Why Isn’t Pope Francis Bringing People Into the Pews?

Even though Pope Francis has charmed the socks off of even many hardcore atheists, a new analysis of data by the Pew Research Center shows that Francis’ popularity hasn’t led to more people sitting in pews on Sunday or even more people becoming Catholics in general. In fact, the data looks like the electrocardiogram of a dead patient:

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%.

It’s not really surprising when you think about it.

Why would anyone become Catholic because of the Pope? Just because the boss is pleasant doesn’t mean the company is worth investing in. We’re still talking about the Church that covered up sexual abuse within its ranks, the Church that doesn’t allow women to become priests, the Church that condemns birth control and condoms and homosexuality and vasectomies. Who would want to join that?

More importantly, a new Pope — even a nicer Pope — doesn’t mean Catholicism has become any more true. If you didn’t believe you were eating the physical body of Jesus a year ago, why would you feel any differently now?

I suspect that the approval rating for the Church has gone up over the past eight months. But there’s no reason to think anyone’s itching to become a member.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • God’s Starship

    People like the way the Pope bullshits them, but there hasn’t been any real change in the Church’s policies. And people have noticed.

    • 3lemenope

      Interestingly, the Pope just said, basically, that most church policies are up for grabs:

      I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures […]. In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives…

      I mean, seriously, that’s all but begging for a Vatican III. A whole lot of people still seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that it is either wise or even possible for a pope to unilaterally change church doctrine. Practically speaking, he can’t, and if he could, he probably shouldn’t.

      Of course, no Papal post would be complete without a creepy Putin pic.

      • God’s Starship

        Yeah, I read that. He also made it clear that he won’t budge an inch on abortion though.
        I’m not as hopeful as Andy Sullivan, of course he’s still a practicing Catholic, and I hung up that phone years ago.

        • 3lemenope

          Yeah, I think it’s humanly impossible to be as optimistic as Sullivan on this stuff. As you say, probably stems from his desire to remain Catholic.

          If I were a tea-leaf reading fellow, I’d say that the Francis passage most easily reads as talking in code about priestly celibacy. It’s the most obvious controversial church practice that has no root whatsoever in Scripture.

          ETA: All-male priesthood comes second, though that does have flimsy scriptural support.

          • Neko

            Very flimsy, but the traditionalists have seizures at the very thought of a woman giving communion. When Francis dies they may be back with a vengeance, and the incredible shrinking Church will continue apace.

      • Neko

        Francis is 76 years old, so if he wants to enact an ambitious reform program, he’d better hurry.

        Meanwhile until he confronts the sex scandals and heads roll many Catholics will continue to withhold support for the Church.

        • 3lemenope

          Meanwhile he hasn’t confronted the sex abuse scandals and until heads roll many Catholics will continue to withhold support for the Church.

          As they should. For that, the only flimsy excuse available is the glacial and reactionary nature of the church bureaucracy, but this is one of those areas where the bully pulpit blows those concerns out of the water. He could speak forcefully on the issue and knock about those cardinals who resist, but he has not yet.

          • Neko

            Agreed! And well said.

  • KMR

    As much as I like progressive Christians they aren’t going to be the ones to change the membership of the protestant church either. IMO what the church needs to do is shut up and put their actions where their words are. If people see the church as a force for good and decency then more people would want to join because they could tap into it as a way to help their community. Until then though it’ll continue to be delegated in young people’s eyes to a bloated self-serving, expensive country club that is all for bossing you around and making you feel bad. How much fun is that ;)

  • Sinfanti

    Considering how much damage control the Catholic church has required in recent years, I’d say any member retention for them is success. Growth would be a dream.

    • WillBell

      This is my thoughts exactly, the ‘Pope Francis effect’ is the fact that those numbers have dropped from 23% to 22% rather than 23% to 21% (yes I realize those are probably basically within statistical error for this survey but I believe my meaning is clear).

  • LesterBallard

    At first I was gonna say send this to Santorum and Donohue, but they’ll just use it to try to say that Francis is too “liberal”, that that is the reason membership is so bad. The RCC isn’t conservative enough. Bring back the Inquisition. (Cue the Month Python quotes . . .)

  • GoldenBoy

    I’m completely baffled how the pope fools even some atheists who should know better than to believe the church. I wonder if this finding applies to the rest of the world, because some news portals are doing articles about how Francis won back an awful lot of people to the pews.

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    This pope is a snake with his bogus charm. But even if the charm were genuine, it would be sad indeed if that’s all it took to get people into pews.

    • Leah

      Just curious: what makes you say the charm is “bogus”? His past record, or just the fact that he’s Catholic?

      • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        Everything he’s said has revealed him as a hypocritical asshole. All popes are assholes, of course, but most are obvious about it. It’s the snakes that are particularly dangerous. Luckily, outside of a few deluded and overly optimistic atheists, it doesn’t seem like too many are swallowing his koolaid.

