Francis Effect? A numbers check

Written by Peter Smith on .

ocdsmOK, now can we measure a "Francis Effect"?

It takes a while for statistics to roll in, but as we approach the five-year point in Pope Francis' tenure in March, we're beginning to see what church statistics look like in his era.

The pope remains widely popular, even though he faces criticism and doubts from some on the right. But as for American church participation, it appears that the long-time trend that spans all or part of three papacies -- decline -- has continued.

The latest "Official Catholic Directory" from "Anno Domini 2017," recently arrived on my desk. It arrived with a thud, as usual, at nearly 2,000 pages. It's choc full of statistics.

Because there's a two-year lag between the collection of stats and their publication, the 2017 volume actually has numbers from 2015, the third year Francis was in office and the year he took Philadelphia and other U.S. cities by storm. Of course, even if he took America by storm in September of that year, that wouldn't have affected confirmations in the spring. But still.

So, in short, according to its own numbers, the church in the United States continues the strange trend in which it counts more Catholics than ever, but they're doing fewer Catholic things.

Total U.S. Catholics are at a record high of more than 71 million, according to the church's numbers. 

But compared to 2013, when Francis first took office, the church two years later saw 5 percent fewer infant baptisms, 4 percent fewer first communions, 1 percent fewer confirmations, 2 percent fewer marriages and 4 percent fewer elementary students in Catholic parochial schools.

Before you draw any conclusions about the Francis Effect, consider the following.

Caveat number one: The U.S. Catholic Church is a big church, and expecting him to make a statistical turnaround in two years would be like expecting to see an aircraft carrier spinning on a dime. For example, if you wanted to register 1 percent more infant baptisms since 2013, you'd have to find as many kids to baptize, plus another 70,800 -- at a time when the church has had long-running declines in baptisms. 

Caveat number two: The United States may have one of the world's largest Catholic populations, and it's probably the loudest and wealthiest, but it's only one. More than 90 percent of the world's billion Catholics live elsewhere. Francis' impact can't be measured American terms alone, even if we considered short-term measures to be valid (see Caveat number one).

But given how much hype has been given to the Francis Effect -- the idea that he has drawn in once-alienated Catholics with his mercy- and inclusion-oriented charisma -- it's worth checking the charts.

So is the Francis Effect actually  a negative one, as some of his conservative critics might say?

Only if you're willing to admit a negative Benedict Effect and a negative late-John Paul II Effect. Catholic spiritual vital signs such as these went up in the 1990s, but the statistics began dropping after the year 2000 and show no sign of stopping. Rather than pinning the blame on any of these popes, we could just as easily blame the declines on overall secularization. Or the Spotlight Effect. Or even the 9/11 effect, which had lots of people singing "Imagine" and blaming religion of all types. 

Actually, what may explain a lot of this is the birth rate. Catholics, like other Americans, began having fewer babies since the 1960s, and the effect may be that there are fewer of them to baptize, confirm and wed. In fact, the growth in Catholic sacramental stats during the early John Paul II years coincides with the last years of the Baby Boom Echo, when there were more kids to baptize.

This is also something to consider for those who criticize Francis' lack of dogmatism. We're approaching the 50th anniversary of Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, which was followed by JP2's Theology of the Body, all strongly lauded within conservative Catholic circles. But these popes' dogmatic firmness did not prevent these teachings from being widely ignored among most Catholics in the West.

Much of the Catholic growth more recently has been among immigrant Latino Catholics. Maybe they come already baptized, confirmed and/or married. That, plus the large, aging Baby Boom population, might explain why there are so many Catholics, period. They may be here, but you can only be baptized or confirmed once. Having already gone through every rite of passage except the final one, aging Catholics don't show up on other sacramental metrics.

Of course, even in absolute numbers, the ranks of Catholics are declining in places like the Diocese of Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the Northeast, even as they grow in the Sunbelt.

Total Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are down about half a percent from two years ago, and a lot more than that (16 percent) since the year 2000.

In the past two years in Pittsburgh, infant baptisms are down 6 percent, first communions down 8 percent, confirmations are down 12 percent, marriages down 6 percent and elementary school enrollment down 7 percent, according to the Official Catholic Directory.

And the diocese separately reported that Mass attendance continues to decline and is down more than 40 percent since 2000. 

Hence, the big restructuring that will start next year under the rubric "On Mission for the Church Alive."

So what about church attendance nationally?

A survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate finds that regular Mass attendance stayed flat between 2008 and 2016, bracketing the later Benedict XVI and early Francis years. But while the rate is steady, it's low to begin with -- about a fifth of all Catholics. The majority say they attend only a few times a year or less.

 In short, Francis has not single-handedly and heroically turned around the American numbers. Whether this is because of Francis or despite him and his precedent-shattering pontificate, it's worth keeping in mind that there are massive trends buffeting the American Catholic Church that no one pope can fully countervail.

Just ask Pope Benedict.


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