Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Leaving Earth?

According to physicist Stephen Hawking (a notable member of the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences), we have to figure out how to leave this planet because in the next 1,000 or so years a mass extinction event (man-made or natural) will likely end human life.

What happens when you ask people about the end of the world? CARA recently asked a national random sample of adults, “Do you believe the Earth’s demise is ultimately something we can understand and predict scientifically or something in God’s hands and therefore unpredictable?” More than six in ten believe it is in God’s hands. However, when you break that down by religious affiliation there is a big divide in opinion between Christians and those of other religious affiliations or no affiliation at all.

Only 6% of Evangelical Christians believe the Earth’s demise is something we can understand and predict scientifically. By comparison 34% of Catholics agree with this statement. At the other end of the spectrum, 82% of those without a religious affiliation (i.e., Nones) agree with the statement.

Barring divine intervention, it turns out there really are some things that are rather predictable about the possible “end of the world” in the long-term. The easiest is related to that brightest thing up in the sky we call the sun. Like any other star it has a lifespan and when it dies it will expand and take the Earth with it. The bad news is that, much earlier, in about 1 billion years it will be much hotter than it is now (regardless of any human activity) and Earth will no longer be a hospitable place for humans. With that in mind we asked Americans, “Scientists believe that in 4.5 billion years the Sun’s lifecycle will come to an end. Much earlier, in about 1 billion years, the sun will have become hotter and increased Earth’s temperature beyond a level where life, as we know it, is possible. Therefore, the long-term survival of humans may depend on space exploration and colonization. Do you believe that the destiny of human life is somewhere other than Earth or here on Earth?”

Hearing this reality, opinion is divided with 28% of adults saying human destiny is here on Earth and 27% saying this is to be found elsewhere in space. Most, 45% say they don’t know. Once again the opinion of Christians differ from others. Forty-one percent of Evangelicals believe the destiny of human life is on Earth compared to only 15% of those without a religious affiliation. Twenty-eight percent of Catholics say the destiny of human life is on Earth and 24% say it lies somewhere other than Earth (48% say they don’t know).

If Earth is doomed and human life can find a way to outlast it, then space is the place for the future. Seven in ten adults believe human exploration of space will be important (“very” or “somewhat”) in the future. Only one in ten say it is “not at all important.” Yet again, there are religious divides. Seventeen percent of Evangelicals believe space exploration to be “very” important compared to 41% of those without a religious affiliation. Thirty-six percent of Catholics believe it will be “very” important.

One might wonder why it matters if your religious affiliation is related to your views about the distant future, the ultimate demise of Earth, and space exploration. James Poulos, writing in Foreign Policy has argued, that Elon Musk, who has pledged to get humans to Mars soon, isn’t religious enough to colonize the red planet.

As you may have heard, Elon Musk (among others such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Nye), believe that reality, as we know it, may be a computer simulation. As Musk notes, “There’s a one in billions chance we’re in base reality.” What is interesting is that many of these individuals are atheists or agnostics. They believe there is no God but also think it is possible or likely that everything we know is a simulation built by a creator? Am I the only one who finds this amusing? While some Christians may be the least inclined now to explore space, they could be the most able because they are also unlikely to believe reality is a complex video game and that reaching Mars would be an achievement rather than a pre-programmed outcome. Poulos writes, “Musk, and his Silicon Valley backers, are right that humanity’s destiny might be to extend life to other planets. But Musk’s seeming belief that we’re already stuck in a simulated world leaves only dubious reasons to endorse his understanding of what destiny means — and who ought to fulfill it.”

In the bleakness of space or the harsh environment of another planet, believing in a creator and an afterlife just might be what space explorers would need to be successful. On the other hand, as we have explored before, practicing religion in space will not be easy. “Do not go gentle into that good night...”

About the CARA Catholic Poll (CCP)
CARA partnered with GfK Custom Research (formerly Knowledge Networks) to conduct the survey. Interviews were conducted with 1,927 respondents between May 16 and May 26, 2016. The primary sample includes 1,010 self-identified Catholics (margin of error of ±3.1 percentage points). Additionally, 917 non-Catholics were interviewed. Of the non-Catholics, 311 are Evangelical Christians (margin of error of ±5.6 percentage points). Another 357 have some other Christian affiliation (margin of error of ±5.2 percentage points). A total of 76 had some other non-Christian affiliation (margin of error of ±11.2 percentage points) and 167 had no religious affiliation (margin of error of ±7.6 percentage points). Six respondents declined to state a religious affiliation. Statistical weights, created by GfK, are used to approximate the results for the U.S. adult population.


