At this year’s Portsmouth Institute conference, with the topic of Pope Francis, both Ross Douthat and John Carr mentioned the very strong, across-the-board favorability of Pope Francis in the United States. As a central premise, of course, the leader of an organization driven by revelation and founded in the Word of God shouldn’t pay much attention to favorability polls, which are more appropriate to politics. Still, with an eye toward being effective, no leader of any sort should dismiss the information if it’s available; the question is one of the weight it’s given on the decision-making scale.
In Douthat’s case, the New York Times columnist raised polling mainly by way of minimizing the significance of three groups of Catholics who were “unsettled” by the pope: Catholic traditionalists, politically and economically conservative Catholics, and socially conservative Catholics. Carr raised the pope’s poll numbers to emphasize the huge potential for good could accompany Francis’s visit to the United States this autumn. With such vast support, the pope would be better able to get across his message, and Catholics across the spectrum would presumably promote, reinforce, or at least not distract from it.
So what might it mean that Pope Francis’s approval ratings have taken a major hit in the past month? According to Gallup, he’s still very popular in the United States, although his favorability among people who identify as conservatives has dropped from 72% last year to 45% now, and the drop was almost as substantial among Catholics as among non-Catholic Christians.
That said, in my running series of essays about the Portsmouth Institute presentations, I’m tracing what appears to be a subconscious concern that the pope might not be accurately assessing our point in history or his role in it. Two problems that stand out, if such concerns are justified, are that the pope might play a role in hastening, rather than forestalling, a global crisis and that his intended message will be lost.
To oversimplify the first count, if the West is holding the world together by some remaining threads of actual economic and civic freedom, then attacking crony capitalism might advance the cause of corrupting socialism. Thus a message that would be appropriate after a socialism-driven crash and shuffling of resources to a government-and-crony elite might push the world over the edge if what’s really happening is that the elite is using the pretense of solidarity in order to undermine its more-libertarian opposition.
On the second count, the more divided people are about the pope and his intentions, the less likely they will be to harken to his message of solidarity.