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How Effective Is the “Francis Effect”?

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While some Christian communions are experiencing what might be irreversible decline (see the previous New Oxford Note), it’s been argued that the Catholic Church has a trump card up her sleeve: The much-discussed “Francis effect,” whereby the Pope, it is said, by virtue of his sheer magnetism, is singlehandedly drawing in newcomers to the Church and retrieving disaffected old-timers. He certainly has captured the popular imagination. According to new data released by the Pew Forum (Mar. 6), “More than eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff, including half who view him very favorably” — numbers not seen since the peak of John Paul II’s popularity in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Further, “Seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics also now say Francis represents a major change in direction for the church, a sentiment shared by 56% of non-Catholics. And nearly everyone who says Francis represents a major change sees this as a change for the better.”

But what effect has this had on the Church’s well-documented struggle to keep Catholics in the pews?

According to the Pew Forum, “Despite the pope’s popularity and the widespread perception that he is a change for the better, it is less clear whether there has been a so-called ‘Francis effect,’ a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. And the survey finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often.”

Sadly, the alleged “Francis effect” appears to be more wishful thinking than actual fact — at least for now.

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