Has Pope Francis Failed?
When Pope Francis ascended to the chair of St. Peter in March 2013, the world looked on in wonder. Here at last was a pope in line with the times, a man who preferred spontaneous gestures to ritual forms. Francis paid his own hotel bill and eschewed the red shoes. Rather than move into the grand papal apartments, he settled in the cozy guesthouse for visitors to the Vatican. He also set a new nondogmatic tone with statements like “Who am I to judge?”
Observers predicted that the new pope’s warmth, humility and charisma would prompt a “Francis effect” — bringing disaffected Catholics back to a church that would no longer seem so forbidding and cold. Three years into his papacy, the predictions continue. Last winter, Austen Ivereigh, the author of an excellent biography of Pope Francis, wrote that the pope’s softer stance on communion for the divorced and remarried “could trigger a return to parishes on a large scale.” In its early days, Francis’ Jesuit order labored to bring Protestants back into the fold of the church. Could Francis do the same for Catholics tired of headlines about child abuse and culture wars?
In a certain sense, things have changed. Perceptions of the papacy, or at least of the pope, have improved. Francis is far more popular than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Sixty-three percent of American Catholics approve of him, while only 43 percent approved of Benedict at the height of his popularity, according to a 2015 New York Times and CBS News poll. Francis has also placed a great emphasis on reaching out to disaffected Catholics.
But are Catholics actually coming back? In the United States, at least, it hasn’t happened. New survey findings from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate suggest that there has been no Francis effect — at least, no positive one. In 2008, 23 percent of American Catholics attended Mass each week. Eight years later, weekly Mass attendance has held steady or marginally declined, at 22 percent.
Of course, the United States is only one part of a global church. But the researchers at Georgetown found that certain types of religious observance are weaker now among young Catholics than they were under Benedict. In 2008, 50 percent of millennials reported receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, and 46 percent said they made some sacrifice beyond abstaining from meat on Fridays. This year, only 41 percent reported receiving ashes and only 36 percent said they made an extra sacrifice, according to CARA. In spite of Francis’ personal popularity, young people seem to be drifting away from the faith.
Why hasn’t the pope’s popularity reinvigorated the church? Perhaps it is too soon to judge. We probably won’t have a full measure of any Francis effect until the church is run by bishops appointed by Francis and priests who adopt his pastoral approach. This will take years or decades.
Yet something more fundamental may stand in the way of a Francis effect. Francis is a Jesuit, and like many members of Catholic religious orders, he tends to view the institutional church, with its parishes and dioceses and settled ways, as an obstacle to reform. He describes parish priests as “little monsters” who “throw stones” at poor sinners. He has given curial officials a diagnosis of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” He scolds pro-life activists for their “obsession” with abortion. He has said that Catholics who place an emphasis on attending Mass, frequenting confession, and saying traditional prayers are “Pelagians” — people who believe, heretically, that they can be saved by their own works.
Such denunciations demoralize faithful Catholics without giving the disaffected any reason to return. Why join a church whose priests are little monsters and whose members like to throw stones? When the pope himself stresses internal spiritual states over ritual observance, there is little reason to line up for confession or wake up for Mass.
Even Francis’ most ardent fans worry that his agenda is overdue. When he was elected, Francis promised a cleanup of the Vatican’s corrupt finances. Three years on, he has started to retreat in the face of opposition, giving up an outside audit and taking powers away from his handpicked point man. Francis has also shied away from big changes on doctrinal matters. Instead of explicitly endorsing communion for the divorced and remarried couples, he has quietly urged them on with a wink and a nod.
Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads. Those who wish to see a stronger church may have to wait for a different kind of pope. Instead of trying to soften the church’s teaching, such a man would need to speak of the way hard disciplines can lead to freedom. Confronting a hostile age with the strange claims of Catholic faith may not be popular, but over time it may prove more effective. Even Christ was met with the jeers of the crowd.