The Francis effect? Anecdote #1: in a National Catholic Reporter article published yesterday, Joshua McElwee reports on a forthcoming book from the Catholic Women Speak project. The book, entitled Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table, will be published by Paulist Press before the October Synod on the Family begins. It gathers essays from Catholic women in various places in the world.
In one particularly compelling essay on "The Structure of the Church and Catholic Families," Catherine Cavanagh asks how the structure of the church's male-led hierarchical system sets an example for families around the world.
"What is the impact on the family of a church where Sunday after Sunday only men preach?" asks Cavanagh, a candidate in the doctor of ministry program at Regis College, University of Toronto.
"How does it affect the family to be told that only men can be the imago Christi?" she continues. "And what is it like to have all the decisions at the upper echelons of the church made by men?"
Proposing one answer, Cavanagh says the church teaching that only men can image Christ as a priest teaches families that: "Dad must be more important than mom."
Where is the Francis effect for faithful Catholic women? They are, after all, half of the church, but, solely because they were born without male genitalia, are excluded from ordination and from any role in the governing structure of the church. And yet, as I noted yesterday, in the American Catholic church, studies show that the group now most faithfully attending weekly Mass are older women.
The Francis effect? Anecdote #2: Richard Kreitner writes in The Nation today:
Should Pope Francis get a free pass to canonize a man [Father Junípero Serra] directly responsible for the brutalization and ultimately the near-extinction of an entire people simply because it is, in some warped public-relations sense, a tribute to Hispanic Americans, a growing constituency in the Catholic Church? . . .
How absurd it would be to congratulate ourselves on the removal of the Confederate battle flag from state capitols and Wal-Mart shelves and to permit the Pope to sanctify a man complicit in, and responsible for, the eradication of entire cultures and civilizations. "So far as the Indian was concerned," [Carey] McWilliams wrote [in his classic study Southern California: An Island on the Land], "contact with the missions meant death." Some radical, to make of Satan a saint."
Where's the Francis effect for the indigenous people of the United States? In what way, precisely, will the canonization of Junípero Serra address their needs, lift up their humanity, or atone for the grievious sins enacted on their bodies and souls generation after generation by Christians of European descent?
The Francis effect? Anecdote #3: in May this year, the Pew Forum released the results of a study on America's changing religious landscape which finds that, as Michael O'Loughlin has pointed out, the Catholic church is losing members faster than any other denomination in the U.S. — though, astonishingly, the claim continues to be made in conversations at one Catholic blog site after another that it's not us, but those Protestants over there, who are bledding members. As O'Loughlin notes, "More than a third of all millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996 – claim no affiliation, and just 16 percent identify as Catholic [per the Pew Forum findings]." (See also CNN's religion editor Daniel Burke on the study's dismal report vis-a-vis Catholic millennials.)
Earlier this month, Pew released the results of another study on U.S. Catholics and family life. As Abby Ohlheiser reports for Washington Post, this study finds 77% of those raised Catholic who no longer identify as such indicating that they cannot envisage returning to the church — Francis or no Francis.
Where's the Francis effect for millennial Catholics — and for the growing percentage of Americans raised Catholic, who have walked away from the church in recent decades?
What does talk about the Francis effect mean, when it's divorced from all the real-life data, the lives and experiences of real human beings, that I'm surveying right now anecdotally (and empirically, as I point to studies done by highly regarded research centers)? Is talking about an ostensible Francis effect in the absence of such data meaningful at all?
Or is it media hype and smokescreen that diverts us from addressing the real challenges and real needs of the Catholic church in the U.S.?
The photo of Pope Francis on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, 28 January 2014, is by Stefano Spaziani.