The 'Pope Francis Effect' Doesn't Really Exist in the U.S.

Cool Pope Francis is so rad at being Pope that some have started anticipating the start of a global "come to Jesus (or Francis) moment" among Catholics. 

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Cool Pope Francis is so rad at being Pope that some have started anticipating the start of a global "come to Jesus (or Francis) moment" among Catholics. Termed the "Pope Francis Effect," the theory goes that Francis is inspiring many Catholics to start becoming more active in the church again. And while one poll tracking church attendance in Italy seems to suggest that Francis is filling the pews, a new analysis of Catholic attendance in the U.S. suggests that the Francis Effect is not so much in effect in the States. According to Pew, Catholic identification and weekly Mass attendance has held steady since the Pope's election last spring.

Source: Pew Research Center

Since 2007, U.S. Catholic identification has remained steady at about 22 percent of the population. That hasn't changed since Francis's election in March, according to Pew, citing data from the end of October 2013. And 39 percent of American Catholics self-report weekly Mass attendance,  which is about the same as last year's figure of 40 percent. In general, survey respondents tend to self-report a higher frequency of church attendance than their actual history would show, so the real figure of Catholic Mass attendance is probably a bit lower than that.

In case you're not familiar with the Francis Effect, here's a sample of the theory from a representative piece in Forbes:

The other important aspect attributed to the “Pope Francis Effect” is a significant global rise in church attendance. It started in Rome, rapidly spread to the rest of the country and then to much of Europe, and now is being reported all around the world “by the hundreds of thousands,” according to the Italian Center for Studies of New Religions.

NBC reported on the touted effect as well, relying on anecdotal evidence of lapsed American Catholics "lured" back into the church by Francis's message. But even that piece cautioned that "it's unknown how many others have joined Rosa around the country and globe and the vast majority of lapsed Catholics have not been enticed back."

It is true that some country-specific polls have indicated increased church attendance after Francis. Take Italy. The recent study from the Italian Center for Studies of New Religions cited above asked priests from a sample of Italian congregations to report church attendance since Francis's election. About 50 percent of the congregations had increased in size, according to the survey's results. The same researchers also asked the same question of a small sample size of British Catholic priests, finding that 65 percent reported a rise in attendance.

The idea of such an effect rippling worldwide caught on quickly based on the Italian data, and for a good reason: the message the new Pope sends, while not quite as liberal as it may seem, pushes for a different emphasis from the Church. And it's a message that is, in fact, popular, even among some non-Catholics. Without challenging the church's anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage stance, Francis's message doesn't emphasize them. Instead, the Pope mostly talks about poverty, anti-materialism, and inequality. That left many hopeful that the Pope's message could quickly change the feel of the Church worldwide.

But it's not that easy. In the U.S., for instance, one of the church's most influential bodies has done little to change its politically-charged message. Earlier this month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops elected its former "defense of marriage" chair to head the organization. And while doing work to promote the Church's view on marriage — that it is only for opposite-sex couples — does not conflict with the Pope's teaching, the emphasis here reads as incongruous with his message, to say the least. The U.S. leadership, however, might want to look at how Francis's message is playing in this country: nearly 80 percent of U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of Francis, as does 58 percent of the general population.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.