By Ross Douthat
SEPTEMBER 23, 2015
Now it’s time to pivot from primary politics to papal coverage, as Pope Francis prepares to take the Acela Corridor by storm. My colleague Laurie Goodstein has an overview of the state of American Catholicism — declining in the north and east, growing in the south and west, increasingly Hispanic and consistently divided — that includes these polling nuggets on how Francis has changed American Catholic attitudes toward the church without necessarily changing their involvement with the institution:
Two and a half years into his papacy, Francis is already much beloved. A new poll by The New York Times and CBS News shows that Francis is arriving in the United States on a wave of good will among American Catholics: 63 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of him, far above the 43 percent peak for his predecessor, the retired Benedict XVI, and nearly in line with the high mark for John Paul II in 2002, when 69 percent of Catholics said they viewed him favorably.
The poll shows that Francis has convinced many American Catholics that the church is more in touch with their needs today. A majority, 53 percent, said the church was in touch with Catholics’ needs, up from 39 percent in 2013. This was the biggest shift in opinion since pollsters started asking the question in 1987.
But … Francis … has yet to create a shift in the dynamics of attendance and participation. When asked if their attendance at church had changed over the last two years, 13 percent said they were going to Mass more often, but 12 percent said they were going less, and 74 percent said nothing had changed.
This combination — high papal approval ratings with no clear effect on the actual practice of the faith — might look superficially like vindication for some of Francis’s conservative doubters, who worry that this pontificate could end up replaying the songs of the Catholic ’60s and ’70s, when a mood of excited renewal produced (to put it mildly) unspectacular results for mass attendance, vocations, and the like. But while I have sympathies with this anxiety, the reality is that judging a pope’s impact, for good or ill, based on two years of mass attendance is probably a fool’s game. And not only because pontiffs don’t have the kind of power, period, over Catholic life that media coverage and their celebrity status would suggest; even to the extent that they do have an effect on how the faith is lived, it plays out through a long-term cascade of appointments and personnel decisions, intellectual/theological influence, and generational reactions. So if there is or is going to be a Francis effect, any short term trend (again, positive or negative) is highly unlikely to capture its valence; what matters is what the people who find him inspiring (or disillusioning) are doing and how the places where he leaves fingerprints look ten or twenty or thirty years from now.
If I were a sociologist of religion taking up this question, and hoping to eventually publish the definitive account of the Francis Effect or lack thereof, I would be sending field researchers to the Archdiocese of Chicago right now, and trying to set up various complicated regression analyses to compare Chicago’s experience to other major American cities and archdioceses. That’s because the Windy City is 1) the archetypal bastion of the kind of urban/white ethnic Catholicism that’s fallen on hard times since the 1960s, 2) a city that was shepherded first by the archetypal progressive-leaning cardinal, Joseph Bernardin, and then by the Joseph Ratzinger-esque Francis George, meaning that it’s experienced both of the most prominent approaches to post-conciliar Catholic leadership in full, 3) the place where Francis has made his highest-profile (and most explicitly liberal) episcopal appointment, Blase Cupich, and 4) a place where Cupich, in turn, has already moved to put his stamp on the institutions most likely to shape his archdiocese’s future (Mundelein Seminary already has a new rector, etc.).
For all of these reasons, if this pontiff’s style and governance are going to have any kind of sustained effect on American Catholic life, Chicago seems like much more plausible ground zero than, say, Charles Chaput’s Philadelphia, where the pope will be making a visit shortly; the impact of a papal visit will dissipate quickly, while the impact of the Cupich appointment in Chicago will last, and its ripples (whatever they may be) will spread. I joked on Twitter recently that liberal and conservative Catholics should have a version of the Ehrlich-Simon wager about how the church in Chicago will look in twenty years time, but the jest contained a real point: Some parts of American Catholicism are conducting clearer Francis-blessed experiments than others, and if we’re going to see an “effect” from this fascinating pope in the long run, it will be found in those experiments and their eventual results.