November 25, 2013

No clear ‘Pope Francis effect’ among U.S. Catholics


In the first eight months of his pontificate, Pope Francis has impressed, charmed and inspired many people around the world with his outreach to non-Christians, his statements of concern for the poor and disabled, and his personal humility. At the same time, other Catholics have expressed dismay over the pope’s statements about homosexuality and his remarks that the church is “obsessed” with some social issues.

Some news accounts contend that the pope’s popularity has created a “Pope Francis effect,” producing a “significant global rise in church attendance,”  based on reports by Catholic clergy in Italy, Britain and and other countries of a recent rise in Mass attendance.

In the United States, home to the world’s fourth-largest Catholic population, the pope appears to be well-liked by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, rated favorably by 79% of Catholics and 58% of the general public.

FT_francis-effectBut has the pope’s popularity produced a Catholic resurgence in the U.S., where 10% of adults are former Catholics? Not so far, at least in terms of the share of Americans who identify as such, or the share of those who report attending Mass weekly.MassAttendance

A new analysis of pooled Pew Research surveys conducted between Francis’ election in March and the end of October this year finds that the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholics has remained the same – 22% — as it was during the corresponding seven-month period in 2012. In fact, our polls going back to 2007 show Catholic identification in the U.S. has held stable, fluctuating only between 22% and 23%.

Though Americans may report attending church more frequently than they actually do, our surveys find that self-reported levels of Mass attendance have remained virtually unchanged since the new pope was elected. Since April of this year, 39% of U.S. Catholics report attending Mass at least weekly, similar to the 40% attendance figure last year.

Topics: Catholics and Catholicism

  1. Photo of Conrad Hackett

    is a demographer focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Nancy Moran Kahm3 years ago

    “To one who has faith no explanation is necessary. To one without faith no explanation is possible.”
    Thomas Aquinas

  2. stan4 years ago


  3. Paul Waddington4 years ago

    I speak from England, and I question what evidence the3re is for the “Francis effect” in Britain. I am not aware of any impact of Mass attendance, for example, although I suspect that Pope Francis would be regarded as popular, especially amongst non-Catholics.

    On the other hand, there is strong evidence of the “Benedict bounce” in England and Wales. Admissions to seminaries and to the religious life have increased greatly since the visit of Pope Benedict.

  4. Hirotomi Takemitsu4 years ago

    As a young Catholic, I am disturbed by the agenda of the new Pope. Not only does it lack a clear “Roman Catholic” identity, but it also seems to downplay or outright discard ancient Catholic values, liturgical or Papal traditions, and disiplines. Like John Paul II, what Francis I says and does could come from any religious leader of any group….or even just the head of a corporation. Benedict XVI however was clearly making a return to a more traditional expression of the Catholic Faith, and one could not mistake his actions, views, or the way he presented himself as anything other than Catholic.
    I think that the so called “Francis effect”, because of his recently published agenda in an Apostolic Exhortation letter, and by his word and deed since election will be a gradual decline in Catholic practice, an accelerating decline in enrollment in seminaries, and a more precipitous decline in Mass attendance. Francis is driving away faithful CAtholics, not attracking them. Not wishing him ill of course, but hopefully his disaster of a papacy will be short.

    1. Banzai4 years ago

      Amen to that, Hirotomi Takemitsu !

    2. Banzai4 years ago

      Hirotomi Takemitsu, I believe you got that right !!!

    3. Michael Mc4 years ago

      I respect your view Hirotomi, and all others on this page, but, and here reflecting a view very commonly held amongst Australian Catholics, (and evidently very widely held amongst non-American Catholics), Francis represents a powerful restatement of Catholic views of witness for and service to the poor and powerless which much pre-date the magisterialism of the past 30 years or so. Any number of religious orders were formed on this belief, including Francis’ own order, the Jesuits, and my own Vincentian religious tradition. Simply reading Luke, this year’s predominant gospel source for daily Mass, would indicate that the current individualist market-oriented model predominant in the US does not sit easily with the gospel message of witness and action for the poor (and condemnation of the dangers of wealth). Francis comes from a country and region of the world where mass poverty and disempowerment are commonplace (and from my many travels in the US there are many communities where this is the case as well). His calls for compassion and social justice sit right at the centre of traditional Catholic theology and practice (witness for example the Monastic tradition and the many service-oriented religious orders), as does his profound discomfort with modern materialistically-focused and market oriented individualism. His is a far more more traditionally held Catholic value for the communitarian rather than the individual, for the powerless rather than the powerful, for a focus on humanity rather than on material goods, Perhaps the reason that many American Catholics appear to be having problems with this Pope is that American social and material culture, with it’s strong Calvinist base, creates difficulty for some in identifying traditional and internationally widely held ‘Catholic’ beliefs. This might also explain why his message is resonating so strongly through-out the ‘Catholic World’ outside America, including in my own Australia, whereas in American it is seen as political (leftist or socialist) rather than scriptural and traditionally Catholic. I invite your response.

