Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Francis Effect: Putting Rhetoric Together with Reality on Eve of Pope's Visit (1)

On the eve of Pope Francis's visit to the U.S., I've been collecting information that, to my way of thinking, provides something of a snapshot of the Catholic church in the U.S. at this point in time. This is not a systematic project, but rather an anecdotal one, one in which I am gleaning information simply by reading the news day by day, rather than searching for it intentionally.

I've decided that I'll use some of my blogging time in the next few days, as the papal visit nears and we're inundated with articles about Pope Francis and the Francis effect, sharing these pieces of my own personal and admittedly idiosyncratic snapshot with you. I'll welcome feedback from all of you readers. You may well have pieces to add to this picture.

First, a reminder: it can't be emphasized enough that, as moral theologian Margaret Farley just reminded us several days ago (and see also here), the Catholic tradition of doing theological thinking relies heavily on a natural law method that respects the findings of the sciences, both natural and social. At its best (and as Margaret Farley herself says in the panel discussion I'm citing, in recent years we've rarely seen this "best" in much of Catholic theology and in church pronouncements), Catholic theology pays respectful attention to reason and to human experience.

Right on the heels of Margaret Farley's remarks, The New Yorker published an essay by James Carroll in which Carroll maintains that Pope Francis is "overturning how Catholics think of doctrine." To be specific, Carroll thinks that Francis's emphasis on "starting from the ground up" in theological thinking lifts up an experiential approach to doing theology which requires that ethical insight open onto theological insight and not vice versa. This approach to theological thinking (which is rooted in the natural law methodology described by Farley) calls on theologians to listen attentively to human experience and only then begin to formulate theological ideas on the basis of that listening to human experience — not to impose on human experience preconceived theological frameworks that ignore human experience.

Carroll writes,

"You have to start from the ground up," Francis said in the same 2013 interview [i.e., Francis's "A Big Heart Open to God" interview in America magazine]. This amounts to a watchword for a Pope who looks at power from below, and it explains his unrelenting emphasis on the poor. Doctrine and policy—the indissolubility of marriage, say, or cap-and-trade approaches to pollution control—must be evaluated, first, by their impact on the vast population of men, women, and children who have been tossed onto the garbage heap of history. What are the abstractions of religion and politics actually doing to people? 
Starting from the ground up implies a clear preference for experience over dogma.

Doctrine and policy must be evaluated first of all by their impact on the vast population of men, women, and children who have been tossed onto the garbage heap of history. This approach implies a clear preference for experience over dogma.

It also implies that dogma, if it expects to compel assent among rational, thinking, conscience-wielding human beings, has to be rooted in experience. It has to speak to real human beings about real human lives. It must listen carefully to the experiences of real human beings before it imposes on those real human lives doctrinal formulas that have nothing at all to do with those lives and their experience.

And so second, where are we in the real life of the U.S. Catholic church, as Pope Francis's visit nears? Some empirical data we need to chew over and digest, if we expect any of our nattering about the "Francis effect" or about the meaning of this papacy to be grounded in reality: near the end of August, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released the results of a survey on the concrete effects of the Francis effect in the American Catholic church.

This survey finds that roughly a third of Americans were raised in a Catholic household. But 15% of the U.S. population now report that they no longer identify as Catholic, though they were raised Catholic. Of those former Catholics, nearly half have left institutional religion altogether.

Conclusion: as PRRI itself states in its media release accompanying the survey results,

Ahead of Pope Francis' first visit to the U.S., a survey released today finds that the pope's popularity among the American public is significantly higher than that of the Catholic Church.

Or, to put the point differently: the Francis effect has not significantly shifted the negative image of the Catholic church that the pastoral leaders of the church have managed to place before the American public in recent years, notably by their atrocious mishandling of the abuse crisis, but also by their persistent beating of the culture-war drum in collusion with the evangelical right, as they fixate on the issues of abortion, contraception, and gay rights.

As Patricia Miller has astutely noted, commenting on this survey, though it reports that two-thirds of Americans have a favorable view of Francis, only 56% have a favorable view of the church itself. And though 56% of Catholics say their view of the church has become more favorable under Francis, the following is the actual real-life result of the Francis effect in the lives of disaffected Catholics:

Consistent with other surveys, the PPRI survey found that the rate of Catholic disaffiliation is so high that 15% of all Americans are former Catholics. (The relative stability of the Catholic population is due to Hispanic in-migration; one-third of all US Catholics and nearly 50% of young Catholics are Hispanic.) The survey, however, found little evidence than Francis is enticing former Catholics back to the church. This may be due to the fact that they have a much more favorable view of the pope at 64% than the church itself at 43%.

Patricia Miller cites Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director, who states in the media release linked above,

Evidence for a so-called Francis Effect is limited. A majority of Catholics report that their feelings toward the church have changed, and mostly for the better. Roughly two-thirds of Catholics believe Pope Francis will help bring people back to the Church, but former Catholics are much less optimistic. There are no signs yet of any significant uptick in Catholic affiliation or religious attendance.

For more analysis of this PRRI study along with other recent probes of U.S. Catholic opinion about Pope Francis, see David Gibson at Religion News Service.

As Cathy Lynn Grossman has just noted in a Religion News Service article, in 2008, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University found that only about one in three U.S. Catholics, mostly older women, attend Mass in any given week. As a Pew Forum study on the Francis effect this year finds, that percentage has not shifted due to the Francis effect and to the statistics showing that many U.S. Catholics have a more favorable view of the church due to Francis.

And, as Grossman notes, the 2015 Official Catholic Directory finds the following data in the U.S. Catholic church for the calendar year 2014:

  • Infant baptisms (a number affected by the birth rate and immigration) fell to 693,914 from 981,944 in 1995, and 1.3 million 50 years ago.
  • Confirmations (first measured in 1990) are down to 566,143 from a peak of 630,465 in 2000.
  • First Communions are down to 726,887 from 849,919 when these were first tracked in 1990.
  • Marriages in the church fell to 148,134, from a peak of 426,309 in 1970.

In a companion article at RNS on the topic of the Francis effect, Cathy Lynn Grossman suggests that, rather than base our analysis of the Francis effect on Catholic behavior in the pews, we might, instead, look at Catholic behavior in the voting booth. She cites a recent study done by Faith in Public Life and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in which a YouGov Internet survey was conducted in late July involving 1,400 U.S. Catholics, which may (or may not) indicate some effect of Pope Francis on the voting patterns of U.S. Catholics.

So there's some empirical evidence — here are some poll and survey results from the very recent past — for us to think about as we're bombarded in the next few days by endless media hype about the papal visit and the Francis effect. From where I stand — and I'm writing about all this, of course, from that place on which I myself stand as a gay Catholic shoved to the margins by the current leaders of the church, with  the complicity of many lay Catholics who have been silent as this has been done to LGBT Catholics — the Francis effect is not significantly affecting my own life or relationship to the church.

And the numbers that are being crunched in some of the studies I cite above seem to me to indicate that I'm not alone in asking where the Francis effect is in the real life of the U.S. Catholic church right now. The real life of the U.S. Catholic church, which is what counts first and foremost if talk of an ostensible Francis effect is to have any real meaning at all . . . .

Now for some anecdotal evidence to complement the empirical evidence above. To break what would otherwise be a very long posting, I'm going to put that anecdotal evidence into a second posting.

The photo of Pope Francis on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, 28 January 2014, is by Stefano Spaziani.

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