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Francis ineffective?

BREAKING: Francis has not reversed decades-long trends in Catholic practice over the course of one year.

A new Pew Research poll shows what many Catholics might expect: Francis is really popular among the faithful. And lots of them still don't go to Mass very often. (Also Catholics still disagree with a bunch of church teachings.) Still, you'll find plenty of news stories leading with the claim that for all the excitement the pope has generated, it seems not to have put more people in the pews. Catholics say they're praying more--just not in church.

Aggregated Pew Research survey data reveal "no change in self-reported rates of Mass attendance among Catholic," according to the new report. And "in the year since Francis became pope, 40 percent of U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass at least once a week, unchanged from the months immediately preceding the papal transition."

That's not surprising. Mass attendance has been holding steady for years. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, for example, estimates the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass weekly somewhere in the mid-20s. CARA's data differ from Pew's because it uses both phone surveys, in which people tend to over-report socially desirable behavior, and self-administered surveys--respondents fill out a form--which seem to suffer less from over-reporting. (Read all about it.)

Of course, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that Francis has energized Catholics, inspired the fallen away to return, and even made non-Catholics consider joining up. (Just yesterday, a Protestant friend told me he was thinking of crossing the Tiber because of Francis--and he's an ordained minister.) But I don't know many observers of the Catholic scene who expected Mass attendance to spike in the months following Francis's election. Catholics don't go to Sunday Mass for the pope. They go for several reasons: to worship God; to receive Communion; for spiritual edification; to listen to Scripture; to be with their prayer community; for a good homily (one hopes). Parishes succeed to the extent that they satisfy their members' spiritual needs.

A pope alone can't create good parishes. Sure, he can excite his people in any number of ways. But if they show up at Mass and find a limp liturgy, an unwelcoming environment, a dull homily, or a priest they can't relate to, there's a good chance they won't be back. That's where the men Francis appoints as bishops come in. They determine seminary culture, which means they determine parish culture--for years and years. If you're looking for a Francis effect, look no further than the Congregation for Bishops.

You know, the curial office he just shook up.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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Strange!  Is George now pontificating?.  He lost all credibility as far as I am concerned when he declared the "FIRST STRIKE" by George W. Bush on Iraq to be a "just" war.  Since then I have ignored his declarations.  He is the political hack.  He should have reviewed the traditional checks that first had to be made.  I expect he will soon feel very frustrated if Pope Francis continues returning our church to what Jesus emphasized would some day He would find most important.  Remember Jesus said he would some day remark to each of us:  "I was hungry and you gave (or did not give) me  to eat;, thirsty and gave (or did not give) me to drink; etc."   That is how He will decide who will be invited "into the house of my Father".   When Jesus complained about the Pharasees he never said they were intellectually defective or did not go out of their way to be exact in doing what they believed they had to do to be "right".   Being "right" is not as important and being loving.  It smacks of pride.       

It's not just about people going to mass.  I think that no matter how popular Francis is or becomes, there is no way he can revive the dead doctrines/practices on birth control, LGBT issues, marriage/divorce, accountability for sex abuse and its cover-up.  People may love him, bit that won't make them suddenly want to take up NFP or make them want to disenfranchise gays.  As long as the church clings to those teachings, people will be leaving the church.

What Crystal said ... in spades!

Francis is interested in changing those within the church. Everything else will follow. Francis has nothing about NFP or disenfranchising gays. Why are you clinging to that? It looks like a desire to be mal-content at any cost. Going to confession more does not  indicate a return to holiness. Just ask all those pedophiles who confessed frequently but changed nothing. Same with those who covered up. 

I'm not attacking Francis.  Just saying that the reasons why most people have left the church or don't want to become Catholics have been studied and many of them have to do with the church's teaching on contraception, marriage/divorce, women's ordination, treatment of gays, the sex abuse problem, etc.  If those teaching and ways of procedding don't change ... and we can see they haven't yet changed, despite some words about mercy ... then it's really unlikely the number of Catholics will change due to Francis' popularity.  Guys like the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu are very popular and revered for their compassion and wisdom, but as much as they are liked and listened to, most of those who appreciate them don't then become Buddhists or Anglicans.

