Eighty-five percent of US Catholics have a favourable or very favourable impression of Francis. That is obviously very high, but perhaps surprisingly it is only 11% higher than Benedict’s favourability rating in his last month in office, namely February of last year.
In fact, when Benedict visited America in 2008 his favourability rating hit 83%.
But both men score less than John Paul II whose rating was in the ‘90s. Perhaps one explanation for this is that the last time Blessed John Paul’s favourability rating was measured was in 1996, before the sex abuse scandals had really come to the fore. On the other hand, John Paul already had a firm reputation for ‘conservatism’, something that is guaranteed to attract negative publicity.
The US survey was conducted by the highly respected Pew Forum. On the plus side it found that 40 percent of Mass-going Catholics now feel more ‘excited’ about their faith as a result of Francis.
Half of Mass-going Catholics say they are now praying more often and 30 percent say they are reading the Bible more often.
On the other hand, Mass attendance hasn’t budged. Forty percent of Catholics say they went to Mass each week before the election of Francis and a year on that figure remains the same.
Numbers going to Confession have actually gone down somewhat and slightly fewer are taking part in voluntary activities.
This can’t have anything to do with Francis. Why would his election make people less likely to take part in voluntary activities? It simply doesn’t make sense. Probably the decline in voluntary activities is part of a trend when the election of Francis hasn’t changed.
On a more positive note, 71% of US Catholics say the election of Francis has been a major change for the better, but again, this doesn’t seem to be having much practical effect.
What are we to make of this? The main thing is that it is probably unrealistic to expect one man to make that big a difference that quickly.
Francis himself probably would not be in the least surprised to find that there is little discernable ‘Francis effect’ so far apart from a generally more positive feeling about the Church.
What Francis is trying to do is make people look at the Church in a fresh way and the first step in that is changing the generally negative image of the Church in many circles into a generally positive one and go from there.
We’re already very familiar with his various symbolic gestures such as moving out of the papal apartments into the simpler Vatican hotel, Domus Santa Marta.
He has made the poor a stronger focus that before, although it should be emphasised that his two immediate predecessors spoke out frequently about social justice issues as well.
Francis has undoubtedly de-emphasised some of the more controversial issues such as abortion and the battle over same-sex marriage.
More than anything else it is issues like these which get the Church into hot water. Francis isn’t going to change the Church’s teaching on these matters and he has reiterated the Church’s pro-life stance and has said that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but without doubt he has been less inclined to speak about these matters than Benedict XVI or Blessed John Paul.
In addition, he has signalled that the Church must find ways of applying its teaching in a softer way. He has indicated, for example, that divorced and remarried Catholics might be able to receive Communion in certain circumstances whereas currently there is a blanket ban on them doing so.
Likewise in an interview with Corriere della Sera he gave his backing to Humanae Vitae which reaffirmed the Church’s ban on artificial contraception, but said this teaching “must take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do”.
Above all, of course, there will only be a real ‘Francis effect’ if we heed his call to follow Jesus more seriously and then become more actively involved in the life of the Church. If we do this, then the positive feelings he has created around the Church will turn into something concrete.
If so, then the ‘Francis effect’ turn out to be something more superficial and that won’t be his fault, but ours.
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