Pope Francis’ AP Ranking: The Second Installment of the March Madness Series

Pope Francis’ AP Ranking: The Second Installment of the March Madness Series March 5, 2023

We’ve already discussed Pope Francis’ “conference affiliation” as a predictor of how well he’ll do in the upcoming “tournament.” Now it’s time to look at the second trait of winning basketball teams and see how Pope Francis measures up.

Rear view of Pope Francis
Nacho Arteaga/Unsplash

This trait is the consistently high ranking of winning teams in the AP Poll throughout the season. This poll is a weekly compilation of the individual rankings of 62 sports journalists. In almost 30 years, the winning team was ranked at least 12th or higher in January before the tournament.

Francis and the AP Rank Trend

So, what kind of “rankings” has Pope Francis received this “season” or in his first decade? According to the Pew Research Center, 82% of U.S. Catholics and 63% of U.S. adults of all backgrounds view him favorably. These numbers took a significant dip in 2018 due to the allegations that Francis covered up the sexual abuse of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his defense of Bishop Juan Barros despite similar charges. Vatican conservatives even called on him to resign.

For some, Francis is a champion of needed reforms. He has condemned capitalist greed and the failure of powerful nations to take responsibility for and adequately address climate change. He has championed acceptance of refugees and immigrants, and some – but not all – of his comments about homosexuality have suggested a less stringent point of view.

But some believe he has not gone far enough in reforming a church that’s often at odds with cultural norms. Many hoped he would do more for LBGTQ+ Catholics. And while he said that greater inclusion of women was a key goal, no significant inroads have been made.

Hero or Heretic?

On the other hand, more conservative Catholics believe Francis is courting heresy.   They think his statements about natural law and sexual morality, primarily related to divorced and remarried Catholics, contradict Church teachings. They also charge that he was wrong to say that God wills diversity among religions.

Perhaps the vast gulf in Pope Francis’ “rankings” is less about a different analysis of his words and actions and more about a different understanding of “Church.” Francis understands Church as a “field hospital” that heals the wounds of the vulnerable. In contrast, his critics appear to understand Church as an institutional arbiter and enforcer of moral laws.


The truth is that the Church is both things . . . and many more. In the years after Vatican II, Cardinal Avery Dulles published his book, Models of Church. He originally proposed five models of Church, with a sixth one added later.

  1. Institution – This view of Church emphasizes dogma, doctrine, canon law, and liturgical correctness. Pope Francis is seen less favorably by those who find this model of Church most compelling.
  2. Mystical Communion – This model focuses on the people who make up the Church united to support one another in their spiritual growth.
  3. Sacrament – This model focuses on Church as a way of making Christ present in the world.
  4. Herald – This one focuses on the Church’s prophetic tradition. It emphasizes preaching the Word of God and the importance of Scripture.
  5. Servant – This model emphasizes the Church’s role in service and social justice. Supporters of Pope Francis usually view the Church in this way.
  6. Community of Disciples – Added later, this model of Church focuses on the personal relationship with God that each member has and seeks to nurture.

Although Vatican II and Dulles’ work that followed it makes it clear that the Church sees itself in several different ways, individual believers tend to lean toward models some rather than others. And Pope Francis’ “AP rankings” seem to be all over the board because of this! The “rankings” of those whose primary view of the Church is Servant or Mystical Communion trend are pretty high, while those who lean more toward a view of Church as Institution or Herald trend much lower.

What’s Next?

No team wants to believe they aren’t in control of their destiny when March Madness rolls around. But in a way, Pope Francis’ potential “NCAA Tournament” success may be contingent less upon what he says and does in his remaining years and more upon which model of Church takes precedence among the faithful.

We live in an age in which the value of all traditional institutions is in question. It’s not only religion that’s under fire; our current banking, government, and educational institutions all have their share of fingers pointed at them. We also live at a time when “social justice” has become a “bad word” for those who interpret justice as the unfair redistribution of wealth.

We live in an age in which 24-hour, highly partisan news programs and the alternative facts that spread like wildfire on social media make us question whether truth can be heralded. We also live at a time when tribal hatred makes us wonder if sacramental connection and healthy community are even possible among those with different worldviews.

Perhaps “March Madness” is the correct term on many levels!


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