      • Carmelita Spats

        I don’t care that he’s Catholic. His charm is bogus but I am fixated on his charm bracelet which is fake, creepy and it dangles some horrible adult-on-child sex abuse crimes in Argentina. One of the charms dangling from the bracelet is convicted child rapist Father Julio Grassi. Pope Frank is willing to exhibit disabled people inside his pope mobile like zoo animals, he slobbers all over a poor guy with boils, but he refuses to meet with the victims of Father Julio Grassi. Maybe victims of clergy sex abuse repulse him more than the poor guy with boils. Tell the truth and shame the devil? Case in point: the pope’s secretary caught this recording of the pope inside the pope-mobile as he scooted away from a disabled person, “I can’t escape. It is physically impossible to slide more than nine inches away from you and it’s apparently wrong for me to spend the entire joyride in the three-square-foot pope-mobile banging my head against the window, and there simply aren’t enough little bottles of Stoli to turn your conversation from brain-gnawingly deadly to merely sufferable.” Francis is sneaky. Joe Ratz was straight up evil. I am atheist and I miss Joe Ratz. I miss him because he looked exactly like Emperor Palpatine after he got his face fried by a light saber. Ratz could chug the blood of Christ from a large bottle of Red Bull and stroke the hairless cat in his lap and making a strange hissing noise with his tongue. I want Ratz back. I loathe the new guy.

        • Neko

          Carmelita, that guy with the boils was thrilled Francis gave him a hug. You must be kidding about Ratz. All those sex abuse cases went through his office when he ran the Inquisition and he did jack about it. You must go for the Latin and the lace.

  • skyblue

    I could see a pope convincing people to have more positive (or perhaps just less negative) view of the Catholic church’s influence on the world – but I am not surprised at all that he hasn’t done much to convince anyone that the Catholic religious beliefs are actually true.

    Even if Francis did a complete about-face on the more unpopular social policies of his church, he’s got to give people a reason to believe the supernatural claims, otherwise all he’ll get is a lot of people saying “well, the Catholics do a lot of good work, but I just don’t believe in God/Jesus/virgin birth/whatever”.

    • Gehennah

      Agreed. He can show the bones of Peter, or Paul, or whoever it is they are showing off now (even though its likely a fraud), show off their Shroud of Turin (even though it’s likely a fraud), but it isn’t very convincing that what they saw is even remotely true.

      The Pope isn’t the problem with the church, the beliefs of the church are the problem of the church.

  • Rain

    It’s too stupid to have any new members.

  • Damon Icke

    You mean Poe Francis isn’t ushering in a new era with his lip service and politicking? Shocking.

  • Mick

    In 1983 the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church made it possible for one to defect from the church and to have the church recognise the defection.

    After it became known that Catholic priests were raping children and being protected from the law, the number of defections increased.

    In 2006, in an effort to stem the tide, the church decided that nobody could defect until a bishop or priest had judged that the person genuinely intended to leave the Church. The preachers withheld judgement and defections slowed down.

    Later, on October 26, 2009, the motu proprio “Omnium in Mentem” completely removed the procedure from the Code and defections are no longer accepted by the church.

    Hardly surprising, then, to find church membership has remained steady since 2007. If the defection law was still operational church membership would have fallen dramatically.

    • Neko

      That is a scandal! Another one.

  • Robster

    The eating and drinking Jesus in church (uncooked, no seasoning), worshipping that alleged virgin magic mary person, the child rape, hate filled dogma, the fact that the whole sordid show is complete nonsense and the exposed wealth of the RCC are also probably keeping the numbers down.

  • Daniel Miller

    The new pope is saying some admirable things… but previous popes have also said very nice things.

    Unless your local church is the Vatican, the pope isn’t the person you hear from if you attend church. And that local priest is the same one that was there a year ago.

    If in 10 years the Catholic church has dropped the culture war nonsense and focused all of it’s efforts on humanitarian work and preaching kindness, we might see people moving their way. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • Dave The Sandman

    Simple to answer this:

    Because you can polish it, primp it, cover it in sparkles and gold leaf, spray it with expensive perfume, paint a pretty smile on it with lipstick and stick the whole shebang on a lovely fluffy cushion….

    But that turd is still a damn turd.

  • Justatron

    So, if the Pope is the literal representative of God on earth, then why the big shift from Benedict to Francis? Aren’t they BOTH direct lines to God’s will? Did the immutable, unchangeable God change his mind that quickly? Why didn’t He send a Francis instead of a Benedict in the first place, hmmm? :)

  • busterggi

    Shoulda stuck with the Buddy Christ – it popped!

  • JA

    Maybe more people are going to the pews, but the numbers are being skewed by conservative Catholics leaving the pews.

    • Anna

      They would leave the pews? Isn’t that a mortal sin? For Catholics who buy into the dogma, they have to attend mass, however grudgingly.

  • Anna

    Only 22%? In my area, Catholics are more like 70%, so I guess I didn’t realize they were such a small minority.

    IMO, it’s not even that most people are invested in figuring out whether their supernatural propositions are right or even have strong feelings about the church’s political views (lots of Catholics just ignore them anyway). In my eyes, it’s that Catholicism really has very little to recommend it. The services are generally quite boring and off-putting to anyone not inclined towards (or raised with) heavy ritualism. The community (often touted as a benefit of church membership) is also lacking. Go to a Catholic mass and watch people race to their cars afterwards. Evangelicals do a much better job of making followers’ social lives revolve around the church. That’s how they get and keep people interested.


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