Can a papal visit cure what ails American Catholicism?

Can a Papal Visit Cure What Ails American Catholicism?

Pope Francis' U.S. visit comes at a time when many American Catholics are feeling uneasy about the future of the church.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the U.S. in 2008, poll numbers showed Catholics made up just under a quarter of the U.S. population, and that percentage had held steady for decades.

Now it's on the decline. The latest Pew Research Center survey on religion found the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. dropped several points to just over a fifth. It was part of an overall decline in American Christianity, with more people than ever identifying as religiously unaffiliated.

The drop seems sudden, but there's an ongoing story behind the numbers. Hispanic immigration in the 2000s helped keep the percentage of Catholics high, because Hispanics are more likely to be Catholic. But it was no secret that Americans who grew up in the church had been leaving it in pretty steady numbers.

See more coverage of the pope's visit: Why young people like the pope more than the church

There's been a lot written about the decline of U.S. Catholicism and what it means. Catholics with a conservative viewpoint, like Bill Donohue, tend to blame the slide on churches changing their teachings to appeal to the general public, losing their Catholic identity.

Liberal Catholics say it's the exact opposite: The church's views on things like contraception, the role of women, divorce and homosexuality have made the church seem hostile and unwelcoming.

A lot of blame also gets placed on the church's high-profile child abuse scandals in the 2000s. The church was accused of sheltering sexual predators while shaming victims into staying silent. But it's not clear the scandals had any long-term impact on the church's numbers.

American opinion on the Catholic Church dipped after the revelations but has since recovered, according to Gallup. The pollsters also found attendance took a hit at the height of the scandals but bounced back shortly after.

In fact, maybe the best explanation for why the Catholic Church has declined in the U.S. is that American Christianity as a whole has declined. Maybe it's not a uniquely Catholic problem. Which gets us back to Francis.

Pope Francis is overwhelmingly popular, with both Catholics and the public generally, so there's hope he can bring more energy to the American Catholic Church. His focus on charity and humility has earned him tons of goodwill, like when he suspended Germany's so-called "Bishop of Bling" over his lavish homes or when he washed the feet of inmates.

See pictures of Americans prepping for the pope's visit:
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Can a papal visit cure what ails American Catholicism?
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 21: A portrait of Pope Franics sits in a window near Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit on September 21, 2015 in New York City. The Pope will be making his first trip to the United States on a three-city, five-day tour that will begin in Washington on September 22, then travel to New York City and Philadelphia. The Pope will depart on September 27. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A man buys a souvenir medal with a picture of Pope Francis at a machine inside the Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York on August 28, 2015. Pope Francis will visit the US on September 22-27, stopping in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Rosaries with the image of Pope Francis are selling at the Catholic University of America, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, gift shop on September 3, 2015, prior to the visit to of the Pope on September 23, 2015. AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
A man shows a medal he bought with a picture of Pope Francis from a machine inside the Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York on August 28, 2015. Pope Francis will visit the US on September 22-27, stopping in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A statue and other items related to Pope Francis are for sale at the gift shop at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on August 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Pope Francis will be celebrating Mass at the National Shrine on September 23, 2015, where he will canonize Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary who introduced Christianity to California in the 18th century. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis bobble heads are displayed at a souvenir store in Washington, DC on August 27, 2015. Pope Francis will travel to the United States from September 22-27, stopping in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman poses for a photo next to a cut-out figure of Pope Francis at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on August 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Pope Francis will be celebrating Mass at the National Shrine on September 23, 2015, where he will canonize Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary who introduced Christianity to California in the 18th century. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Noah Rodriguez, 4th grade, answers questions from a reporter in the gym during a media preview at Our Lady Queen of Angels School on August 20, 2015 in New York. Allison will be among 24 children, who attend Catholic schools in New York, who will meet with Pope Francis during his September 25, 2015 visit to New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Allison Reyes-Rodriguez, 3rd grade, answers questions from reporters during a media preview at Our Lady Queen of Angels School on August 20, 2015 in New York. Allison will be among 24 children, who attend Catholic schools in New York, who will meet with Pope Francis during his September 25, 2015 visit to New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is seen on August 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Pope Francis will be celebrating Mass at the National Shrine on September 23, 2015, where he will canonize Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary who introduced Christianity to California in the 18th century. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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He's tackled Catholic bureaucracy, too, pushing the Vatican Bank down the path to reform in the hopes of making it more transparent. He's also sharply critiqued the Roman Curia, the Vatican's central governing body, accusing it of mismanagement and unwillingness to adapt.

But have his reforms, his demonstrations of compassion for the poor and his focus on social issues actually attracted more Americans to the faith?

So far, there isn't much evidence it has. Historically, the popularity of the pope doesn't have a huge impact on whether people actually show up on Sundays.

A Georgetown University-affiliated research group found what might be evidence of some kind of "Francis Effect," but it's not related to attendance. Instead, there's been a bounce in the percentage of Catholics who consider their Catholic affiliation "strong." That's something, at least.

And it's still possible his visit could re-energize American Catholicism, which, despite its recent slump, is still one of the more resilient religious groups in the U.S. At least that's what many Catholics are hoping for.

Read more special coverage on Pope Francis' visit to the U.S.
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Why young people like the pope more than the church
The significance of Pope Francis' visit with President Obama





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