churchgoer during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. Regular church attendance, at 40 percent, has not shifted over the past year.
PATRICK SEMANSKY / ASSOCIATED PRESS
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
March 6, 2014
One year into the era of Pope Francis, a new poll has found that a broad majority of American Catholics say he represents a major change in direction for the church, and a change for the better. But his popularity has not inspired more Americans to attend Mass, go to confession or identify as Catholic — a finding that suggests that so far, the much-vaunted “Francis effect” is influencing attitudes, but not behavior.
Francis is more popular among American Catholics than Pope Benedict XVI was in February of last year, when he suddenly resigned, according to the poll, which is to be released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. But Francis has not reached the sky-high ratings that Pope John Paul II commanded at the height of his papacy in the 1990s, when he was credited with helping to bring down the Communist government in his native Poland.
Francis, who draws giddy teenagers to his Wednesday audiences and generates Twitter traffic with every public remark, has clearly invigorated the church. But the poll finds that Francis has raised expectations of significant change, even though he has alluded that he may not alter the church’s positions on thorny doctrinal issues.
Nearly six in 10 American Catholics in the poll said they expected the church would definitely or probably lift its prohibition on birth control by the year 2050, while half said the church would allow priests to marry. Four in 10 said it would ordain women as priests, and more than two-thirds said it would recognize same-sex marriages by 2050. Large majorities of American Catholics said they wanted the church to change on the first three matters, and half wanted the church to recognize same-sex marriages.
“Right now, because he’s still relatively fresh in his position, people are taking his signals seriously,” said Mark J. Rozell, acting dean of the school of public policy at George Mason University, who studies the role of the Catholics in American politics. “But that doesn’t mean those changes are necessarily going to happen.”
After Benedict stepped down last February, 70 percent of American Catholics identified “addressing the sex abuse scandal” as the priority for the new pope. One year later, 54 percent said Francis was doing a good or excellent job on that problem. Far larger percentages of Catholics said that he was doing well on other priority issues, like spreading the Catholic faith (81 percent); standing for traditional moral values (81 percent); addressing the needs and concerns of the poor (76 percent); and overhauling the Vatican bureaucracy (62 percent). Asked whether Francis represented “major change in direction,” 71 percent said he did.
This poll is an early gauge of whether the first social media-friendly pope is having an effect on church attendance or conversions. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said her office had received anecdotal evidence of fuller churches, increased donations and people returning to confession, but “we don’t have hard evidence.” Some priests and laypeople speak of a “Francis effect,” with Catholics returning to church and greater enthusiasm among the faithful.
Enthusiasm has risen, with a quarter of American Catholics saying they were “more excited” about their faith and 40 percent saying they were praying more often. But the poll showed that church attendance had not shifted in the past year, with 40 percent saying they attended Mass at least weekly.
As for confession, only 5 percent of Catholics said they went more in the past year, compared with 22 percent who went less. Volunteering in the church or community has not increased among Catholics, and the percentage of Americans who are Catholic, 22 percent, is the same as a year ago.
“This could be interpreted as showing that Francis has had no impact,” the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst at The National Catholic Reporter, said. “On the other hand, since church attendance has been declining since the 1950s, the fact that it did not go down could be considered a victory.”
The poll, conducted Feb. 14 to 23, included 1,821 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points for all Americans, and six percentage points for the subgroup of 351 Catholics.