Survey Finds Little “Francis Effect,” Two U.S. Catholic Churches

One of the first posts I wrote for RD was whether or not there was or would be a discernible “Francis effect,” a term used in a variety of ways, but frequently understood to indicate an uptick in attendance and the return of disillusioned Catholics. Some bloggers took me to task for writing that early polling confirmed my suspicion that the doctrinal disconnect between lay Catholics and the hierarchy was so wide that, without significant change, Francis would amount to little more than a new and improved mascot for the church who would make the faithful “feel better about their damaged church.”

At the time, Francis had only been pope for a year, so it’s fair to say that the judge was still out on whether he would reinvigorate and rebuild the Catholic Church.

But an extensive new poll on US Catholics, Francis and the church from the Public Religion Research Institute, a full two and a half years into his papacy, provides some of the most solid data to date and it turns out I was wrong. Francis hasn’t become a mascot for the Catholic Church. He’s become a mascot for the whole country and is significantly more popular than the church he heads.

Two-thirds of Americans have a favorable view of the pope, versus only 56% who have a favorable view of the Catholic Church. Positive values associated with Francis include progressive, compassionate, caring and humble. Fewer than five percent of Americans associated a negative value with the pope. By contrast, Americans were twice as likely to make a negative association with the Catholic Church than a positive association, including judgmental, dogmatic, hypocritical, and overly concerned with money.

When it comes to Catholics, the overwhelming majority approve of both Francis and the church; 90% of Catholics have a favorable view of Francis and 89% have a favorable view of the church. And Francis is changing the way Catholics feel about the church, both for better and worse. A majority of Catholics, 56%, say their feelings about the church have changed over the past few years: about six in ten say they feel more favorable, while 36% feel less favorable. In general, Catholic Democrats were more likely to say they felt more favorable toward the church than Republicans.

But of course the real measure of the purported Francis effect is whether the pontiff can draw disaffected Catholics back to the church. Consistent with other surveys, the PPRI survey found that the rate of Catholic disaffiliation is so high that 15% of all Americans are former Catholics. (The relative stability of the Catholic population is due to Hispanic in-migration; one-third of all US Catholics and nearly 50% of young Catholics are Hispanic.) The survey, however, found little evidence than Francis is enticing former Catholics back to the church. This may be due to the fact that they have a much more favorable view of the pope at 64% than the church itself at 43%.

“Evidence for a so-called Francis Effect is limited,” Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director said in a statement. “A majority of Catholics report that their feelings toward the church have changed, and mostly for the better. Roughly two-thirds of Catholics believe Pope Francis will help bring people back to the Church, but former Catholics are much less optimistic. There are no signs yet of any significant uptick in Catholic affiliation or religious attendance.”

What the survey did find is 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. The only issues they are more in agreement with Francis on are abortion and same-sex marriage. A total of 53% of Republican Catholics say the Church should place more emphasis on abortion issues than on social justice issues. And while just under half of non-white Catholics say Francis understands American Catholics very well, only one-third of white Catholics feel this way.

“While there is only one official Roman Catholic Church, politically speaking, there are increasingly two American Catholic churches,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “One of these is predominantly white, older, concentrated in the Northeast and tends to support Republican presidential candidates, while the other is primarily Hispanic, younger, concentrated in the Southwest and supports Democratic presidential candidates.”

It’s this hardening of Catholic camps that may make it difficult for Francis to effect real change in areas like immigration reform and, particularly, climate change and global economic inequity. Eighty-one percent of non-white Catholics said the government should do more to address economic inequality, versus 65% of white Catholics. And 86% of non-white Catholics said the government should do more to address climate change, versus only 64% of white Catholics.

And despite all the hoopla over Pope Francis’ historic climate encyclical, another survey shows that Catholics aren’t getting the pope’s message that climate change, environmental degradation and global poverty are intimately linked to fundamental Catholic social justice teaching. A poll by the AP and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 40% of Catholics had heard about Laudato si, which isn’t surprising since only 37% of Catholics heard the issue addressed at Mass in the month following its release.

And while Francis has made it clear that addressing the intersection of climate and poverty will be a major focus of his pontificate, only one-quarter of Catholics said they saw climate change as a social justice issue.

This disconnect is likely attributable to two things. One, that the U.S. bishops haven’t made climate change a priority. They glossed over the encyclical at their recent meeting and haven’t made it a high-profile issue for clergy and lay Catholics the way they did with the “religious freedom” issue, which got everything from a high-level task force to repeated mentions by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops leadership, to an annual “Fortnight for Freedom” to mobilize Catholics around the issue.

The second reason, as an earlier PPRI poll shows, is that a good number of Republican-leaning Catholics have already made up their minds that they’ll take party dogma on the issue of climate change over the church’s teaching. All of which reveals the limitations of having a popular pope who is more mascot than moral authority.