There is lots of enthusiasm for Pope Francis among Catholics. Many believe this enthusiasm is unambiguously good for the Church and the world. However, before reaching such a conclusion, it would be prudent to examine just what it is about our pope that gets so many Catholics excited. According to the latest Pew Research Center survey:
Francis, who draws giddy teenagers to his Wednesday audiences and generates Twitter traffic with every public remark, has clearly invigorated the church. But the poll finds that Francis has raised expectations of significant change, even though he has alluded that he may not alter the church’s positions on thorny doctrinal issues.
Nearly six in 10 American Catholics in the poll said they expected the church would definitely or probably lift its prohibition on birth control by the year 2050, while half said the church would allow priests to marry. Four in 10 said it would ordain women as priests, and more than two-thirds said it would recognize same-sex marriages by 2050. Large majorities of American Catholics said they wanted the church to change on the first three matters, and half wanted the church to recognize same-sex marriages.
This is highly significant. Pope Francis is wildly popular, but that popularity seems to be rooted in what is perceived as a papal blessing for moral laxity and doctrinal indifference. Furthermore, the pope appears to be encouraging false expectations that the Church will soon be changing her moral teachings. Also significant is that Pope Francis seems to be having a negative effect when it comes to the most fundamental disposition of the Christian life – repentance.
As for confession, only 5 percent of Catholics said they went more in the past year, compared with 22 percent who went less.
Let’s be clear: enthusiasm for Pope Francis is directly correlated with a sharp decline in Catholics going to confession. Before Pope Francis, the numbers were already dismal with only 26 percent of Catholics confessing even once a year – the bare minimum. That Pope Francis has influenced Catholics in this way should not be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The Holy Father has consistently lambasted what he calls “rigorism”, “legalism”, and “small-minded rules” but without specifically identifying which rules he has in mind. Following the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics have come to view the requirement to confess mortal sins as just another a “small-minded rule”, and Pope Francis appears to have confirmed them in this perspective. His own dismissal of rules he doesn’t like, such as his washing the feet of a Muslim woman on Holy Thursday last year, also sets a powerful example.
What is rather more surprising is that, despite all the praise Pope Francis receives for his emphasis on serving the poor, Catholics have not been inspired to increase their own service to the poor.
Volunteering in the church or community has not increased among Catholics, and the percentage of Americans who are Catholic, 22 percent, is the same as a year ago.
Behind this statistic we also learn that 23 percent of American Catholics report volunteering less often, while only 13 percent have volunteered more often – a net decline in volunteer activity. One possible interpretation is that the majority of American Catholics with “first world problems” are pleased to have the spotlight taken off of moral issues that hit them much closer to home.