The Pope Francis Effect: Enthusiasm, But To What End?

The Francis Effect has yet to create a shift in the dynamics of church attendance and participation

It’s wonderful that some people say that Francis makes them feel the church is more welcoming to them. But if it’s just making people feel more comfortable in their politics, instead of making them feel the comfort of absolution, communion and strengthening of faith, that’s not much to get excited about.


Right after the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001, newspapers and broadcasts were filled with stories about Americans returning to their houses of worship in droves. Evangelical leaders and others claimed that a religious awakening was happening, seen as one positive result of the day of carnage. Maybe there was a tick upward for a week or two, but not only did the terrorism attacks not presage some kind of general spiritual awakening in the United States (at least for Christianity), the trend is actually toward more religious apathy, not less.

We’re now living in something that the media like to refer to as the “Francis Effect.” Like the September 11 Effect, this is about, supposedly, a reinvigoration of church life, particularly for Roman Catholics. Francis has only been in that office for two-and-a-half years but we’re told that he is such a stark contrast to his predecessor Pope Benedict, the media-opposed theologian who led the church for several years, that Roman Catholics are rushing back or finding new enthusiasm for their religious practices. He was supposed to “rescue the church.” What’s intriguing those who study these things, though, is that for all the good feelings reported by Roman Catholics, attendance at Mass is doing anything but rising.

As the New York Times reported recently, Roman Catholics report high enthusiasm for Francis. Some 63 percent have a favorable opinion, nearly as much as John Paul II had in 2002. And a slight majority say the church is in touch with Catholics’ needs, up from 39 percent in 2013. And yet:

But … Francis … has yet to create a shift in the dynamics of attendance and participation. When asked if their attendance at church had changed over the last two years, 13 percent said they were going to Mass more often, but 12 percent said they were going less, and 74 percent said nothing had changed.

One of the best pieces that explores this dichotomy — the genuine enthusiasm but the continued separation from the sacraments themselves — is “Love for Pope Brings Them to the Streets, Not Necessarily to Church,” by Zelda Caldwell in Aleteia. In her piece, agnostics, lapsed Catholics and the super devout talk about why they came to see Francis during his visit to Washington, D.C.:

Coral Keegan, age 24, who lives in Washington, DC but is originally from New York, is a baptised Catholic, but not a regular chuchgoer. She came because, “I like that he’s accepting of gays and lesbians, which the church didn’t do before.”

Does the pope make her want to go to Mass again? “No,” she said, “I don’t think it’s necessary for being a spiritual person.” Lying in the grass next to her, was Jorge Gonzalez, age 27, and originally from Colombia.

“I like how humble he is. He’s taken himself off a high, holy spot, and is showing himself as just a human being.” Raised a Catholic, Gonzalez doesn’t attend church regularly, and says that in spite of his positive feelings about the pope, he probably won’t start.

She talks to one ex-Roman Catholic whose grandmother is still in the church. He says he loves how Francis puts a positive spin on religious stuff. The BuzzFeed “I’m a Christian but I’m not…” approach, as it were. The next guy is agnostic and into Francis’ “celebrity.” The next is “not Catholic” and not even “religious.” A 68-year-old self-defined “lapsed Catholic” explains she likes his politics but probably won’t return to Mass. Only after all this do we meet someone who enjoys Francis and goes to Mass.

It reminded me of an email I got from a dear friend who would probably define himself as a “lapsed Catholic” as well. He wanted me to write more on Francis. He said, “I have nothing to do with any church these days but I try to live by the lessons of my youth, holding on to the basic Christian (Jews and Muslims share same basic theory) to love thy neighbor (or ignore the dumb bastard) and do your best to live in harmony.” He praised Francis for being an inspiration to all and then added, “I am not racing off to Mass just yet, but I don’t have the same angst over the church I once did.”

I responded by telling him to get his butt to church.

Unlike many traditional Christians (I’m confessional Lutheran), I really don’t mind Pope Francis terribly much. His emphasis on mercy and forgiveness is wonderful, in fact. It’s a shame this emphasis is tied in the minds of papal observers to a relaxation of the clear teaching of God’s Law instead of an emphasis of the clear Gospel of Jesus Christ rightly applied. Not just because he’s the head of the Catholic church but also because he’s the one promulgating much of the confusion, Francis is responsible for at least some of that muddled messaging.

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