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


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.

Maria Kennedy Shriver said that the Francis Effect was about good feelings. She said priests are no longer feeling like they’re thought of as pedophiles and she is no longer embarrassed to walk into church. All because of Francis being a special kind of man.

One woman put her good feelings in chart form:

Not all the media narratives support this. After one of Francis’ speeches, the Washington Post had a story about how some people who had reported abuse by priests felt his remarks in support of bishops were “a slap in the face.” They wished he’d said more to them on the matter instead of praising the bishops for how they’d handled the crisis.

Still, the general mood, in the media and among various other groups, is far friendlier to the pope and his church than was seen prior to his arrival.

This is real. And in many senses this is good. It is certainly more enjoyable for Catholics than the hostility they were enduring previously, and it is a testament to the good traits of humility and love that Francis shows, even if he is a flawed human being who doesn’t exhibit those traits evenly or all the time.

But the pews

Let’s take a little side-trip to discuss American Protestantism. In “The Lost Soul of American Protestantism,” D. G. Hart examines one aspect of the American history of Protestantism. Right at the beginning he notes that most people view the Protestant church in America as being either mainline left or evangelical right. He argues that these two groups are really just two sides of the same coin. Sure, they may have different ideas about what being a moral person means or what political outcomes they seek, but they’re both emphasizing the earthly over the higher things.

In The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, D. G. Hart examines the historical origins of the idea that faith must be socially useful in order to be valuable. Through specific episodes in Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Reformed history, Hart presents a neglected form of Protestantism, confessionalism, as an alternative to prevailing religious theory. He explains that, unlike evangelical and mainline Protestants who emphasize faith’s role in solving social and personal problems, confessional Protestants locate Christianity’s significance in the creeds, ministry, and rituals of the church. Although critics have accused confessionalism of encouraging social apathy, Hart deftly argues that this form of Protestantism has much to contribute to current discussions on the role of religion in American public life, since confessionalism refuses to confuse the well-being of the nation with that of the church. The history of confessional Protestantism suggests that contrary to the legacy of revivalism, faith may be most vital and influential when less directly relevant to everyday problems, whether personal or social. Clear and engaging, D. G. Hart’s groundbreaking study is essential reading for everyone exploring the intersection of religion and daily life.

He argues that it’s better to contrast these two groups with confessional Protestants — the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, etc., — who emphasize sanctification, sacraments and the like.

Like pretty much everything else in Christianity, none of the concepts (or the reaction to them from elites!) are new. And you see similar divides in the church of Rome and elsewhere.

But when you look at this Francis Effect — not measurable in pews but in sentimental pieties, emphasis on “tolerance” and, always, always, more and more dialogue, you’d be forgiven if you immediately thought of the Episcopal Church or a similar church body.

It would explain a bit about why the media is so suddenly friendly to a pope, an office it has battled against for many years. As Ross Douthat warned “sometimes the enthusiasm is just a sign that the world thinks that it’s about to succeed in converting you.”

It would also explain the lack of change in actual church participation. To people outside an active church life, that may seem like no big deal. To the traditional Christian, life is centered around gathering the body of believers around Holy Communion and the preaching of God’s Word. It’s how we’re forgiven for our many sins and how we learn how to forgive others. It’s where we receive strengthening of faith. In this regard, attendance at a particular church is a very important measurement of spiritual health.

The Episcopal Church chose over the course of many years to locate its church life in solving social and cultural problems, even if it followed cultural trends from outside the church rather than led the way. The goodness of that approach has been debated at length. The success of the idea might also be up for debate. But in terms of its liberal agenda, it actually has been effective in achieving the changes it sought in society. Others note that the institution, for all the love showered on it by the media, is faltering in terms of having people in it.

It’s hemorrhaged members at rates unseen by most other groups.

Francis Effect, To What End?

So unlike some traditionalists, I’m inclined to agree that the Francis Effect is real and legitimate. And even in many ways good. But to what end is this effect?

Consider, along with the September 11 Effect, the common idea that baby booms are reported 9 months after electrical outages. It’s not true. (See, for example, “Scientific Findings: Post-blackout Baby Boom Really Is A Bust.”)

Of course it’s not true, though! Think about it. Think about a woman’s fertility, and how women are only fertile for a limited time each month. The idea that significant percentages of women would be fertile during the same hours-long power outage, that significant percentages of that group would have a partner, that significant percentages of the couple would have time to have intercourse during the outage, that significant percentages of those male partners would not have insemination problems, and that significant percentages of the couples wouldn’t be taking precautions to prevent conception, that significant percentages of otherwise-minded wouldn’t abort any children conceived during this copulation, and so on and so on.

Not all the time, of course, but many times we have babies simply because we’re having lots and lots of lots of sex and not preventing conception. Not because of a fluke power outage that caused a blip of romance, if it ever did.

In the same vein, think of the Francis Effect. Many Roman Catholics on left and right keep waiting for it to result in numerical or percentage increases in actual reception of the sacraments. It’s only been two-and-a-half years, certainly. But also, it’s been two-and-a-half years! A life of sanctification is not something gained by battling traffic once in your lifetime to see a pope give a few minutes of remarks.

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.