Attendance draw still flat: ‘Francis Effect’ has negligible impact for U.S. Catholics

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Pope Francis may have to work harder to charm his American audience, a new survey of U.S. Catholics finds.

Despite reports that the new Argentine pontiff has sparked a surge of the faithful in the pews in Europe, the “Francis Effect” has been negligible in the United States, the country with the world’s fourth-largest population of Roman Catholics, a poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center found.

According to the survey, 22 percent of Americans identify themselves as Catholic — virtually unchanged from 2007 and the same as when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected the successor to the ailing Pope Benedict XVI in March. Similarly, weekly Mass attendance levels in the eight months of Francis’ young papacy have remained stable at 39 percent — a slight statistical decline from the 40 percent reported 2012, the last full year of Benedict’s papacy.

Francis’ global popularity and favorable media coverage have led some to search for the “Francis Effect,” with Catholic clergy members having noticed an increase in church attendance in Italy, Britain and other countries.

“So many are returning to the sacraments, in some cases after decades,” observed Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, the archbishop of Florence, Italy, in an interview with The London Guardian.

Pope Francis has thrilled some and unnerved others inside the church with his forthright statements on issues such as social justice for the poor, fair treatment of the disabled and personal humility, while downplaying many of the social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In a marked contrast with his predecessor, Francis has eschewed the luxurious papal residence, shown a popular touch while wading into large crowds and washed the feet of prisoners.

But despite the changes at the Vatican, the percentage of former Catholics in the U.S. population remains flat at 10 percent, the study found. “Has the pope’s popularity produced a Catholic resurgence in the U.S.? … 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,” wrote Conrad Hackett, a demographer at the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project.

The results were produced by aggregating a string of polls the Pew researchers have produced since the new pope’s election in March.

Francis’ current approval ratings stand at 79 percent among Catholics and 58 percent with the general public. These ratings are nearly equivalent to those of Pope Benedict, whose popularity peaked at 83 percent among Catholics after his April 2008 visit to the United States.

The Pew results stand in contrast to recent surveys in Western Europe, where regular churchgoing rates among Catholics are traditionally far lower than in the United States. Italy’s Center for Studies on New Religions earlier this month reported that priests across the country were reporting a “significant” rise in church attendance since Francis’ election.

Projecting the sample nationwide, “we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people returning to the churches,” Massimo Introvigne, the center’s director, told Forbes magazine.

Matthew N. Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, believes that the new pope’s popularity does not necessarily translate into greater participation at the parish level for many U.S., believers.

“If politics is local, the same can be said for religion,” he said. “What matters most to American Catholics is their parish — that’s where they attend Mass. Pope Francis may very well be the world’s parish priest, but he’s not the parish priest who’s going to baptize your child or preside over a funeral for a family member.”

“The crisis of Catholicism in the United States is profoundly local,” he added. “The sexual abuse scandal cut to the heart of the relationship that Catholics have with their priests. Many Catholics have drifted away precisely because they find their local parishes unwelcoming or simply irrelevant to their lives.”

The new pope has moved to clean up the Roman Curia all while seeking more input from church leaders outside Rome and from the laity as well. Earlier this month, Francis made headlines for distributing a 46-question survey asking Catholics about topics such as contraception, gay marriage and abortion.

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