Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Did CARA Data Reveal Pope Francis Failed?

[Trigger Warning: This post contains some necessary satire. All data are real]

First Things Literary Editor Matthew Schmitz posed the question, “Has Pope Francis Failed?” In The New York Times last week. The key sentence for CARA in this piece was, “New survey findings from Georgetown’s Center for the Applied Research for the Apostolate [not our name] suggest that there has been no Francis effect – at least, no positive one.” Schmitz notes that the “perceptions of the papacy” have changed for the better but asks, “Why hasn’t the pope’s popularity reinvigorated the church?”

CARA primarily studies Catholics and the Catholic Church in the United States. The following data “suggest” that any survey data about Catholics in the United States from CARA could not possibly be appropriately used to judge whether Pope Francis has failed.

The data reviewed in Schmitz’s piece measure approval of the pope (positive), frequency of Mass attendance (essentially unchanged), and Millennial’s participation in Lent (declined, while generally remaining stable among the total population) in the United States. I do not have the space in a blog post to list and detail all the other numerous possible indicators that could be used to measure a pope’s success or failure in the United States (and elsewhere). You can find a few in the original CARA blog post Schmitz read (which never mentions Pope Francis). 

Anyone can grab three stats and write an opinion piece (…and apparently get it published in The New York Times. Who knew?). For example, I could note that in 2005, when Pope Benedict started leading the Church there were 431 diocesan ordination in the United States (…again forget that the rest of the world exists). In 2015, with Pope Francis leading the Church there were 548. Electing Pope Francis has clearly made the Catholic Church more successful at ordaining priests in this single country (by 27%). Pope Francis is 79. I’m not sure how long his papacy may last. However, if he can remain in office to mid-century and continue the trend shown in the data below then CARA research “suggests,” that there will be a whopping 1,577 diocesan ordinations in the United States in 2050. Francis Effect confirmed! No? You need more data?

If essentially beginning to reverse the American decline in priests is not impressive enough look at the figure below. Since Pope Francis began to lead the Catholic Church fewer Catholics in the United States have been dying. Pope Francis did the best in 2014 with only 391,131 deaths compared to 403,886 in 2012 (a decline in mortality of 3.2%). You are probably alive today because of Pope Francis. The data above “suggests” that if Pope Francis is able to continue leading the Church through the year 2128, Catholics will essentially be immortal in the U.S. (I’m sure Catholics elsewhere in the world will be fine too).

Need a third measure? Since you apparently only need to cite three different types of research to be published in The New York Times… The number of American parents naming their sons Francis has risen dramatically since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down. According to the Social Security Administration, from 2008 to 2012, the average popularity rank for the name Francis was #643. Under Pope Francis it has risen each year and averaged #488 and in 2015 came in at #482. If Pope Francis can continue to serve into 2030, in all likelihood, Francis will be the #1 name for boys in the United States.

In all seriousness now, after reading Schmitz’s piece I felt CARA needed to clarify that its data do not “suggest that there has been no Francis Effect.” There is not even any point or logic to asking if Pope Francis has failed in 2016. Schmitz notes, “Perhaps it is too soon to judge?” You think? Further, focusing on a few bits of data from the United States alone to measure a Pope’s failure in leading a global Church seems remarkably insufficient.

We’ve posted some global data here in the past. One of the biggest challenges is the lag in data availability. For example, the most current Vatican statistics are for 2014. Someday in the future, after Pope Francis has served more than a few years it will be possible to review data about the world’s Catholics and fairly ask if Pope Francis has succeeded or failed in many things. I can guarantee that there will be Church data that turn negative, some that are unchanged, and others shifting positive.

Even then, the most difficult thing will be to actually empirically attribute those changes to Pope Francis. While many people imagine the Catholic Church as this hierarchical organized institution directed by the pope. For example, former restaurant critic Frank Bruni penned the following portrait on the opinion pages of The New York Times in 2013, “The Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide organization with enormous financial resources; with a network of charities and agencies that provide crucial help to the downtrodden; and with parishes in which the prayerful nurture their relationship with God. And the pope is its C.E.O., ultimately responsible for where the money flows and for the placement and policing of its staff.”

The Pope absolutely does not function as the Catholic Church’s C.E.O. as if he is running Wal-Mart (we’ve covered this before). Instead, the Church continues to operate in a quasi-feudal manner with heavy doses of decentralization and autonomy for local leaders. Pastors are responsible for parishes, bishops for dioceses, and the pope for a global Church. Administrators run Catholic hospitals, deans lead colleges, charities are run by executives. With that said, there is indeed a map room where Pope Francis is saying, “Close that school. Open a parish here. Does that charity have enough in their food bank? How is that parish’s new marriage preparation team doing? How many candidates am I interviewing for the new surgeon at this Catholic hospital?” That room is in Frank Bruni’s head and not in Vatican City.

