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The ‘Pope Francis effect’? Some early data suggest it could be real

Pope Francis arrives to lead a special audience with faithful from Cassano alpo Jonio diocese at the Vatican on February 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Osservatore Romano *Editors: This photo is not available for republication.
Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 18, 2015.  Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-TRANSGENDER, originally transmitted on March 19, 2015.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on March 18, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-TRANSGENDER, originally transmitted on March 19, 2015, and RNS-POPE-POLL, originally transmitted March 25, 2015.

(RNS) Pope Francis appears more popular than ever among American Catholics, and he hasn’t even visited the U.S. yet, a trip that is planned for September and could well boost his visibility — and appeal — even further.

But will Francis find American Catholics filling the pews? Or just loving the pope from afar? That’s one of the big — and so far unanswered — questions about his remarkable papacy.

Now, one researcher may have found some signs, albeit tentative, of an incipient “Francis effect.”

Mark Gray of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate crunched the Catholic numbers from the 2014 General Social Survey, the go-to resource for sociologists. The GSS began in 1972 and is conducted every two years using face-to-face interviews with a national random sample of adults.

Gray noted that when asked to characterize the strength of their religious affiliation, 34 percent of Catholics said it was “strong,” up from 27 percent in 2012, the year before Francis was elected. That 7-point rise was a “significant bounce,” Gray said.

Congregants pray during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. on Sunday, May 20, 2012.

Congregants pray during Catholic Mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo., on May 20, 2012.

There was also a decline in the percentage saying their affiliation with the Catholic Church was “not very strong,” down 6 points, to 56 percent.

“Again, this is not a massive shift by any means but it breaks a trend of consistently declining numbers of Catholics saying their affiliation is ‘strong’ in the last decade,” Gray wrote in a post on CARA’s blog.

Another marker of the strength of Catholicism, and any religion, is the retention rate — that is, the percentage of those raised in a faith who remain as adults.

Gray noted that the retention rate for Catholicism has been steadily declining since the early 1970s, from a high in the mid-80s to a low of 65 percent in 2012.

But the 2014 GSS showed that the rate remained steady for the first time. “Given recent history, even holding steady is an interesting result,” Gray said.

The endurance of Catholicism is also in contrast to the affiliation rates for Protestants and other Christians, which continue to decline sharply, dipping below 50 percent in 2014 for the first time.

The numbers on Catholic identity and enthusiasm track those found in other public opinion surveys, such as a Pew Research Center poll conducted a year ago, in February 2014.

Even so, neither the Pew survey nor the GSS data show any bump in Mass attendance, which is viewed as the surest benchmark of success for a pope who sees evangelization and outreach as the priority for the church, and his pontificate.

Yet the Pew survey showed that those who already go to church regularly were the most energized by the new pope.

“This suggests that if there was a ‘Francis effect,’ in the first year of his papacy, it was most pronounced among Catholics who were already highly committed to the practice of their faith,” Jessica Martinez of the Pew Research Center told reporters earlier this month.

The upshot: “The best news from the GSS for the church in 2014 is that some worrisome trends have halted,” Gray wrote.

But, he continued, “it will take another survey wave or two of consistent results to discern a real course ‘correction’ in the data,” he said. “This survey could be an outlier.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • A popular, humble, holy Pope always delights Catholics and its nice to see the non-Catholic world embrace him. Francis certainly is a remarkable Pope, a man who lives humbly and is faithful to living “as Christ would”.
    Unfortunately, I don’t see Catholic pews filling up because of him….which is probably good, since faith should not be centered on a personality. Pope Benedict is a brilliant theologian, a holy man, but many Catholics didn’t care for his dour countenance or his highly intellectual manner of speaking.
    We don’t want a rock star, we don’t need a popular Pope, for their job is to guard the Faith even in the face of rejection by the rest of the world………like Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception.

  • 5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the squares and on street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

    🙂 gosh, this is too easy … we need to find more challenging conversation

  • No, it is not that easy; the devil is also in that room with the door shut, and is out to confuse. For there are, “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:13-14).

    1 John 4:1-3: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

    1 John 3:8: “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

    I hope you have tested your spirits…

  • Francis’ makes wretched appointments and mouths Eurotrash platitudes. The Francis effect is manifest in the behavior of Vicar-of-Bray bishops like Cdl. Dolan.

    What’s next is his attempt to take a wrecking ball to antique teachings on family life and the sacraments. This has a real possibility to induce a schism or an exodus to Orthodoxy among the most committed laity. A humble man does not do that.

  • Yet the Pew survey showed that those who already go to church regularly were the most energized by the new pope.

    If you’re standing over the toilet retching, your alimentary canal is ‘energized’.

  • No, if you’re standing over a toilet retching, your picture must be at the base of the bowl. C’mon, you know it’s true.

  • Tina, Jesus was speaking to the Jews who were already circumcised into the Plan of Salvation, already part of the organized religion of his day. He knew their heart was oriented to the Father, but he was only showing them not to use their prayer to draw attention to themselves. This type of prayer, can be dangerous if a person is not careful to discern who it is they are speaking to, especially for those who have have not yet come to a clear knowledge of God, a full belief in Jesus, and have not yet been baptized (Mark 16:16), for the Devil often comes as an angel of light to deceive (2Cor 11:14).

  • Consider the possibility (likelihood?) that Pope Francis, acting and making statements as he does, may be appealing strongly not so much to the traditional, mass attending Catholics, but rather to nominal Catholics who feel they are more “spiritual but not religious.” These Catholics wouldn’t be very much inclined to suddenly start attending mass, and I’ll guess that they might even feel some sense of relief due to feeling less “guilt” over not going to mass.

    This would fit with those of us who are not Catholic and who are not religious, yet who like this Pope far more than any other because he actually seems (feels) more spiritual and less religious, in the sense of seeming less weighed down by past, less friendly feeling, Pontifical authoritarianism.

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