Warning: The following commentary is about journalism, as opposed to the policies and theology of Pope Francis. Understood? Now, let's proceed.
Does anyone remember the "Francis Effect"?
That was the term -- quickly embraced as gospel by journalists around the world -- used to describe the wave of fresh air and new life that was expected to sweep through Catholicism as a result of the dawn of the Francis papacy in 2013. His humility and merciful stance on doctrine was going to bring Catholics back to the pews, especially the young, after decades of bookish legalism under St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Now, do you think it would be big news in the mainstream press if the Gallup poll pros produced new numbers that showed that this had, in fact, come to pass?
#DUH, and validly so.
Now, with that in mind, let's look at the top of this new report from Gallup:
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Weekly church attendance has declined among U.S. Catholics in the past decade, while it has remained steady among Protestants.
From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955.
By contrast, the 45% of Protestants who reported attending church weekly from 2014 to 2017 is essentially unchanged from a decade ago and is largely consistent with the long-term trend.
OK, this brings us into familiar territory, especially for the millions of readers who have read the thousands of news reports about the rising numbers, especially among the young, of religiously unaffiliated Americans -- or "Nones."
What interests me is what has not happened among Catholics post-2013.
The following Gallup info is detailed and long, but essential to understanding my point here:
In 1955, practicing Catholics of all age groups largely complied with their faith's weekly mass obligation. At that time, roughly three in four Catholics, regardless of their age, said they had attended church in the past week. This began to change in the 1960s, however, as young Catholics became increasingly less likely to attend. ...
Meanwhile, since 1955, there has also been a slow but steady decline in regular church attendance among older Catholics. This includes declines of 10 points or more in just the past decade among Catholics aged 50 and older, leading to the current situation where no more than 49% of Catholics in any age category report attending church in the past week.
To maintain consistency with earlier Gallup polling when the sample population was age 21 and older, this analysis defines the youngest age group as those aged 21 to 29 rather than the 18- to 29-year age range typically examined in modern polling.
U.S. Protestants' church attendance was not nearly as high as Catholics' in the 1950s -- but it has not decreased over time. Protestants' church attendance dipped in the 1960s and 1970s among those aged 21 to 29, but it has since rebounded. Among those aged 60 and older, weekly attendance has grown by eight points since the 1950s.
That's pretty complex stuff and not the kind of thing that leads to spectacular ledes. But keep reading: There may be a headline at the end.
Although the percentages saying they have attended church in the past seven days are relatively low, it should be noted that majorities of self-identified Protestants and Catholics of most ages are still active churchgoers. This is seen in responses to a separate question in which majorities say they attend once a month, nearly weekly or weekly. The only exception is Catholics aged 21 to 29; the majority of these say they seldom or never attend.
After stabilizing in the mid-2000s, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has resumed its downward trajectory over the past decade. In particular, older Catholics have become less likely to report attending church in the past seven days -- so that now, for the first time, a majority of Catholics in no generational group attend weekly.
There is more. Journalists will want to read it all.
So let's restate my journalism question: If it would have been big "Francis Effect" news if Catholic statistics had improved during this papacy, especially among the young, then is it big news that they declined -- sharply?
I went looking for mainstream coverage of these Gallup numbers and found:
Dig around in this Google News search and see if you see/don't see what I'm talking about.
Now, would this decline have taken place no matter who is sitting in the Chair of St. Peter? I would assume the answer is "yes." There are bigger trends going on, here, than who is or who is not the pope. I am not ready to proclaim that a "Francis Defect" can be seen. But it's a question worth investigating.
Meanwhile, it is tempting to think that the news silence (so far) on this Gallup information about a Francis-era decline (and other complex trends) has something to do with the mainstream press love affair (click here for recent example) with this Vatican "reformer," especially when editors think Francis is undercutting Catholic tradition.
So is this Gallup report news?