The first rule of this discipline is that most “experts” are a bunch of overpaid hacks that are there to tell you a story, not tell you the truth. I think we Catholics could take to heart our more secular brethren when it comes to looking at how Catholics report news about the Church. We should keep this in mind when examining “The Francis Effect.”
There is a narrative in Catholic media that Francis’ election would have profound implications for the Church, and that he would be the Best. Pope. EVAH! Just as Benedict would be the Best. Pope. EVAH! And of course John Paul II was the Best. Pope. EVAH! Fitting in with the Uberness of Pope Francis, there were instantly reports of a “Francis Effect” when he first became Pope. Allegedly confessionals were packed, and Mass attendance was increasing. New Seminarians were going to mimic Francis’ “humble” style. This would be proof that the “revolution” Francis is launching would be a good one.
Such was the view of George Weigel when he stated:
Pope Francis is a revolutionary. The revolution he proposes, however, is not a matter of economic or political prescription, but a revolution in the self-understanding of the Catholic Church: a re-energizing return to the pentecostal fervor and evangelical passion from which the church was born two millennia ago, and a summons to mission that accelerates the great historical transition from institutional-maintenance Catholicism to the Church of the New Evangelization.
One thing we need to remember: To Weigel, everyone is a revolutionary. John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love (Theology of the Body) was going to revolutionize Catholic thought and change the way Catholics look at every article of the creed. 20 years later, that hasn’t happened. Catholic views on sexual mores haven’t improved (quite the opposite sadly), and far from being viewed a revolutionary, all the newer TOB writers today (of which I am one) are emphasizing continuity and explicitly downplaying revolution.
Why the disparity? Being blunt, Weigel had books to sell. Stating that John Paul II was a cautious reformer who was only restating the old stuff using modern philosophical concepts that was not so much aimed at revolutionizing existing thought but helping us to present it better doesn’t sell copies. Nowadays Weigel is big on “Evangelical Catholicism” being the big solution to all the Churches problems. So naturally, he is going to attempt to hype up anything that could possibly benefit that worldview.
How is this proposed revolution doing so far, eight months in to his pontificate? Before everyone starts screaming bloody murder, obviously eight months are a small sample size of data to work with. Yet the media attention to Francis has never been greater, and everyone is talking about the direct benefits of a “Francis effect” on the Church. If there really is such an effect, chances are we should be able to measure it. Thankfully, there are secular institutions which are very good at measuring this kind of stuff. One of the foremost institutions of this kind is the Pew Research Center. They compiled the data for how Francis is impacting American Catholicism. So far, the result is: he isn’t effecting it at all.
The amount of people identifying as “Catholic” hasn’t changed, and Mass attendance, weekly or otherwise, is within the margin of statistical noise. American Catholic opinion seems quite resistant to whoever is Pope. There’s little evidence anywhere else that it will be different in other countries. Argentina did not experience a booming Catholicism during the time Jorge Bergoglio was a Bishop and Cardinal. The seminaries did not become packed with those like him, so why should they now?
None of this is meant to be a slam on the Holy Father. I just view it as simply pointing out the obvious. Transformational Popes who buck the trends of society and transform the Church are rare. Even very good ones (Leo XIII) seldom do this. The 20th century was interesting in that it had two transformational popes who bucked the trends they inherited (St. Pius X and soon to be St. John Paul II) and left a Church looking quite different from when they entered. The odds of Francis being such a transformational pope are slim.
That’s okay though! Even those transformational popes normally didn’t live to see the transformation. If there is such a “Francis effect” it likely won’t be felt for 20-30 years. Since it is a couple decades away, which means you are the one who puts that effect into practice, or lets it fade away quietly. There will likely be no Francis effect anytime soon, especially in this country. Quite the contrary, things are likely to get a lot more uncomfortable for American Catholics before they get better. Both major political parties want to get away from Catholic moral teaching. The only thing they disagree upon is the speed with which they do so. Over the next 10-20 years a demographic time bomb is going to go off in the American Church as older parishioners die off at a faster rate than they can be replaced. Catholics with big families are still the anomaly in America, and the demographic solution of faithful Catholics out breeding everyone is going to take a long long time. Seminarians might be slowly increasing, but they will take decades not just to ordain, but to have them have established ministries at parishes.
We love a romantic story of these great individuals who do great and sweeping things. The reality is that changing the Church and the culture is long and tedious work. According to St. Pius X, our solace should lie in the fact that God rewards our intent and our effort at carrying out such reforms, rather than grading you based on the results of the latest polling.