by John Allen, Jr
Two bits of data emerged recently which, taken together, confirm a disquieting reality for Pope Francis: His personal popularity doesn’t appear to be translating into notably greater enthusiasm for the Church he leads.
Last week, news agencies reported that the pontiff’s nine Twitter accounts had reached a worldwide total of 26 million followers, representing impressive growth indeed for papal accounts that have been around only since February 2012. (That’s when accounts in English, Italian, and French were started for Pope Benedict XVI; other languages were added soon after.)
That 26 million, by the way, includes a robust 411,000 people who follow the pope in Latin, suggesting that rumors of the death of the Church’s traditional tongue have been exaggerated.
TechnoAndroid, an Italian site that follows digital trends, also reported that in 2015, one of the most-used Twitter hashtags in Italy, for the entire year, was #PapaFrancesco.
All of which indicates the pontiff’s star power is undiminished.
On the other hand, Italy’s Union of Rational Atheists and Agnostics reported in early January that demand for an online form it provides allowing someone to officially de-enroll from the Catholic Church had reached an all-time high in 2015, at 47,726, up 4 percent from the year before.
Italy legally recognized a procedure for what’s known colloquially as “de-baptism” in 1999, requiring parishes to amend their records when someone submits a letter requesting removal from the baptismal rolls.
The atheists’ union is expanding across Italy, recently opening an affiliate in Barletta-Andria-Trani in the country’s southeast, marking the sixth province in which it has a footprint. On Tuesday, its group in Ravenna protested a decision by the city of Russi to allocate more than $1 million in public funds for Church-run schools.
Granted, fewer than 48,000 defections in a year is hardly a tidal wave — in fact, it’s basically the average attendance every week for soccer matches at Rome’s Olympic Stadium. Granted, too, it’s not just the Catholic Church, but more a general European malaise for institutional religion.
The Church of England, for instance, recently reported that attendance at services has reached an all-time low, prompting Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury to reflect on the difficulties of ministering in an increasingly “anti-Christian” culture.
It’s also true that while Catholicism may be struggling in the West, that’s not the case everywhere. This is a boom time for the Church in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, where it grew by almost 7,000 percent in the 20th century.
Yet for all of that, Italy is the pope’s backyard, and it’s where you would expect any “Francis effect” to be most palpable.
In other parts of the world, too, attempts to find an empirically quantifiable spike in Catholic faith and practice due to Francis have generally come up short.
Eight months after Francis’ election in 2013, the Pew Forum found no such impact in the United States, and a more recent Pew study found that Catholicism is losing more members in the States than it gains at a faster rate than any other denomination — a trend which the fascination with Francis has not arrested.
The bottom line is that while people may be fond of Francis, that’s often not enough to either keep them in the Church or to bring them back.
Complicating things further is that for every non-Catholic or ex-Catholic Francis might reach with his maverick style, there’s a “still-Catholic” he might alienate.
We got a reminder of that point over the holidays, when on New Year’s Eve Italians were tweeting, texting, and posting a supposed New Year’s message from Francis entitled “Never give up on happiness.” It contained a number of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-style lines, such as “Use your tears to irrigate your tolerance” and “Use your hurts to sharpen your patience.”
The ferment around the supposed message underscores how appealing a figure many people find Francis to be, and how they eager they are to hear whatever he’s got to say.
Yet when it turned out to be a hoax, Italian Catholic writer Bonifacio Borruso swiftly suggested that Francis has no one to blame but himself for the fact that people bought it, since — this is not a direct quote, but the gist — it’s the kind of New Age nonsense we’ve come to expect from him.
Such staunch Catholics generally don’t leave the Church, but they can go into an internal exile that’s almost as worrying for a pope.
For sure, the bottom line for any pontiff is never going to be market share. As Benedict XVI once said when talking about Catholic losses to Evangelicals and Pentecostals in Brazil, “Statistics are not our god.”
This is also, for the record, hardly a new problem. St. John Paul II was one of the most popular figures on the planet for almost 27 years, but his rock star status didn’t put much of a dent in the long-term decline of institutional religion in the West.
As the late Italian Cardinal Roberto Tucci, who planned most of John Paul’s foreign trips, once put it, “I have the impression that people like the singer, but not the song.”
On the other hand, Francis used his homily for the Jan. 6 Feast of the Epiphany, marking the close of the Christmas season on the Church’s calendar, to call for a new spirit of missionary hustle.
“To proclaim the Gospel of Christ is not simply one option among many,” the pope said, “nor is it a profession.” Instead, Francis said, it’s the “very nature” of the Church.
Clearly, he was not talking about winning popularity contests, but bringing people to the faith.
In that light, one challenge facing the pontiff in 2016 may be to figure out how his personal cachet can be “re-tasked,” so to speak, to be of more direct missionary value for the Church.
Otherwise, Tucci’s summary of John Paul II’s dilemma — people embracing the singer, but not the song — may end up being part of the last word on Francis’ papacy as well.