In addition to what Crystal wrote, there's more. Pope Francis will not rejuvenate American parishes languishing with poor music, weak preaching, and a lack of genuine hospitality. The change of tone needs to seep down to every faith community.

There *are* some counterexamples, Todd.  But, alas, they are precious few.  Like Our Lady of Lourdes in Atlanta.  A Dominican--and predominantly African American--parish.  E.g., amazing music, and much less expensive than the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra!

As much as I prefer Francis and wish to forget JPII and B16, Francis' style (for lack of better word) is not going to get me back into the Church of Rome.  His two predecessors inflicted enough damage on Vatican II's implementation to last a lifetime (or, in the case of Catholicdom, more than a lifetime).  Francis could, for instance, request the world's English-speaking bishops to jettison the bastardized liturgical translation imposed by Rome and adopt ICEL's 1998 translation; the current one simply serves to remind disaffected Catholics of nearly 35 years of retrogression before March 2013.  The pope could invite married presbyters to return to carrying out liturgical services for the church.  Francis could appoint women to genuine leadership roles over the ordained in the Vatican curia.  As others have noted, the issues of same-sex civil marriage, women's ordination, artificial birth control, etc. are not going to go away.  There's a real possibility (probability?)  that B16's desire for a smaller church will end up being the default position of the Francis papacy.  If such occurs, what a waste!

I'm still holding out to see what happens with his commission and synod and however he's going to act collegially. I join others in great joy at his gestures and lifestyle changes, "The Joy of the Gospel," and "who am I to judge" approach - even if it is not consistent given some questionable disciplinary actions. I think recent episcopal appointments are not encouraging, but he didn't have much of a bench. Not sure if he can throw off the ballast in whatever time he has...but I'm still hoping.

But I've also had a historically confused thought of a Gorbachev scenario where an attempt at "perestroika" led to a great implosion...

The Vatican today announced the fifteen members of the new Council on Finance, to be led by Cardinal George Pell. The members named include eight cardinals and seven layMEN. What century are we in!

Many of the suggestions for a quicker pace offered so far call for the pope to act unilaterally, and I think unilateral ukases from the Vatican are what he is trying to stop. For instance, if he were to pronounce a single wiggle in the Church's position on the range of sex-related issues that agitate American Catholics, I and many of the complainers, would be among the first to holler, "Why didn't he wait for the synod? What happened to consultation?"

IMO, David Pasinski's spine-tingler about how Perestroika devolved into Putin should not be passed over without further thought. Many (most?) of the people who make the trains run on time in the Church are not convinced by Pope Francis's words and example so far. The pope is playing a long game, but the bureaucracy is used to outlasting threats.

And, finally, I agree with Mr. Jaglowicz that it would be awfully nice to have the Mass back in English.


Pope Francis strikes me as a holy man who reminds by example what a guardian of holy faith and tradition is supposed to be ... as opposed to many in the hierarchy who are mere guards or even goons in service to themselves more than anything else.

I don't think change is on the pope's agenda so much as trying to restore a sense of service to the faith (and the faithful) among the hierarchs. Doctrine won't change, but perhaps the spin will be more positive and encouraging. Sinners might be invited to Mass more often, to seek encouragement and correction in Reconciliation frequently, rather than being told to leave the table until they get their thinking in line.

That would be nice.

John Page:

What no women? Not even Mary Ann Glendon?

A few years ago I taught in a Teacher Training Program in Lagos, Nigeria.  At the beginning of the year the students, all adults, elected their school officers. All candidates were men, except the Treasurer candidates who were all women. 

I asked why. The answer? They considered women to be more honest with money.

Contraception is hardly a cause for people leaving the church. We know that practically all Catholics attending Mass practice contraception. If Francis officially changes the stance of Rome he will only be confirming what Catholics are doing. 

As far as change is concerned there is already change happening. The biggest change is the turning away of adulation of the rich and regard for the poor. There is no more radical change than that. That is the essence of the gospel  Read the anointing of Jesus. Luke 4:18

Secondly, the change in the Vatican bank. How monumental is that!1

Further there will be changes. Francis has been around Rome a long time. He knows the devils he is dealing with. They are lying in wait to ensnare him. So far he has been ahead of them. 