  5. Grace4 years ago

    I am pleased with the new Pope and his more moderate attitude but I am going to have to see changes in the U.S. church before I feel comfortable returning to regular. I am almost seventy years old and have been disappointed again and again with the Church’s attitudes on ‘the pill’, the treatment of retired Nuns and women in general and the refusal to return to the early church’s practice of allowing priests to marry.

    Now, I prefer to attend Mass were the officiate is a former ordained priest (who is probably married) and/or an ordained woaen even though the Vatican does not recognize their ordination/s.


    1. Paul Waddington4 years ago

      There are plenty of opportunities for that sort of thing in the Protestant Churches. This discussion is about the Catholic Church, which is the one founded by Jesus Christ, and must therefore remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

      1. Edd Doerr4 years ago

        Most Christians maje the same claim.

        1. Sean3 years ago

          The protestant reformation began in 1530’s by men. It was up until then that the only Christian Church was Catholic. Jesus founded his Church upon St. Peter and the Apostles and promised that he would be with them “even until the end of time.” So Christ founded a permanent establishment with the Apostles which became known as The Catholic Church, and it wasn’t until the 16th century that any other “churches” were started by men.

      2. Historian4 years ago

        Catholic church wasn’t “founded” until the first pope (Leo) in 1430. Peter went to Mesopotamia, as Christ instructed him, to “tend to the Jews.” As a Catholic, let alone pope, Peter wouldn’t have lasted two hours in Rome, where the penalty for being a Christian was death. Besides, the less than 2,000 Christians in all of Europe and the Midddle East didn’t need an unfounded RC church.

  6. PODGE4 years ago

    Just wondering when the Curia will decide they have had enough of this Pope who reminds them ofbtheorbshortcomings and abject failures to serve their parishioners. When will Pope Francis wind up saying, “Et tu Brute?”

  7. Karl Lietzenmayer4 years ago

    The ultra-conservative Bishop Foyes of Covington, Kentucky is known to not approve of Pope Francis. Even though this is a very conservative area, he DIS-invited candidate (now senator) Paul from speaking on the campus of the Diocesan College Thomas More because Rand Paul wasn’t sufficiently anti-abortion! How’s that for being conservative!!!

    1. ksquared4 years ago

      Sounds like Bishop Foyes of Covington needs a little lesson in humility and charity…

      1. Banzai4 years ago

        No, sounds like you have a REAL Catholic bishop there!

  8. Doug Delamatter4 years ago

    Of course not! The Pope has lived in the culture of poor people and basically believes in the “Book of Job” model of the world: “Bad things can happen to good people.” Thus he basically exhorts that we should “pull together and help each other”.
    American culture is based on the “Book of Deuteronomy”: “God smiles on good people.” In America, God’s smile involves prosperity. So, by definition, Good people are Rich people, or soon-to-be-rich people. Being able to make your own way in the world is evidence of your intrinsic value in the eyes of God, so Capitalism thrives and it’s every person for themselves.

    Too few recognize the religious nature of belief in Capitalism and the visceral rejection of Socialist ideas. Yet that cultural belief is sustained in the face of logic, facts and reason.
    Let us hope that Pope Francis can make some headway against that unfortunate state of mind.

    1. Dan Hydar4 years ago

      You seem to have that backwards … in the USA, people are much more likely to “pull together and help each other”… and do so *voluntarily*. Elsewhere the model is much more skewed to Having teh Government Do That Kind of Thing.

      The idea that Ameicans beleive that “Good people are Rich people, or soon-to-be-rich people” is simply laughable. You doubt it? As a few people.

    2. Maria4 years ago

      You said “…the religious nature of belief in Capitalism and the visceral rejection of Socialist ideas”. Capitalism is based on protestantism, not on catholicism. Most catholics believe in the mixture of capitalism and socialism (egalitarian). In the USA, some people confuse socialism with communism, but in the rest of the world, people know the differences.

  9. Susan4 years ago

    People are always looking for the quick and easy way out, and this is the guy to give it to them. Instead of telling people to elevate themselves and not turn to crime, he washes the feet of the criminal. It all looks good, but when it comes time to “pass the hat”, that guy isn’t the one who is going to “pony up”. The Pope can spew all the “goodness” he wants, but until the “pedophilia effect” wears off, and until he begins to sell off some goods to help pay for all the poor he wants to help, he can collect his money somewhere else!! This Catholic Church is almost as bad as the US government with their tactics to divert attention. It all comes down to this in the Catholic Church……No money=No religion!!

    1. Dan Hydar4 years ago

      Sorry, but you seem to spend quite a bit of time angry at others for not being perfect.

    2. ksquared4 years ago

      Yikes, Susan! Maybe revisit the New Testament a bit…Jesus was all about humility, forgiveness and helping others….he’s a new pope…give the guy a chance to make some changes!

  10. Kenneth J. Wolfe4 years ago

    So, at the end of the day, there are lots more people who are gaga over Pope Francis and the casual papacy since March — yet none of these giddy fans have embraced the Catholic Church and her teachings and sacraments.

    Wasn’t this experiment tried 50 years ago with the same results following Vatican II?

