The myth of “the Francis Effect”?

Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis’ election, and Pew Research has published a report on how the Holy Father is perceived by Americans—both Catholic and non-Catholic—and whether or not those perceptions are affecting religious practices. In short: Francis is very popular among Catholics and non-Catholics in the US, but this popularity doesn’t appear to be pulling more people into the pews (or to the confessional line, or parish soup kitchen):

More than eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff, including half who view him very favorably. The percentage of Catholics who view Francis “very favorably” now rivals the number who felt equally positive about Pope John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s, though Francis’ overall favorability rating remains a few points shy of that of the long-serving Polish pope.

Seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics also now say Francis represents a major change in direction for the church, a sentiment shared by 56% of non-Catholics. And nearly everyone who says Francis represents a major change sees this as a change for the better.

But despite the pope’s popularity and the widespread perception that he is a change for the better, it is less clear whether there has been a so-called “Francis effect,” a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. And the survey finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often.

The Pew report does indicate signs of “somewhat more intense religiosity among Catholics—more say that they are “more excited” about their faith than say they are “less excited,” and more say they have been praying and reading the Bible more—but the questionnaire did not tie these practices to Pope Francis or perceptions of his papacy.

In his interview published in Corriere della Sera earlier this week, Pope Francis himself alluded to the “Francis effect,” or at least one aspect of it—what he termed “the mythology of Pope Francis”:

I like being among the people. Together with those who suffer. Going to parishes. I don’t like the ideological interpretations, a certain ‘mythology of Pope Francis’. When it is said, for example, that he goes out of the Vatican at night to walk and to feed the homeless on Via Ottaviano. It has never crossed my mind. If I’m not wrong, Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression. Depicting the Pope to be a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone. A normal person.


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About Catherine Harmon 578 Articles
Catherine Harmon works in the marketing department for Ignatius Press.