ROME – As we approach Pope Francis’s ten-year anniversary next week, there’s going to be a great deal of commentary about popes. Pundits likely will be emphasizing the contrasts between Francis and his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, some to praise the new directions set over the last decade and others to rue them.
The common term in this avalanche of analysis will be that the papacy matters – that whether popes zig to the right or zag to the left, whether they batten down the hatches or throw open the windows, is crucial to Catholic fortunes.
Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but, just by way of perspective, it might be worth injecting what I’ll call a “Meatballs” note to the discussion.
The reference is to the 1979 cinema classic, in which a young Bill Murray plays a counselor at a run-down summer camp facing its annual sporting competition with a rival camp, which appeals to a much wealthier demographic. To his dejected teammates, Murray delivers the following tirade:
“And even, and even if we win! Even if we play so far over our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days. Even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field, it just wouldn’t matter, because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk, ’cause they’ve got all the money! It just doesn’t matter if we win or we lose.”
To which the team chants in unison, “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!”
In that spirit, it’s worth reminding ourselves that despite all the ideological sound and fury surrounding the modern papacy, there are some things – indeed, some fairly important things – that popes simply cannot control, no matter how traditionalist or avant-garde their agenda may be.
Let’s take as an example a basic, commonly accepted measure of Catholic vitality: Whether people show up at church on Sunday.
I’ll use Italy as a test case, mostly because we have reasonably fresh data. Recently, Istat – which stands for Istituto nazionale di statistica, the National Statistical Institute, more or less Italy’s equivalent of the census bureau – released the results of its latest survey regarding “religious practice,” including how often Italians attend religious services.
Before running the numbers, a preliminary observation: For a pope, Italy is basically the greatest home field advantage in the world.
Traditionally speaking, one of the papal titles is “Primate of Italy.” Unlike other countries, the pope directly appoints the president of the Italian bishops’ conference. (Francis tried to return that privilege to the Italian bishops, who basically refused – they said we’ll come up with three nominees, but you still have to make the final pick.) Life here is extraordinarily attuned to the Vatican – I recently had a routine appointment with a dietician who, completely unsolicited, volunteered a remarkably well-informed analysis of the Francis papacy along with my new gastronomic marching orders.
If there’s any place on the planet where the transition from one pope to another should be most keenly felt, in other words, it’s Italy.
Yet, here’s what the numbers tell us. Beginning in the 1960s, Italy’s rate of Mass attendance began to decline. That decrease continued throughout the 1970s, then appeared to hit a period of apparent stability in the 1980s. Beginning in the 1990s, the decline began new and has continued steadily ever since.
Results of the twenty-year period between 2001 and 2021, which are the most recent available, are especially illuminating. In effect, the cohort of Italians who say they attend religious services at least once a week, and those why say they never do so, switched positions.
In 2001, 36.4 percent of Italians said they went to church at least once a week, while 15.9 percent said they never went. Two decades later, 32.4 percent said they never go, while just 19.2 percent said they go every week.
What’s important for our purposes is to note the time spans involved.
The onset of the decline in Mass attendance came in the 1960s, coinciding with the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and extended through the relatively left-of-center papacy of Paul VI. In the 1980s, under the more conservative Pope John Paul II, things appeared to stabilize, only to start sliding anew in the 1990s and to continue unarrested ever since.
The declines from 2001 to 2021 coincide with the last four years of the John Paul papacy, when his cumulative influence should have been at its peak; all eight years of Benedict XVI; and the first eight years of Francis. In other words, we’re talking about 12 years of conservative papal leadership and eight years of a more progressive agenda, none of which appears to have affected how many people go to Mass one whit.
Whatever actually is driving these trends, whether the sitting pope is conservative or liberal seems to have remarkably little to do with it.
As we mark Francis’s anniversary, therefore, by all means, let us savor and dissect the key twists and turns of what has been a truly dramatic decade.
Let us also remember, however, that if Catholic fortunes are to be revived in our time, perhaps analyzing Church life exclusively in terms of left and right isn’t necessarily the most promising use of time and energy.