TIME Person Of The Year, Pope Francis: Way More Like President Obama Than You Think
TIME's just-named "Person of the Year," Pope Francis, is certainly likable: according to a poll out Wednesday, only five percent of Americans actively dislike him. But for the Catholic Church, crippled by a lack of relevance to modern society and a dim future for its membership numbers — particularly when it comes to women and Millennials — Pope Francis might just be the PR version of Superman. In other words, he's more like 2008 President Obama than you thought.
Francis was elected at sort-of the worst time ever for the Church — a context that, it could be argued, parallels Obama's election in 2008. While Obama was dealing with a loss of faith in government, unpopular and badly waged wars, and an economic crisis that had only yet begun, Francis is dealing with an institution on the verge of crumbling.
The Catholic Church has suffered the greatest net loss of members of any denomination in recent years, due in part to the rash of sex scandals and child abuse that shook the faith of parishioners. The National Catholic Reporter has called it the "largest insitutional crisis" in history."
Like Congress, another primary reason the Church is losing relevance is because of its leadership, which is comprised mostly of old, staunchly traditional white guys. (Sounding familiar?) Most studies place the average age of Catholic priests to be around 60 (an age that's more than doubled since 1970) — to say nothing of the cardinal college or the pope himself, who clocks in at 78.
And also like Congress, the Church is suffering from its lack of diversity. Two-thirds of newly ordained priests are Caucasian, with ethnic affiliations the inverse of the American ethnic populations: If they identify as a member of a minority, the priests are more likely to be Asian/Pacific Islander than they are to be Latino — a historically Catholic ethnic group.
As for women? Per usual, there is no representation when it comes to priests whatsoever. That's despite other denominations' seminary enrollments, which have women students at around one-third — evidence of women's desire to serve (however, some Catholic sisters are doin' it for themselves — despite the lack of official priesthood prospects).
For the Church, the picture's not great for Millennials — those under 30 who, the Church hopes, will be the next generation of the Church's members. As many as one-third of them don't identify with any religion at all, a number twice that of the general adult American population. Women aren't too hot on the Church either these days — and these two demographics, by the by, are the ones on which Obama focused his efforts — and won. Twice.
Enter Pope Francis, the Church's greatest hope for an image revamp.
Shortly after his election, the Pope surprised everyone with an interview that the media (including us) perceived as promising a new, liberal turn for the church. Like Obama's motto of change in 2008, the Pope's words seemed to promise a loosening of tightly held conservative values about the role of women and homosexuality.
This went some way to winning over women, who, in this enlightened day and age, aren't too keen on a Church that excludes 50 percent of its members just because they have a vagina. (Probably why they're not overly fond of the GOP, too.) And it was tick in the box for Millennials, 70 percent of whom support marriage equality.
In other words, the Pope is pulling an Obama — by courting the most elusive, prized, and, politically, election-swinging groups of Millennials and women, he's attempting to pull the Church back into relevance.
Sociologists of religion have found a correlation between church growth and youth involvement that is consistent across different types of churches, liberal moderate and conservative. In all these churches, the greater the youth involvement, the greater the church’s growth.
And as any advertising guru will tell you: You want to talk to the youth? Get on their communications level. Half of American Millennials are on Twitter. And Francis is even doing selfies with the youth:
His strategic efforts show some initial results: ”The crowds at Sunday mass are up, confession lines are longer, inquiries about the Catholic faith are more abundant, and even the collections have gone up," the Archibishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, said. But who the new converts are — Older adults? New parents desiring a religious foundation for their children? — we're not entirely sure. And we won't be until next year's reports.
However, the reason the Pope won the TIME poll this year has less to do with his courting of the demographics — despite the willingness of some analysts to focus on Francis' perceived liberal stances on women, abortion, and homosexuality — and more to do with his work with the community and financial ideology. TIME's reasoning for the choice, according to managing director Nancy Gibbs? Amid reports of Il Papa sneaking out of the Vatican at night to help the homeless, it was down to this:
None of which makes him a liberal—he also says the all-male priesthood is not subject to debate, nor is abortion, nor is the definition of marriage. But his focus on the poor and the fact that the world’s poorest 50% control barely 1% of its wealth unsettles those who defend capitalism as the most successful antipoverty program in history.
You could argue that he is Teddy Roosevelt protecting capitalism from its own excesses or he is simply saying what Popes before him have said, that Jesus calls us to care for the least among us—only he’s saying it in a way that people seem to be hearing differently.
The Pope's doing his best to court admirers for the crumbling Church by doing what the Pope should do: help the poor, counsel the homeless, etc. And as his approval ratings go, he might even be winning over some of the unaffiliated: Most of them feel like helping the poor is one of the Church's main roles in society. But they've not made it to the pews yet, and until Pope Francis makes a serious impact on women and Millennials (aka the Obama vote), it might just be God on his side.