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.


  •' Jim Reed says:

    A more important Francis effect might be can he help some people, Catholics or otherwise, vote against Republican greed. We know the hard liners aren’t going to change their votes, but just switching a few votes in the middle might have a major beneficial effect on the nation.

  •' Sam says:

    It is interesting that the Catholics from the northeast, arguably the most socially just part of the union, are the least pressed about social justice.

  •' apotropoxy says:

    ” 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.”

    The Frances Effect is playing out in American politics, too. Bishop Bernie Sanders has been celebrating Mass each week for tens of thousands of the faithful who’ve been wandering in the wilderness since FDR.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    They could make the most likable person on the planet the Pope, and you wouldn’t get me to go back to the Catholic Church.

    BTW – tried to think of someone who was the most likable person on the planet, but couldn’t come up with one. Morgan Freeman?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    How about Prince Harry because he doesn’t have to worry about being King?.

    How about John Oliver because he gets to be the new Jon Stewart without even having to take the job of being the new Jon Stewart?

  •' DKeane123 says:

    Prince Harry possibly. John Oliver kind of pisses off Republicans, you need someone more politically neutral.

  •' mark hulsether says:

    This is a good article, but I might frame “the real measure of the Francis effect” in a longer time frame: can he change the overall experience of Catholic parishes and other social spaces such that, a decade or two from now, more of the people who like his values but not those of actually existing parishes or bishops in their neighborhood will have less of a choice to make.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    A couple decades from now it might not be so much of a choice about what values the church has, and more a question of should we still have a church? Do we still believe in the church as the instrument of God’s management of earth?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    There may no longer be such a thing as politically neutral. I wouldn’t consider anyone who doesn’t piss off Republicans as likable.

  •' DHFabian says:

    I doubt that middle classers know how much Katrina stands as a powerful symbol of this generation’s treatment of our poor. For our poor, this is still a time when political and social forces continue to tear lives apart, cause suffering and even death.

    It’s the oddest thing, really. People can grasp that not everyone can work (health, etc.), and that there aren’t jobs for all. The last I heard, there are 7 jobs for every 10 people who are urgently seeking one. This generation is no more capable of dealing with poverty in a just and compassionate manner than a hurricane.

    A funny thing about Pope Francis, too: He actually did talk about poverty — including America’s treatment of our own poor. This didn’t “sell” the way his talks about climate change do.

  •' DHFabian says:

    I think the Bible says something about it being better to be “hot or cold” — having strong convictions — than to be neutral. I also cannot see how political neutrality is possible. Politics determines policies which profoundly impact the lives of masses of people.

  •' DHFabian says:

    When did such a thing ever exist? In this country, it never has. Political fights have been ongoing since before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

  •' DHFabian says:

    And vote for what? Can you understand that the way the middle class view the rich, is the way the poor view the middle class? For years, our middle class demanded that government strip our poor of the basic human rights (per the UDHR) of food and shelter. Bill Clinton did this by ending welfare aid for the jobless poor and many of the unemployable. Even liberals haven’t considered it worthwhile to so much as discuss the appalling consequences.

  •' DHFabian says:

    I really don’t understand your point. From FDR to Reagan, the US had implemented policies and programs that served as rungs on the ladder out of poverty. (Our former “failed” welfare system actually had a success rate of over 80%, enabling people to move from deep poverty to jobs.) During this time, the US reached its height of wealth and productivity. With Reagan, we reversef course, doing the opposite. Results: When Reagan was first elected, launching the campaign against our poor, the overall quality of life in the US was rated at #1 among all nations. By the time Obama was elected, this had already plunged to #43.

    Think about the mess we created. We know that not everyone can work (health, etc.) and that there aren’t jobs for all.The US shipped out a huge number of jobs since the 1980s, ended actual welfare in the 1990s. While decreasing the number of jobs available, we increased the number of people who are desperate for jobs. I think our middle class find a measure of satisfaction or empowerment in the suffering of our poor.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    That’s true. I remember a time when Christianity was at least more balanced in supporting the 2 parties. Then in the 80s, the bulk of Christianity sold their soul to the party of the rich. This soon led to the rich being able to openly put their greed is good philosophy on display and take pride in it. The level of Republican insanity is immensely higher than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

    Christianity sold their soul to express their hate of hippies.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Bill Clinton made the big mistake of trying to work with Republicans. We just didn’t know. Then Obama made the bigger mistake of still trying to work with Republicans even though we did by then know. I think he might have finally learned. If you want to do anything for the people, don’t work with Republicans.

  •' Tionia says:

    Americans don’t want to know or deal with the poor… they want them out of sight and our of mind….

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