Is the Francis Effect Real?

In the two years since Pope Francis’ election, the phrase “Francis Effect” has come to describe the unique impact of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s papacy. But what exactly is the Francis Effect? Can we measure it? Is it real?

In evaluating the Francis Effect, there are two components to consider: the popular media’s narrative and the attitudes and actions of the people.

First impressions have a lasting impact, and Francis’ first impression on the world was far-reaching. Wearing a simple white cassock, rather than the elaborate papal robes, he stepped out onto the balcony as the first Jesuit to become Pope, the first Pope from the Americas, and the first Pope from outside of Europe in more than one thousand years. Taking the name Francis—yet another unprecedented move—signaled to the people that his papacy was something new.

Francis’ first impression especially impacted the media. Coverage of Pope Francis depicts him as a peacemaker who loves the poor. While his predecessors were barraged with accusations of abuse cover-ups and corruption, Francis has largely avoided getting pulled through the mud.

This is despite the fact that Pope Francis’ call for a church that embraces the poor is rooted in centuries of Catholic thought. In 2008, Pope Benedict said, “If we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, then we make our possessions into a false god.” Before him, Pope John Paul II called each person to “personal conversion through a concrete sign of love toward those in need.”

This isn’t to say that Pope Francis has not provided unique leadership to the Catholic Church. Through symbolic actions – from hugging a disfigured man to returning to the hotel after his election to pay his bill – he has led humbly. When asked about gay Catholics, he lovingly responded, “Who am I to judge?” On the issue of divorced Catholics, he asked the Church to “open the doors.” He’s been instrumental in an historic return to normalized relations between the United States and Cuba.

The “teflon pope” seems to continually avoid negative media coverage. This is especially surprising since Pope Francis often makes off-the-cuff comments that are easy to misconstrue. In January, Francis spoke out against the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, but warned that “a punch awaits” those who insult others. In an industry known for taking remarks out of context, most media outlets correctly reported that this was a joke and within the context of the pope condemning the violence.

At the same time, Francis has received credit and praise for things that he didn’t do. This past December, a viral news story attributed a statement made by Pope Paul VI on animals going to heaven to the current Bishop of Rome. Paul VI has been dead for nearly 40 years. The New York Times even got it wrong—on the front page.

It’s easy to see a general pattern in media portrayals of Francis. He gets credit and the benefit of the doubt where others have not. Sometimes his statements affirming traditional Church teachings are ignored, since they do not fit the media narrative.

It’s what psychologists call confirmation bias, an effect in which we are more likely to notice and remember events that confirm our worldview than those that challenge our existing beliefs. Once a mental schema is formed, it is difficult to process new, conflicting information. The media formed an image of Pope Francis as a progressive, attuned to the sensibilities of those on the left, and confirmation bias maintains this narrative, even in the face of undermining evidence.

If the Francis effect is seen as a major transformation, we may have to consider it a media effect at this point—one largely created and perpetuated by the media. And though the impact of the media’s positive coverage of Pope Francis is important, the pope is not a media personality. Positive media coverage is a tool—not a goal—for Francis.

The real effect of Pope Francis must be seen in the metanoia—the change of heart—of the people. There is no clear evidence of such a change at this point.

Francis enjoys high favorability ratings in the U.S. and around the globe that would make any U.S. president jealous. But popes are generally likeable.

Even though the average attendance at papal audiences has doubled and tourism in the Vatican has seen a bump, people aren’t fighting over space in the pews. Mass attendance, as well as the number of self-identified Catholics, has remained stable. In the year Pope Francis was elected, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 1.1% decline in volunteerism, the lowest in more than a decade. And there is not yet data to support a Pope Francis-specific increase in charitable giving.

The Francis effect, then, is hard to measure. But is it real? The enthusiasm and joy exhibited by Catholics and non-Catholics alike in response to Pope Francis’ papacy are real, even if they are not measurable.

Christians have long been accustomed to leaders whose “outcomes” are not easily measured by traditional means. After all, Jesus’ ministry garnered no accumulation of wealth or political power and quickly ended in his crucifixion. To see the impact of Jesus, it was necessary to wait three days, until Easter Sunday, and two millennia later we are still waiting to fully embrace the radical and continued effects of the ministry of Christ.

People frequently say that the current pontiff reminds them of Jesus. For a Christological faith, having the leadership be Jesus-like seems like a minimum requirement. But it turns out that Jesus sets a hard example. Jesus’ leadership was radical and surprising. He overturned the status quo and included the outcasts. The Catholic Church is an institution in the world and has sometimes been distracted by worldly desires. A pope that reminds people of Jesus, then, is returning to its true character.

Will Francis’ papacy bring people back to the Church and increase the faith of current Catholics? Will Pope Francis’ inspirational leadership on encounter with the excluded make our churches and our societies more compassionate, welcoming places? We don’t yet know. And to find out, we’ll need to be patient.

In the long term, we know not yet what awaits. The Church is two-millennia old and moves slowly. Meaningful change within the Church is accomplished over years and decades, not overnight. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council set out to renew the Church and participate in a dialogue with the needs of the current world. Francis’ papacy is one of the fruits of this Council, fifty years later. In our instant-gratification culture, saying that Pope Francis has not had an immediate, measurable impact may seem like an indictment of him. But Pope Francis is not making a bag of microwave popcorn – he’s preparing a slow-simmered reinvigoration of Catholicism.

Will the first ripples of change translate to tangible effects? Only time will tell. For now, we move into the next stage of Francis’ papacy, where we will see what effect Francis will actually have.

Though there are those who dismiss this initial phase as a media illusion, in reality, the energy and enthusiasm generated during this phase has the potential to sustain and animate the Church’s work in the years ahead. Like the first years of falling in love, the giddy beginning is not a distraction, ruse, or fantasy but rather is necessary to the work of building a strong foundation on which to grow.

Even now, we can see the stirrings of transformation. These changes are small—less than a blip in surveys or data. The first way they will manifest is in the metanoia that will accumulate over decades—small choices and new thoughts that are the precursors of what is to come.

Jenny Heipp is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Washington University in Saint Louis.