You’ve likely heard the phrase “All politics is local.” Catholicism in many ways is as well. The Pope’s impact is most often felt in broad agenda setting—emphasizing the most important issues as he sees them. Popes are most effective at this when they are well liked. Go back and take a look at how pessimistic journalists and commentators were about the future of the Church before the selection of Pope Francis. For example, Paul Elie suggested in a New York Times opinion piece that it was time to give up the Church. He writes, “We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.” Did anyone writing before the selection of Pope Francis imagine that the next pope would be named Time’s Person of the Year (for good reason) or for that matter that he would also appear on the cover of Rolling Stone in short order?

In three years Pope Francis has not been able to fix the problems of the Catholic Church. But I think most would agree that he has put the institution on a better path than where it was headed when he got it. People are listening. People who would have never done so before. In some countries sacramental practice and population indicators are pointing up, in others they are stable, and elsewhere there are declines. Often the reasons for these changes have nothing to do with who is pope. As I recently noted, many young former Catholics in the U.S. say they left the Church because they are unable to reconcile what they know about their faith with what they are learning about in science. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Pope Francis’ comments cited by Schmitz as “denunciations” of Catholics. Schmitz asks, “Why join a church…whose members like to throw stones?”

Throwing a stone is writing an Op-Ed asking “Has Pope Francis Failed?” in The New York Times and then declaring “there has been no Francis Effect” with insufficient empirical evidence. Pope Francis should not be judged a success or a failure with the assistance of a few pieces of survey data that actually show mixed trends in one country. In time we will be able to ask and answer whether Pope Francis has failed. I have no problem with Matthew Schmitz asking that question when that time comes. The part of that answer that is grounded in data should come from researchers (understanding margins of error, statistical significance, etc.) examining the global church rather than a literary editor who somehow got his personal gripes about Pope Francis published in The New York Times.

Schmitz provides this portrait of a pope who would succeed, “Those who wish to see a stronger church may have to wait for a different kind of pope. Instead of trying to soften the church’s teaching, such a man would speak of the way hard disciplines can lead to freedom. Confronting a hostile age with the strange claims of Catholic faith may not be popular, but over time it may prove more effective.”

So when that happens we’ll finally have a pope who hasn’t failed? Millennials will finally be slightly more likely (beyond margin of error) to receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday in the United States. Catholics in places like Nigeria, Vietnam, Mexico, and all over the world will be in such awe that their pope can finally reach American Millennials and convince them to go to Mass on a day they have no obligation to do so. 


Did You Know? Female Chancellors

The first lay woman to be appointed chancellor of a diocese retired this week, after 27 years in the position. The chancellor is the highest “ecclesial” or decision-making office a layperson can hold in the church and is often ranked second or third in authority after the bishop in a diocese. This position was not open to laypersons until the revised Code of Canon Law was issued in 1983 and Mary Jo Tully, retiring chancellor of Portland in Oregon, became the first woman chancellor in 1989.

By 1993 some 15 percent of the chancellors in U.S. dioceses were women. Ten years later, about a quarter of them were women – about equally distributed between women religious and other laywomen, many of them with a degree in either civil or canon law.

Today, more than three in ten diocesan chancellors are women but fewer of them are women religious. Among the larger dioceses with women chancellors are the Archdioceses of Los Angeles, Washington, and San Antonio as well as the Dioceses of San Bernardino, Dallas, Fresno, and Sacramento. As shown below there are no discernible regional patterns. This is increasingly common across the United States.

The research and content for this post are from CARA Senior Research Associate Mary Gautier. Dr. Gautier is also the Editor of The CARA Report ( should be reading it!).

Photo of Chancellor Tully from the Catholic Sentinel


Does Hillary Have A “Catholic Problem” Now?

In July there was a flurry of news stories about Donald Trump’s “Catholic problem” that became evident with the release of a national survey from the Pew Research Center conducted in June. Thankfully, this organization is one of the few in this election cycle to still show an interest in how religious affiliation, or lack thereof, affects vote intentions.

In that June survey, Hillary Clinton led Trump 56% to 39% among self-identified Catholics. The media, commentators, and politicians picked up and ran with the result as such:
  • “Trump is faring poorly among Roman Catholics.” National Review
  • “Why are so many Catholics down on Donald Trump?” Huffington Post 
  • “Catholic voters, who have been key to picking the winning ticket in almost every modern election, reject Trump decisively.” Religion News Service 
  • “Experts on American Catholics say Democrats have an opportunity to attract religious Catholic voters in a way they have not for decades.” National Journal 

Now with the conventions over and the campaigns headed toward Labor Day it appears Clinton may have also caught a “Catholic problem?” Is this stuff contagious? Did her support among Catholic registered voters drop 16 percentage points in two months?

