Francis effects.

Did you hear? The anniversary of Pope Francis's election is upon us. So here comes everybody to tell you what that means. Our own Paul Baumann weighs in at Slate, arguing that fixating on the pope is bad for the church. You've got Drew Christiansen, SJ, at America, explaining how Francis means business. There's that Pew Research poll that got lots of people wondering whether Francis was actually having much effect on Joe and Jane Catholic. I suggested that, at this stage of his papacy, Mass attendance was not a great measure of his effectiveness. Daniel Burke at CNN interviewed a bunch of Boston-area Catholics who say Francis has made a big difference in their lives (spoiler alert: Jesuits love the guy). And over at Religion Dispatches, Patricia Miller responds to the Pew poll with what amounts to an extended raspberry. Let's focus on that one for a moment.

Miller's analysis fails in several ways, some of which I was cataloguing when I noticed that she had returned with another magisterial wave of her hand, this time lumping me in with "apologists" for that Pew poll.

But first things first. Does she have the foggiest clue how the Catholic Church works? How Catholics actually think about being Catholic? And can she read polling data?

Catholics view the kinder, gentler reign of Pope Francis more favorability than that of his grouchy predecessor Benedict, but not by much. Francis’ net favorability rating is only six points higher than Benedict’s, which attests not so much to Benedict’s popularity as to the fact that Catholics really don’t pay all that much attention to what the pope does or says. He’s more like a mascot than a leader. 

Leaving aside the attitudinal flourishes (and they are legion), she mischaracterizes the Pew results. Benedict's most recent net favorability rating was 74. Francis's is 85. Maybe she meant to compare them at their highest ratings, but the difference there is just two points.

Miller continues:

Only a quarter of Catholics say they’ve become more excited about their faith and they aren’t going to church any more often. The number who go weekly—a core Catholic obligation—is still well under 50 percent and hasn’t budged. Most importantly, they aren’t being joined by an onslaught of returning Catholics.

Yet the obligingly favorable coverage of Francis continues.

The nerve. She gets those data right, but fails to mention that 68 percent of respondents said Francis was a major change for the better (71 percent consider him a major change). And I have already explained why no one should have expected Mass attendance to sharply rise within months of Francis's election. It's been a year. That's not a long time for one man--even a supremely cuddly mascot, as Miller dubs Francis--to reverse decades of sliding Mass attendance (although it's been steady more recently). Not that anyone should expect Miller to be moved by that particular data set. No, she dings Thomas Reese, SJ, for pointing out what any serious observer of U.S. Catholicism knows: “Since church attendance has been declining since the 1950s, the fact that it did not go down can be considered a victory,” Reese said.

In her most recent post, Miller seems perplexed by my claim that I know few church-watchers who anticipated Francis to bring throngs of Catholics--new and old--to church, because she read somewhere that the pope was supposed to do just that. Evidently when she wants to score rhetorical points, she stops thinking of the pope as a mascot and starts imagining him as a magician. Did some journalists overinterpret--at least in the short term--the excitement generated by the new pope? Does that mean we should use their hyperventilations as the measure of his success one year from his election? No, calmer observers understand that a transformed image of the papacy "does not in itself attract people back to the church, but it does remove a gigantic obstacle to their return."

Miller also wants you to know that the pope is not about to change Catholic teaching on her favorite issues.

If the Pew poll is to be believed, Catholics expect Francis to do more than put a happy face on moldy teachings. A majority expect him to okay birth control and married priests sometime soon, but I hope they’re not holding their breath.

Really? Because, judging from the overall tone of her commentary, I'm not quite convinced that she's not pulling for a lot of Catholics to hold their breath. For a long time. Maybe till they pass out.

But that's neither here nor there. Is it true that this silly majority of Catholics "expect" the pope to allow married priests and the use of artificial contraception "sometime soon"? Nope. Pew Research asked Catholics whether they expected the church to allow birth control and married priests, and just over half said they did--by the year 2050.

Below her misreading of the Pew data, there's a deeper confusion about the way Catholics negotiate doctrine they disagree with. Miller notes Pope Francis's most recent interview, in which he said the following about Humanae Vitae: “The question is not that of changing the doctrine, but to go deep and to ensure that pastoral care takes into account situations and what is possible for people.” But, Miller, responds, "this type of pastoral attenuation is exactly what progressives suggested to no avail when the encyclical was released." Pastoral attenuation. Intriguing formulation, but probably not how some Catholic leaders considered their advice to confessors to "show sympathetic understanding and reverence for the sincere good faith of those who fail in their effort to accept some point of the encyclical."

Perhaps this would be a good time to mention that Miller is also stumped by the difference between dogma and doctrine: "But if the numbers are to be believed, most wavering and lapsed Catholics won’t cross the threshold without substantial changes to church dogma, not just a soft peddling of its contents," she asserts in her latest post. I didn't realize millions of lapsed Catholics were holding out for the return of monophysitism.

"It’s living with this cognitive dissonance between what Catholics actually do—like using birth control and getting divorced...also known as 'life,'" Miller concludes, "and what the church says they can do, that’s driven Catholics from the pews and created a huge shadow church of departed Catholics." No doubt lots of Catholics have left the church, or at least stopped showing up at church, because they disagreed with its teachings on birth control and divorce. But many more stay, despite their disagreement with any number of church teachings and practices.

Did Miller miss Univision's recent poll of twelve thousand Catholics in twelve countries across five continents (or really any recent poll of U.S. Catholics)? On contraception, clerical celibacy--even abortion--most American Catholics are out of step with their bishops. Yet they continue to consider themselves Catholic. They even go to Mass. I bet they drop some cash in the collection basket too. This seems to bother Miller. Perhaps she'd prefer them to join that "zombie church" she keeps bringing up. (As opposed to the other "damaged" church," as she puts it now.) But it hasn't happened yet. It probably won't for quite some time.

I hope she isn't holding her breath.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads