Francis Must Make Changes to Have a Real Effect

Last week I noted that a recent Pew poll didn’t detect much of a “Francis effect”—sending Catholics back to the pews—and pointed to a few key numbers that I found interesting. Apparently, according to Commonweal’s Grant Gallicho, my reading of the numbers—which was more critical than his—amounted to an “extended raspberry.”

Just to get a couple of housekeeping details out of the way. Obviously, my dogma/doctrine typo was just that, as was the difference in Francis’ and Benedict’s net favorability rating, which is 11 points, not 6. But my point remains. Given the near-consensus that Benedict’s papacy was pretty much a disaster for the church, I find it a bit surprising that three-quarters of Catholics still had a generally favorable view of the guy. To me, as I said, it suggests that most Catholics don’t pay much attention to the particulars in Rome and have a more or less favorable view of every pope. And while Francis is obviously popular, even an 11 point increase isn’t all that huge, particularly given that Benedict’s popularity had been as high as 83% and that Francis’ dipped to 79% just six months ago.

Second, it’s easy to focus on the big numbers showing that people think Francis is a big change for the better. But that’s self-evident. What I found really interesting is that only a quarter of Catholics say they feel more excited about their faith and that no more are going to church than during Benedict’s papacy. In Gallicho’s words it takes “nerve” to point this out. But these numbers are key because they’re about Catholics’ relationship to and practice of their faith, which is the heart of the matter, not about the personal popularity of Pope Francis.

And on the issue of mass attendance, if that isn’t a good marker of how successful Francis is in reviving the church, what is? Is Gallicho predicting that mass attendance will increase at some point in the future and if so, why then and not now when Catholics are still flush with excitement over the new pope? Are people just driving to mass really, really slowly? Or, as I suggest, are they waiting to see if anything is really going to change?

That seems to be at the heart of Gallicho’s complaints; that I’m suggesting that Catholics need to see some doctrinal change before they get invested in their religion again. He sees the fix as stronger parishes, ie., better priests and a more exciting liturgy, which could come from Francis’ appointment of bishops who are presumably more in tune with the needs of Catholics in the pews than many of the John Paul II appointees who still dominate the bishops’ conference. That’s fair enough. But as I said, that’s a long way off and Gallicho doesn’t offer any data to support his opinion.

He goes on to suggest that disillusionment with the church in the wake of Humanae Vitae is some pet issue of mine and not, as Garry Wills called it “the most crippling, puzzling blow to organized Catholicism in our time.” I get that some male observers of the church don’t appreciate how singularly frustrating the Catholic teaching on contraception is to women. But it’s more than that. Its been uniquely destructive to the church by creating a culture of hypocrisy that, according to sociologist Father Andrew Greeley, led to “a special Catholic rejection of the right of church authorities to dictate on sexual matters.”

It’s not rooting for the church to fail, as Gallicho suggests I am, to point out that the rift caused by Humanae Vitae needs to be repaired before the Church can move forward. And it is apologetic to suggest that the church is more or less fine because not every Catholic has left and some still go to mass and give money. As Pew concluded in its landmark 2008 study of American religious life, the reason the Catholic share of the U.S. adult population has remained fairly steady in recent decades is “the disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S.,” which has masked “the large number of people who have left the Catholic church.”

According to Pew, approximately one-third of those raised Catholic have left the church and 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. If you were a business losing one-third of your customers, wouldn’t you want to make some changes? Sure, step one might be to put the business under new management. But that would only take you so far. At some point the management has to deliver the goods.

Apart from the typos mentioned above, Gallicho pounces on my takeaway from the Pew poll that “Catholics expect Francis to do more than put a happy face on moldy teachings. A majority expect him to okay birth control and married priests sometime soon.” He writes:

Is it true that this silly majority of Catholics “expect” the pope to allow married priests and the use of artificial contraception “sometime soon”? Nope. Pew Research asked Catholics whether they expected the church to allow birth control and married priests, and just over half said they did—by the year 2050.

Soon is, of course, a subjective description, but it also happens to be the word used by Pew itself to describe expectations for change by 2050, as in: “56% of Catholics think the church will soon allow Catholics to use birth control.” (Emphasis mine.)

In the end Gallicho’s post amounts to little more than a noisier assertion of his opinions on the Francis Effect—which he is, of course, entitled to. But it remains highly unlikely that playing gotcha! and slinging barbs about who is or isn’t a “serious observer of U.S. Catholicism” will transsubstantiate that opinion into fact.

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