It is frequently observed that citizens use cognitive heuristics, or short-cuts, to make sense of the world. One unfortunate manifestation of this is our tendency to credit or blame the President for almost everything. The same can be true of our attitudes toward the Pope. A recent example is Matthew Schmitz’s suggestion in a New York Times op-ed that Pope Francis has “failed”. The reason for such a stark appraisal? Mass attendance among American Catholics is not increasing and fewer Millennials participate in Lenten practices than they did eight years ago. Catholic World Report editor Carl Olson and Life Site News journalist Pete Baklinski followed up with their own similar criticisms (to put it kindly) of the pontiff.
The theory to explain this stagnation and decline is that Pope Francis unfairly criticizes the most loyal Catholics and fails to consistently promote the “hard discipline” of the faith, thereby discouraging the committed believer and failing to inspire the uncommitted. Regardless of how credible or not one considers these charges against Pope Francis, the “evidence” of failure is quite misleading and deserves correction.
The proof that Francis “failed” largely rests on the logical fallacy commonly known as post-hoc, ergo propter hoc. Since survey data of Catholics from 2016 indicates some changes in behavior and attitudes from a similar survey conducted in 2008, the one responsible for those changes must be the pontiff who took over in the meantime. Something bad happened after Francis was elected, so it was his fault. To be fair, Schmitz does seem to acknowledge that this is not a particularly valid measure to evaluate the Pope, but then proceeds anyway.
One problem is that even using this faulty and simplistic logic, it is not clear which pope is to blame. How do we know from two data points separated by eight years that the decline in Lenten practice or stagnation of Mass attendance is because of Pope Francis? It is also possible that between 2008 and 2013, such habits declined even more, but bounced back since Francis’s election. I am not claiming that this is true, but the evidence does not falsify such a theory. And in fact, we do observe something to that effect if we incorporate a previous survey by the same institute. Between 2002 and 2008, Mass attendance on at least a monthly basis declined from 50% to 44%. But by 2016 it held steady at 43% (well within the margin of error), stopping the precipitous decline caused by… Pope Benedict?
Not only did frequent mass attendance decline from the reign of Saint Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI, but the percentage of those claiming to “rarely or never” go to mass jumped from 25% to 32%. Moving beyond Mass attendance, those claiming to be “very” or “somewhat” involved in their parish declined from 25% to 15% while those who are “never involved” jumped from 51% to 64%.If you think praying the rosary is an important part of Catholic practice, you will be disappointed to know it also waned significantly between 2001 and 2008. The number of Catholics who only prayed the rosary “once a year” or “never” rose from 56% to 64%. There is still more. Perhaps few doctrines distinguish Catholics from other Christians as much as belief in the real presence of God in the Eucharist. Yet between 2001 and 2008, this belief in transubstantiation among Catholics dropped from 63% to 57%. What was Pope Benedict doing to undermine the acceptance of transubstantiation and discourage Mass attendance, parish involvement, and praying the rosary?
If you object that it is unfair to cherry-pick evidence like this and attribute blame to a single cause (let alone a single person), you are absolutely right. In fact, it would be foolish to attribute to Benedict what is probably to a large extent the result of the horrific sex abuse scandals. The same basic logic applies to those who conveniently blame Pope Francis for a curious decline in Lenten practice among American Millennials based on a couple of data points, one of which precedes his pontificate by five years. And why does Schmitz focus on Millennials? Perhaps it is because, as a whole, Lenten practice is largely unchanged over the last eight years. Even the “gotcha” statistic of Millennial abstention declining from 46% to 36% is somewhat misleading. Schmitz fails to mention that 36% still exceeds what the Vatican II and Pre-Vatican II generations were doing in 2008.
It is probably naïve to think that a pope, even one who gets as much media attention as Pope Francis, will have too profound an effect on the practices and beliefs of millions of American Catholics in either direction, and even less so in just a few short years. But if we are going to judge Pope Francis by such survey data, we should at least remember that he assumed the office towards the end of a seven year time period when, according to the Pew Research Center, 10% of Millennials changed the designation of religion’s importance in their lives from “High” or “Medium” to “Low.” He also took the helm following a striking decline in the number of young American Catholics receiving formal religious education. These as well as other factors may well account for at least as much as any supposed “Francis Effect.”
Schmitz tells us we will have to wait for a pope who promotes the idea that “hard disciplines can lead to freedom.” While it is far too soon (and particularly complicated) to make empirical evaluations of the success or failure of Francis’s pontificate, we should at least acknowledge this: in Pope Francis’s encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, homilies and interviews, he calls us to a challenging vocation of evangelization, social engagement, stewardship of the natural world and spiritual renewal. Hard disciplines indeed.
Scott Liebertz is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama.