Pope Francis’ Tournament Seed: The Final Installment of the March Madness Series

Pope Francis’ Tournament Seed: The Final Installment of the March Madness Series March 14, 2023

We’ve examined Pope Francis’ conference, AP ranking, tournament performance, and stats. Now it’s time to see what kind of seed, or preliminary ranking, he’ll be taking into the “NCAA Tournament” of his papacy.

Pope Francis greets adoring Catholics. Barbara Provenzano/Unsplash

The NCAA selection committee decides who the top seeds are in the tournament. This is the fifth predictor of tournament success. Only one winning team since 1998 entered the tournament lower than a three-seed. While these rankings aren’t always rock solid, they can’t be ignored either.

Sizing Up the Competition

Before we can take an educated guess at his seed, we must be clear on who the competition is. Pope Francis faces three highly talented, well-coached adversaries: Secular Culture, Religious Originalism, and Time.

Each opponent has a strong tournament performance, impressive stats, and solid rankings. Let’s look at them individually.

Secular Culture

Many believe that modern society is the greatest threat to organized religion – and to those individuals like Pope Francis steering the ship. Scientific advances have pulled back the curtain on the origins of life and its evolution. Developments in technology have given us capacities we never thought possible. Medical progress has allowed us to understand how our bodies work, cure numerous conditions, and live decades longer than our ancestors.

If Pope Francis tries to “beat” Secular Culture in the “NCAA tournament” through 40 minutes of an aggressive full-court press, his legacy will take the hit. He can come out on top if he has a more relaxed, use-up-the-clock approach where he takes only high-percentage shots. Modern society is not an enemy to be defeated. It’s more like a problematic college roommate you would do well to get along with.

You don’t have to be best friends with your roommate, but you do need to co-exist in relative harmony. Setting boundaries, giving the benefit of the doubt, and communicating openly are ways to make relationships between different people work. The same is true for the relationship between Religion and Culture.

Religious Originalism

Pope Francis inherited a Church in crisis. In 1991, only 6% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. But during the next decade alone, those numbers more than doubled. By 2012, 20% fell into this category; by 2016, the last year for which Public Religion Research Institute data is available, that figure was up to 25%.

Young people especially have dramatically moved this needle. The youth and young adults known as “nones” comprise 39% of the demographic. Only 15% claim to be Catholic.   The bitter irony is that today’s largest denomination is the “nones.” Indeed, something is deeply wrong with organized religion if people believe being “nothing” is more authentic than being “something.”

Time for Change

“Originalism” is the term used for the belief that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as it was viewed at its creation. The opposite view is “living constitutionalism,” which holds that the meaning of the Constitution evolves as new learning and experiences arise.

I believe people leave the Church in droves because it can’t let go of its originalist foundations. It doesn’t adapt its rituals, language, and moral guidance to a changing world. This is not to say that an “anything goes” approach is needed—quite the contrary. What the “nones” need now is a worldview that provides meaning and makes sense.

Zone Defense

I’d like to see Pope Francis play a zone defense against the originalists in the “NCAA Tournament.” Let them have the occasional three-pointer, but don’t let them into the key. Like every living, breathing organism, the Church must adapt to its environment.


Pope Francis is 86 years old. The next few years will determine his legacy. The clock is winding down for a pontiff who has played the long game during this “season” – his first ten years. Even with the best intentions, real change takes time, and Francis may not have much left.

Tournament Seeding

So, what kind of seed will Pope Francis get? If I were on the NCAA Tournament Committee making this choice, I wouldn’t put Pope Francis and his legacy in the top spot.

I think I’d put Religious Originalism there. Its height in the center, deep bench, and unmerciful presence on the boards will be hard to beat. However, Secular Culture, with its three-point guns, speed, and creative zone defense, will give them a run for their money.

According to my calculations, Pope Francis should be the #3 seed going into his legacy-defining final years. Can he win the whole thing? Possibly. But it won’t be easy.  He’ll need an assist from Father Time in the #4 spot and maybe a miracle or two. But being in the top three seeds going into the “NCAA tournament” is a powerful predictor. Never mind that this “bracket” only has four teams.

It’s called March Madness for a reason!

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