    1. Joe4 years ago

      It wasn’t the “experiment” of Vatican II that failed – it was the reactionary Curia led undoing of the reforms that Vatican II sought to implement that led to the current crises of faith and policy the Church finds itself in now. Pope Francis, as a Jesuit, is being true to his calling, his vocation, and his order to put the emphasis on the New Testament aspects of Faith, Hope and Charity and move away from the Old Testament punish, blame and vengeance that has marked the church hierarchy under his predecessors JPII and Benedict since 1978!

      1. Merle4 years ago

        “Joe” certainly hit the nail on the head. The changes made by Vatican II were long needed, and would have continued under Pope John XXIII, but God called him home before he could convert the heirarchy which Pius(?)XII had installed. My prayers are with Pope Francis, may he outlive me and many, many more.

        (Pass on to “Joe”)

        1. Kenneth J.+Wolfe4 years ago

          I think you would be very, very surprised at the real John XXIII if you went back and read everything he actually did and said.

          In fact, I would say the most radical (leftist) modern pope was Paul VI, followed by John Paul II, followed by Benedict XVI — with Francis sitting somewhere near the top of that list after things settle. John XXIII was actually quite the traditional pope when one removes the dreams and fantasies about him.

      2. Dan Hydar4 years ago

        “it was the reactionary Curia”

        Um, ok…. quite something in the documents of Vatican II that the “reactionary Curia” did away with.

        “under his predecessors JPII and Benedict”
        … who ACTUALLY participated in Vatican II and built upon it.

        You seem to be getting your information from very superficial, secular sources.

    2. Jacob2 years ago

      Fifty years since Vatican 2 and they still haven’t fixed the prima facie heresy in the documents. The chaos shows no sign of ending under Francis.

  11. Phil4 years ago

    This study doesn’t really tell us much. In order to surpass the margin of error (assuming n=7500) there would have to be a 1% increase or decrease in the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. population. If 10% of adults are former Catholics, then it means that 1/10 former Catholics would have to return to the Catholic Church to make any statistically significant change. Even 1/100 former Catholics returning (roughly 300,000) would be substantively significant, but not statistically significant in your study.

  12. Susie4 years ago

    This is an easy one. If the Priests and Bishops ignore Pope Francis, the laity realizes there is no change unless the change is localized.

  13. Bill Hobbs4 years ago

    I think the destruction of many US Catholics’ faith due to the sexual abuse cover-up by the Bishops will take a significant amount of time for former or lapsed Catholics overcome. Francis may indeed draw many back to church but it will not happen overnight – and the continuing obduracy of the clergy and bishops needs conversion first – not simply lip service that things have changed

  14. Lisa Patrell4 years ago

    There is a wide spread Pope Francis effect; perhaps the wrong questions were asked. I left the RC faith and church decades ago and I will not return. I find the Society of Religious Friends (Quakers), Universalists, some wiccan and buddhist practices to be more fitting and serving. Yet, Francis is the first Pope who I consider what he puts forth.

    When I share this with others, the same is reiterated–even among those who have never been Roman Catholic. After decades of ignoring the RC church and Popes (even Paul) as irrelevant and one of the cultural backwaters (akin to racism) that prevents a segment of society from moving forward–suddenly I hear a voice from a distant place that has credibility and integrity and humanity.

    I perked up and started listening. Others have too. We may not convert, but it may be possible for us to incorporate Pope Francisisms into our personal eclectic canon. And I say “Pope Francis” and not the RC faith or church, because it may be decades before the rest of the guys in robes walk-the-talk.

    1. diana4 years ago

      great comment!

      1. ksquared4 years ago


    2. LEW4 years ago

      Your metaphor of RC and other more traditional faiths (ie. believe in Creator God, the Holy trinity, and real presence of evil in the world, the fallen sinful state of man to be redeemed and made perfect in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our deathly cross, and his SECOND COMING in full glory) as “cultural backwaters” is at once intellectual arrogance and spiritual ignorance.

      1. Eoin Moloney4 years ago

        Thank you so much for posting this. You took the words out of my mouth. When properly understood, the Catholic faith is far, far deeper and richer than something like Wicca. Buddhism has its own merits, but it’s far too Asiatic – and before the reader violently flings a curse at me for being racist, I do not mean “Asian people and anything they preach is inferior”, I mean “a belief founded upon the idea that life is defined by suffering, that suffering will not and cannot end, and that total negation of existence is therefore the most desirable end for a person” is repugnant to me. It encourages complacency – why should you bother helping the poor, when making them prosperous does nothing to free them from the cycle of suffering? And so on.

        1. Lisa4 years ago

          Wow, spoken like a person who has no real understanding of Buddhism.

          …“a belief founded upon the idea that life is defined by suffering, that suffering will not and cannot end, and that total negation of existence is therefore the most desirable end for a person”…

          Where did you pull this from, Wiki, LOL?

  15. Sister Sara4 years ago

    Stats are such a limited way of measuring things. Why not do some meaningful qualitative research as well? Find out what impacts the dude’s teachings and acts have had on individuals inside and outside the church, so we can understand some individual perspectives. Better than a trivial article with a few numbers given mono-causal treatment.