the world”?

    Regardless of political ideologies, I am glad that a face which brings a challenge of love and mercy is one which is at least drawing “the world’s” attention.

  6. I suggest that attendance is not a reliable indicator of any Francis effect. When people are challenged by hard teachings, many of them part company with Jesus or at least the church. If priests, with all their shortcomings, are doing their best to lead their people (with all their shortcomings) to holiness, not everyone is going to stay on board. For instance, if some Catholics are convinced that Sunday Mass should be celebrated with dispatch (say under an hour), they will go elsewhere if that’s not what they’re getting. Do you really think hordes of Catholics want to be intentional disciples, let alone saints? Francis isn’t looking to add to our already bulging roster of barely practicing Catholics? Is anyone?

  7. Time and again, I encounter people, mostly online but also in real life, who say something along the lines of “I’m an atheist/not a Catholic any more, but this pope is great; he reminds me of Jesus; he is a living example of what Christianity is all about.”

    And I for one am not sure if anything can top this as far as someone having any effect on someone else vis-à-vis evangelizing.

    Then, as an aside, a leading major Korean daily reported the other day that a renowned Buddhist monk (kinda bluntly) told a gathering of Buddhist leaders to learn from Pope Francis’s examples and words, citing in particular his Christmas speech to the curia last year about the fifteen diseases and his frequent references to the evils of the self-referential church. (Apparently, they struggle with/suffer from pretty much the same problems that plague our church.)

    This I believe is something that has never happened before this pontificate. How’s that for some international and inter-religious Francis Effect? Pretty darn good, I’d say.

  8. Elisabeth Ahn : Time and again, I encounter people, mostly online but also in real life, who say something along the lines of “I’m an atheist/not a Catholic any more, but this pope is great; he reminds me of Jesus; he is a living example of what Christianity is all about.” And I for one am not sure if anything can top this as far as someone having any effect on someone else vis-à-vis evangelizing.

    Would not a better effect be to elicit the comment that “Because of his living example I realized I needed to return to the Catholic Church?” I work with RCIA and so I do in fact encounter people who say Pope Francis factored into their decision to become Catholic. But I also know his media-created persona confuses his witness, as some of those same people have been convinced they will no longer need an annulment or that they can become Catholic now because Francis is going to change the Church’s doctrine X, Y, or Z. So a question that I would like the pollsters to find ways of answering would be “Do individuals’ favorable evaluations of Francis stem more from his perceived fidelity to Catholicism, or perceived infidelity?” A number of people who like the pope because they think of him as, so to speak, a fellow “bad Catholic” might just as easily feel confirmed in their decision to reject the Church or stay outside it (“see, he says I was right all along”) as to come (back) in (“look, it’s finally safe to enter”).

    A quick comment on a Republican/USCCB faction:
    I’m an old millennial (ergo still young), and even I grew up with a bishops’ bench that was firmly Democratic. While the last 10-15 years of appointments may have eroded that monolith, from where I’m sitting the bench as a whole, and their bureaucracy in particular, have come nowhere close to clear realignment with a Republican…

    1. @Aaron Sanders:

      A better effect would be a whole lot of things and then some.

      Would you rather people say Francis Effect sucks! while wringing their hands over every perceived mishap presumably wrought by the Pope and all the confusion presumably sewn by him and his presumably confusing ways?

      Are you also saying that before Francis became pope, everyone you’ve encountered while working with RCIA came for all the “right” reasons and with a perfect understanding of all the teachings of the church? Somehow I doubt that.

      And then this: So a question that I would like the pollsters to find ways of answering would be “Do individuals’ favorable evaluations of Francis stem more from his perceived fidelity to Catholicism, or perceived infidelity?”

      What? And why? So that you can lament some more about something or other that the pope is doing wrong?

      I guess I just don’t understand why you seem so intent on seeing things from the worst possible angle.

      Maybe we would do well to remember this from EG: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

      Maybe the concerns you raised are the bruises and the hurt and the dirts that the church has gathered while out on the streets, evangelizing.

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn:
        I would not prefer that people rail against the pope; but you said you were “not sure if anything can top this as far as someone having any effect on someone else.” I’m sure something could, and found it strange that you seemed to rule that possibility out.

        I’m also glad to have people showing up seeking to enter the Church, even with confused reasons. But because I work with those confused reasons, I propose that if my anecdotal evidence is more common than exceptional it really is possible that this forms some part of “The Case of the Missing Francis Effect.”

        Note also that the confusion is not all Francis’ fault. I don’t think he’s blameless in the matter – he keeps his press office busy providing clarifications of his comments – but a glance back confirms that I point the finger at “his media-created persona.”

      2. @Aaron Sanders:

        Thank you.

        I still stand by what I said: getting people to talk about Jesus and recognize his presence in our midst, and to acknowledge and understand the true mission of the church are at the top of my list of desirable effects of Christian ministry, with all the others being more or less corollaries.

        As to the Pope’s “confusing witness”, I’ve never really understood that either, since I find him anything but confusing, even with the often hilarious coverage the media gives him.

        Then, yesterday happened (where, you know, it was reported that “Pope says priests can allow [abortion]!), and now I understand better (I think), and join you in pointing my finger at almost vicious idiocy of certain media.

        Anyway, I sincerely hope that people who show up at your church door find only gladness you said you feel towards them, however misguided they may be, and no hint whatsoever of certain subtle disapproval I (perhaps wrongly) could sense in your posts.

        For my own anecdotal evidence says nothing turns people away faster than certain unfortunate attitudes of certain church ministers.

    2. @Aaron Sanders:
      “So a question that I would like the pollsters to find ways of answering would be “Do individuals’ favorable evaluations of Francis stem more from his perceived fidelity to Catholicism, or perceived infidelity?””

      This is just a terrible polling question. The Pope is presumed to be faithful to Catholicism, so the question raises all kinds of conundrums for a respondent. Add in views about whether Catholicism is faithful to Christianity, and you get a huge mess.

      “Perceived infidelity” would be my preferred description, because it shows the Pope as a true evangelizer, bringing the message of Catholicism in a way that has not been heard before. This is a far better response than “same old same old” implied by perceived fidelity. But I suspect that runs counter to the information you are trying to gather.

  9. Or, someone hearing things like atheists can go to Heaven or there is no Catholic God can feel ok staying put where there are, as an ex-Catholic or non-Catholic/non-Christian. I don’t see how that grows the Church.

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