Recently, YouGov released a survey on the world’s most admired men, and while last year, Pope Francis ranked number six on the list, this year his position fell to thirteenth. Crux covers this in a recent article, explaining that this is the “biggest drop for anyone on last year’s list.” To keep things in perspective, being ranked #13 in world popularity is extraordinary, but the drop potentially portends to something going on.
The author(s) of the article suggest that this might be due to “expectations of reform that distanced Francis from his predecessors, which have dimmed as the Argentine pontiff becomes institutionalized.” While I respect Crux’s insight on many things occurring in the Church, I would like to propose three equally tenable, if not stronger, reasons for Pope Francis’ proposed decline in popularity: The first is a natural human phenomenon—Familiarity tempers infatuation. The second reason has to do with conservative Catholics’ growing discomfort with Pope Francis’ perceived liberality. A third could well be an increase in the number of liberal Catholics’ growing discomfort with Pope Francis’ orthodoxy.
It is human nature to be fascinated by the unfamiliar and attracted to what is new or novel. For example, most anyone who has been married a number of years knows that over time, familiarity with each one’s spouse tempers that initial infatuation, and the spouses are able to discover each other for who they are—in all their beauties and imperfections. Similarly, when the world was introduced to Pope Francis, they learned of a man who, as archbishop, took the subway to work each day and cooked his own meals. As pope, he would shun some of the formal protocols of the papacy. We were also all moved by seeing the picture of him embracing a man with a severely disfigured face. However, after three years of observing Pope Francis’ unconventional actions, his unpredictability has become somewhat predictable and commonplace. Taking this into consideration, it is no surprise to me that some of this global fascination would be tempered and that his popularity might decline.
I also think Pope Francis’ pastoral approach in the eyes of self-identified conservatives (Catholic and other), and doctrinal orthodoxy in the eyes of self-identified progressives (again, Catholic and other) has also contributed to a decline in popularity. For the past eighteen months, as part of my talk on Catholic trends, I have been sharing with audiences that Francis is, wonderfully and without malice, inflicting a little holy pain on both conservatives and liberals. To the conservatives, he is calling for greater patience in meeting people where they are and more consideration of the latitude of mercy. This has generated much conversation in conservative circles as to whether Pope Francis’ message of mercy excuses moral permissiveness. Consequently, a considerable number of conservative Catholics now approach Pope Francis with a hermeneutic of suspicion. It is also important to remember that the majority of Catholics in the world do not live in Westernized societies; most of the world’s Catholics live in countries where conservative mores are dominant, such as Nigeria, the Philippines, and Mexico. So, if Catholics in these countries perceive liberality from Pope Francis on certain moral issues, one might expect a decline in overall global popularity. In my observations, it seems that this trend of conservative discontent with Pope Francis unfolded full force throughout 2015 and has peaked with the recent release of Amoris Laetitia, which, ironically, with the exception of just one or two sections, re-affirmed what conservatives would contend are unchangeable truths.
On the other hand, Pope Francis has also made self-identified progressives uncomfortable by reaffirming orthodox, and presumably unchangeable, Catholic teachings, specifically on the issue of the ordination of women and those issues related to human sexuality. The Crux article referenced above seems to imply that the reforms that progressives hoped for perhaps did not take place because Pope Francis has become “institutionalized,” with Church bureaucracy and politics tying his hands. While this may be true when it comes to certain issues of Church administration, I do not think that has affected Pope Francis’ theological views. In reading biographies of the Pope, his whole life history is one of doctrinal orthodoxy. Francis is also not one to shy away from sharing his thoughts freely. He hardly sounds like one who would become “institutionalized.”
My overall prediction regarding Pope Francis’ popularity is that though it may continue to drop a little with self-professed conservatives, it will drop even more with self-professed progressives. The latter group hopes Pope Francis will make serious changes to Church teaching—changes that many contend he cannot, theologically speaking, actually do. I think we often forget a rudimentary Catholic truth: Strictly speaking, the Church does not belong to Pope Francis. It is not your Church or my Church. It is God’s Church, and the deposit of Faith is what it is. Change can only go so far—and so self-described progressive Catholics will grow more disheartened. Regarding self-professed conservatives, Pope Francis will continue to push the Church out of its comfort zone to wrench all Catholics from any residual self-referentialism and to test the bounds of mercy—and this will cause struggle for those resistant to change. But, it will be a beautiful and efficacious holy struggle that will, God willing, lead us all to a richer relationship with God.
We are living in special times, under a most unique pope. It should be a fabulous ride for all who care about our progress as a Church and as a human race.