ROME – In its most recent survey of American Catholics, the Pew Research Center found virtually no change in the broad support Pope Francis enjoys among American Catholics. For those who say they attend Mass at least once a week, 83 percent also said they have a favorable view of the pope in late September, virtually unchanged from the last such poll in March.
The lowest such mark Francis ever got, in 2018 at the peak of the McCarrick and Pennsylvania Grand Jury revelations, was about 70 percent, which, among other things, makes one wonder how the narrative of “Americans v. The Pope” has managed to prove so enduring.
In all likelihood, it’s a classic case of never allowing facts to get in the way of a good story.
Those numbers, however, weren’t the most interesting aspect of the Pew results. That came when pollsters asked American Catholics for their reaction to the clampdown Pope Francis recently imposed on the Latin Mass, which generated an avalanche of commentary and protest in Catholic media circles and dominated internet discussion for weeks.
In response to the question, “What have you heard about the pope’s new restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass?”, two-thirds of American Catholics reported that they’ve heard nothing at all – nada, jack, zip, zilch.
Such a finding has to be deeply galling to those of us who live and move and have our being in the Catholic press, who spent hours reporting stories or preparing analyses or lining up guests for prime-time broadcasts about the Latin Mass and the repercussions of the pontiff’s historic decision to effectively reverse the liberalization granted by his predecessor Benedict XVI.
We treated the decision like it was the Battle of the Bulge, and, in Catholic terms, it sort of was, meaning a decisive turning point in a long-running war, in this case between traditional advocates of the old Mass and progressive champions of the new.
The first take-away from the Pew study, therefore, should be a note of humility for those of us who imagine ourselves shapers of Catholic opinion, because we clearly don’t have the reach or impact we sometimes imagine.
The bigger picture to be gained here, however, is a measure of realism about the importance of “issues” when it comes to forming the perspectives of average Catholics about the Church and its leadership.
All journalists are, at heart, political reporters, and we tend to presume that policy is always king. We think everyone must have an opinion about immigration, or climate change, or Afghanistan, or whatever, and that everyone’s attitudes towards a leader or an institution are determined by their positions on such issues.
In Catholic terms, reporters thus imagine the typical Catholic parish as a cauldron of competing opinions on Pope Francis, on the Latin Mass, on women in the Church, on blessing gay unions, or whatever the issue du jour may be. Further, we unconsciously assume that a given Catholic’s attitude toward the pope, or their bishop, or the Church in general, ought to be based on whether they share that Catholic’s policy agenda.
The raw truth, however, is this: Most Catholics get enough of political rancor Monday through Saturday. When they come to Mass on Sunday, they’re not looking for a debating society or an episode of “Meet the Press.” What they want is a welcoming community in which people are kind to each other, a pastor who seems to care, and a liturgy which, for a moment, lifts them out of their day-to-day concerns and puts them in a different space, one in which they can encounter God and try to feed the better angels of their natures.
In other words, they don’t really care what the Vatican just said about GMOs, or what the bishops’ conference is doing about the empowerment of laity, or any of the other matters that populate news sites and blogs. Of course, enough Catholics do care about such issues that those news sites and blogs stay in business, but they represent a fairly small fraction of the overall total.
Here’s a quick personal anecdote to make the point.
A number of years ago, I was on my first trip back to the States after having moved to Rome to cover the Vatican. I headed out to Hill City in rural western Kansas to visit my grandparents over a weekend, and thus it was that on a lazy fall Sunday I found myself in their living room, sitting with my grandfather. He had a football game on the TV, as a pretext for falling asleep in his beloved Barcalounger.
I was an eager beaver back then, full of enthusiasm for Vatican controversy and intrigue. I’d taken a couple of papal trips, met the man himself, and written probably a couple hundred thousand words about the various debates and fault lines at the time. Yet it occurred to me that I had no idea where my own family stood on any of those things, so I decided to ask.
“Hey Grandpa,” I said, “what do you think of this pope?”
He slowly roused from his pre-slumber, and then looked over at me with a mixture of confusion and disdain.
“What do I think of the pope?” he said. “He’s the Goddamn pope, that’s what I think.”
With that oracular declaration, he was off to the Land of Nod.
His point, of course, was that he didn’t spend any time pondering what to think of John Paul II or any other pope. In that regard, my grandfather, a garage mechanic by trade who hated watching the news, who went to Mass every Sunday largely because my Grandma rode herd on him, but who died with a prayer to Jesus on his lips and a rosary in his hand, was undoubtedly far more representative of the ordinary Catholic than I or any of my inside-the-beltway friends.
Memo to reporters everywhere, therefore: When it comes to religion, policy does matter, but it’s hardly king.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr