Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
Francis Effect 2.0
As the year has drawn to a close, CARA has received a lot of inquiries about the measurement of a "Francis Effect." Are Catholics who left the faith coming back? Are more Catholics going to Mass and seeking out sacraments more often? His approval numbers are certainly high (1, 2) but what else is happening?
It’s really too early to know anything more than anecdotes. We have noted survey-based estimates of Mass attendance are steady (Pew as well). However, surveys have margins of error and the Catholic population is large (i.e., 3% of the U.S. adult Catholic population is approximately 1.7 million people). I think a Francis Effect is real, but isn't large enough to "see" beyond a survey’s margin of error (…yet?). It may be more on the scale of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Catholics coming back or attending Mass more often rather than the millions that would be needed to see something in surveys beyond the normal fluctuations we see poll to poll.
We will know more eventually. In the summer of 2015 sacramental practice data for 2013 will be released. We will be able to make comparisons of this year to 2012 and previous years. With these data there is no margin of error to worry about as these are Church records of baptisms, marriages, and other sacraments and rites. CARA is currently collecting data on Mass attendance and sacraments from a large random sample of U.S. parishes. One of the interesting things that really stands out to me do far is that in 2012, before Pope Francis took office, the reported number of individuals seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e., confession) was 30% higher than it was in 2008 (...an increase well beyond Catholic population growth). Something seems to have been stirring in the U.S. Catholic Church even before 2013 began. Has Pope Francis pushed these numbers even higher this year? We'll know more next year...
Yet there also appears to be a "Francis Effect 2.0" that is clearly visible right now. Pope Francis is not just widely likeable (…his final Mass in Rio for World Youth Day ranks as one of the largest gatherings of people in history), he also appears to be playing an important agenda setting role.
Looking back over our posts this year two stand out. These were statistical content analyses related to the economy, poverty, and unemployment. The first highlighted that news stories about these topics were either absent or relatively uncovered in the “media or record” in the U.S. despite being among the top concern of many Americans. The second revealed that President Obama has largely avoided rhetoric including mentions of the poor or poverty, in comparison to other modern presidents (...the President does not deserve to be singled out in comparison to other Democrats and Republicans currently in office who have been just as guilty of these omissions). The President has even promised that "the middle class will always be my number one focus. Period."
By comparison, Pope Francis has put issues of poverty, wages, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness front and center like few other world leaders have in recent memory (...note however, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI spoke of these as well. See the citations in Evangelii Gaudium). Is it purely coincidence that The New York Times has suddenly (re-)discovered homelessness as a centerpiece of coverage? Or that President Obama is beginning to talk more about poverty and citing Pope Francis in doing so? Perhaps, but the economy has certainly been far worse in recent years than it is now. Why the 180 degree turn at the end of 2013? Has concern over climate change waned? Are we all out of "cliffs" and "sequesters"? Has the national "Duck Dynasty Crisis" been resolved? Why and how has poverty become an issue for politicians and the media again now?
Part of the answer, I believe, is in Pope Francis raising the issue of poverty to new heights. He’s put it back at the top of the agenda when few leaders had the courage to do so (1, 2, 3). This is likely important to the many Catholics who put "helping those in need" at or near the top of things that are important to their sense of being Catholic in CARA's national polls (and their #2 Church giving priority). While the Francis Effect 1.0 will still be a focus of our research in 2014, I think evidence of the Francis Effect 2.0 is already quite clear for anyone to see. I hope 2014 is a better year for many in need because of it.
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