Francis comes from South America, a continent, except for the careerist bishops, that has been clamoring for change. Principal among them is Cardinal Rodriguez. When reporters asked him several years ago how he handles dubious orders coming from Rome, he said: "Between Honduras and Rome there is a very big ocean." People like Oscar R are on most of the committes planning a long needed collegiality and other things. 

It is just the beginning. 

Pell anf his commission are not making changes in the Vatican Bank but in the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See ...

American parishes languishing with poor music, weak preaching, and a lack of genuine hospitality. The change of tone needs to seep down to every faith community.

That's where I have hope. The change of tone from the papacy could inspire clergy to preach better and faith communities to be more hospitable. It would be something of a miracle, why why couldn't it happen? 

Perhaps Francesco is demonstrating to us what are the practical political limits to which he can go?  

How can we expect Francesco to embrace a married clergy, women priests and/or same-sex marriage when these ideas are considered subversive by the very ideologues that elected him pope just a year ago?

I wonder if Francesco has really done about all he could do in the present moment and now he must pave the way for his sucessor, or sucessors, to further move the church along this new path.  Remember, these hierarchs think in terms of decades and centuries - they don't call Rome the Eternal City for nothing.

The reform and renewal of the church is not going to come from any hierarch - including Francesco, who I suspect understands this more than he lets on in public.  The hierarchy is dispirited, discredited and disappearing - their day is done.

It's up to the PEOPLE to take matters into their own hands.  The PEOPLE are the only ones who have the capacity for reform and renewal of the church.

I think actually Francis *could* make significant changes if he actually wanted to.  Let's look at the recnet past ...  Paul VI decided, against the advice of his own pontifcal commission on birth control, that birth control was a bad thing ... JPII decided, against the advice of the pontifical biblical commission, that the church "could not" make women priests ... B16 decided, who knows why, to change the catechism to say that being gay was "disordered".  No one's head exploded and there were no coups ;)

PS - and don't forget B16's decision that pope's could retire.

I think he has already made a huge change in the Church for the good by redirecting our priorities back to the poor and suffering.   As important as many other issues are- and the ones we care most about varies among individual Catholics- how we treat our sisters and brothers is where the rubber hits the road.

But "how we treat our brothers and sisters" is what the issues of sex abuse accountability and women's ordination and gay rights and communion for divorced/remarried people are all about.

Yes, they are, and work remains to be  done on those issues. But  in looking at Francis' effectiveness, one can't look at only what remains to be done.  I agree with Bill Mazzella,  he has accomplished a great deal in the year he has held the job- and in ways that really matter.  If I were doing his performance review, he would get a positive one. 


For some context of what Francis wishes the church to accomplish, consider this sketch of the Millenial generation.  Headline: "Millenials unattached to everything, including religion."

The "Francis Effect" if it ever comes to fruition, will be a journey, not an event.



Jim Pawels,

You are exactly right.  And I would argue that one can't undo 25 plus years of damage in 12 months.

How about this from Drew Christiansen

"The carnival is over."

Gotta love it. 

And I would argue that one can't undo 25 plus years of damage in 12 months.

Actually, it's 35 years of damage - John Paul II was elected in 1978.

"A Pope alone cannot create good parishes." I couldn't agree more. And the same goes for the rest of Gramt Gallicho's comments. Maybe it is an American cultural thing that expects the  New President down to the New Sherrif , who promises to do things differently - in order to get elected - that he will actually do things differently; that he (or rarely she) will make a difference. Admittedly a Cardinal doesn't campaign to be elected Pope. And we'll probably never know why a majority of the College of Cardinals chose Francis to be the successor of Benedict XVI. In what sense did they expect Francis to be effective? My belief is that enough of them saw a break had to be made away from the Euro-centric, if not Vatican-centric, thinking & staffing of the Curia. As well as recognition that the church in the Southern Hemisphere had been taken for granted for too long. A practical Jesuit of Italian extraction from Buenos Aires seemed to tick so many boxes if one was looking for a man prepared to take on the cleansing of the Augean Stables of church administration without resorting to Herculean force and cunning. It disappoints me that The Precepts of the Church are given the same status at The Decalogue. I was brought up to believe that not to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation was as serious as murder, grand theft, adultery i.e, all mortal sins. This is so obvious absurd morality that I am not surprised that the Moral Theology of the church has lost respect and many catholics just drift away.

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