The August poll includes the Green and Libertarian candidates. Obviously the Catholic shares are sub-samples with fewer respondents and thus larger margins of error than the overall poll results for both surveys. Some of the volatility may just be artifacts of these issues and in the end may not be very reflective of what we would have seen if the election were held in June or August.

Here is the reality… A majority of Americans see these candidates as unfavorable (Clinton, Trump). The 2016 election is not about voting for a candidate as much as it is voting against one. Turnout will be key. Of course not all registered voters are going to show up at the polls. Yet registered voters are the frame for many election polls at the moment. There are some polls looking at likely voters but the accuracy of these depends on the quality of the model. I don’t know why anyone would be confident at this point about predicting the likely turnout of voters given the candidacies of Trump and Bernie Sanders. There is a “new” segment of the electorate out there that hasn’t been active in the past and there are likely pieces of the old electorate that won’t bother showing up or voting for the top of the ticket.

One other note of caution. In the recent years there has been something quirky going on in election polling here and abroad (1, 2). Don’t be surprised if the election results look significantly different (beyond margin of error) than what is predicted in the pre-election polls or in how the exit polls turn out. Whether it is low response rates, poor sampling, or social desirability effects (respondents feeling embarrassed to state their vote intentions) there is a ghost in the election polling machine and it is likely to be visible again on Election Day here in the United States. Unfortunately, people tend to take polls too literally and this may only stir conspiracy theories of a “rigged” or “hacked” election.

What I can say is that the overall vote is likely to go as the vote of Catholics does. By no means is the “Catholic vote” a block but it is a historically definitive swing vote. While there are typically big differences between non-Hispanic white Catholic voters and Hispanic Catholic voters this matters most in states that are not competitive (e.g., California, Texas). The Trump campaign’s “Rust Belt” strategy is in states where Catholics are disproportionately non-Hispanic white and tend to vote Republican (doing so in 2012).

As a pollster I always want to trust an aggregation of polls over any single study. With only Pew taking religion seriously this election cycle we can’t aggregate Catholic results for a clearer portrait. With nearly all of the exit polls for the primaries excluding a religious affiliation question the data just aren’t out there. This is remarkable given that the “God Gap” is likely to be one of the decisive factors for Election 2016.  

RealClear Politics allows one to view what is happening for the overall electorate by aggregating polls. What is evident is that Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump in August varies, on average, from about 3.4 percentage points to 8.4 percentage points depending on whether one is looking at likely voters or registered voters and whether it is a two-candidate choice or a four-candidate choice. One assumes that the result most reflective of a potential outcome is with likely voters choosing among four candidates. But then again, how good is the likely voter model being used? The figures below show the trends for the overall electorate as aggregated on RealClear Politics:

How useful are these trends? Not much. Instead what really matters is the population-weighted popular votes of each state in terms of Electoral College outcomes. In key swing states, Clinton holds sizeable and consistent leads over Trump. Don’t make too much out of individual polls which show leads counter to other surveys in a state. These can happen by chance or by flaw. They often lead to a “shock” headline in the paper but amount to little on Election Day.

Realistically, Trump needs to win the states Romney did in 2012 and then add Ohio, Florida, Iowa, and either Pennsylvania or Virginia. Looking at recent polls, given margin of error and differences in poll structure, Clinton and Trump are tied in Iowa. Clinton appears to have an edge in Ohio (+5) and Florida (+6). Clinton has big, perhaps insurmountable, leads in Virginia (+13) and Pennsylvania (+10). Of course there are also some Romney states that Trump is at risk of losing as well. All of the election prediction models have Clinton at about 80% likely to win at this point given these advantages at the state level. In some regard this election is quite “small.” It’s about the voters in just a handful of states. Catholics will be part of that story. Perhaps in the exit polls we will get a clearer picture of just what role they played. For now be wary of claims either candidate has a “Catholic problem.” We have too little data and what we do have presents a mixed picture.

Update (8/26): Proving my point on the volatile wackiness of the polls this year, PRRI also conducted a survey in early August (Aug. 10-16) and found Clinton leading Trump 55% to 32% among Catholic registered voters.  

Note: If you are a regular reader of this blog you already know that I (CARA researcher Mark Gray) am a political scientists and pollster who is profoundly apolitical. CARA is also an independent non-partisan research center. I am not registered to vote nor will I be. I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican. In political analysis and forecasting I always try to stick solely to the data.

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