2016 Election Recap

Why were the polls so wrong?
Were they that wrong? The final RealClearPolitics polling average had Clinton at +3.2 (46.8% to 43.6%). I’ve also been watching the aggregation of all non-partisan telephone polls. This ended at Clinton +2.0 (45.8% to 43.8%). As of now, Clinton has won 47.7% of the national vote with 47.5% going to Donald Trump. So the result is likely something like Clinton +0.2. Even with aggregation, polls have margins of error and we once again had a contest where the margin of victory is smaller than the margins of error of the data examined. In that regard, the polls were not “off” or “wrong.” In fact they were similar in accuracy to previous elections. At the state level, there were some harder to predict states. My final election map prediction that I showed to my Georgetown classes on Monday were wrong on Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

The Pennsylvania polling average had estimated a Clinton lead of +1.1. But the last survey in the state had Trump ahead by +1 percentage point. In the end Trump won the state by +1.1. Again, the polls were not really wrong or off here. I was. I chose history over the most recent data. In Michigan the polls had Clinton leading by a +3.4 average. But here again, the last poll had Trump ahead by +2. The polls were not off here either. I was. Where the polls were clearly “wrong” was Wisconsin. The state average was +6.5 for Clinton. Trump won the state by +1. At the same time this state has a Republican Governor and is home to the Republican Speaker of the House. A Trump win here was clearly possible, even with the polling trend, but it did not seem likely given the available data.

To me, what was a bit “off” was that many in the news media and pundit world wanted to ignore or minimize any polls (e.g., USC/LA Times) that indicated a possible Clinton loss. 538’s Nate Silver was criticized by the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grimm because Silver’s Clinton likely win percentage was not high enough (i.e., 98% like Huffington’s). Before the election, on Twitter, Silver noted, “People don't debate the premises of 538 model (e.g. state errors correlated, undecideds=uncertainty). They just don't like the conclusions” and that “Clinton's polling is MUCH weaker than Obama's in the swing states. People seem to miss this.”

I encourage everyone to take a look at the news they watch and read. Is it really the news or political entertainment? Cable television news is mostly the latter. Journalists and pundits may have wanted to say Clinton was going to win easily but that did not mean reality had to play along. When Silver pointed out data and analyses that provided some doubts about conventional wisdom this did not make him biased. He was being a realist. An objective analyst. We used to respect and desire that. Now we seem to more often want to watch and read news that tells us “our side is winning” and what we want to hear and believe. In the end reality interjects.

The Catholic Vote 2016
The Catholic vote, or the religion factor more generally, was largely ignored by the media and pundits this year. There was some attention to Evangelicals in the Republican primaries. Later Catholicism became a focus briefly when polls came out showing that Trump had a “Catholic problem” (1, 2, 3) Apparently, in the end, the problem was overstated. He won the Catholic vote 52% to Clinton’s 45% with 3% going to other candidates. Catholics made up 23% of the electorate. In recent elections, if candidates win the Catholic vote they typically win the election. Trump won Catholic majorities in Michigan (57%), Florida (54%), and Ohio (56%). Clinton won the Catholic vote in California (63%) and Nevada (55%). 

It appears only Catholics make swings nationally back and forth from Republican to Democrat. Other Christians vote consistently Republican. Those of non-Christian affiliations or no affiliation vote consistently Democrat. That leaves Catholics often as an important deciding factor. I think it will take some time and more research to understand why Catholics were more likely to vote for Trump than Clinton. It is also the case that more data will be released with the American National Election Study (ANES) which may alter our view of the Catholic vote (it has in the past).

Although my personal election predictions were off in three states and thus awful on the eventual Electoral College outcome, I did indeed think that there might be a “ghost” in the election polling machine back in August:

As I have explained above, if there was a ghost in that machine it probably only manifested itself in Wisconsin. It will take more time and research to understand how the polls were so off there. For now, I think it can take its place alongside Ohio in 2004 and Florida in 2000 as a state to examine more closely. For political scientists the electoral map is getting very interesting. It is possible that 2016 is the beginning of a realignment. Democrats are showing new strength in the Sunbelt South. As demography changes this may turn some red states like Georgia, Texas, and Florida purple and eventually blue. At the same time Democrats may be losing ground in the Rust Belt North to Republicans where pink and red states could be more common.

Note: As always I was a non-participant in the election. I am not a partisan and not registered to vote. As a former reporter and now social scientist I really believe in trying to be objective.


Did CARA Data Reveal Pope Francis Failed?

[Trigger Warning: This post contains some necessary satire. All data are real]

First Things Literary Editor Matthew Schmitz posed the question, “Has Pope Francis Failed?” In The New York Times last week. The key sentence for CARA in this piece was, “New survey findings from Georgetown’s Center for the Applied Research for the Apostolate [not our name] suggest that there has been no Francis effect – at least, no positive one.” Schmitz notes that the “perceptions of the papacy” have changed for the better but asks, “Why hasn’t the pope’s popularity reinvigorated the church?”

CARA primarily studies Catholics and the Catholic Church in the United States. The following data “suggest” that any survey data about Catholics in the United States from CARA could not possibly be appropriately used to judge whether Pope Francis has failed.

The data reviewed in Schmitz’s piece measure approval of the pope (positive), frequency of Mass attendance (essentially unchanged), and Millennial’s participation in Lent (declined, while generally remaining stable among the total population) in the United States. I do not have the space in a blog post to list and detail all the other numerous possible indicators that could be used to measure a pope’s success or failure in the United States (and elsewhere). You can find a few in the original CARA blog post Schmitz read (which never mentions Pope Francis). 

Anyone can grab three stats and write an opinion piece (…and apparently get it published in The New York Times. Who knew?). For example, I could note that in 2005, when Pope Benedict started leading the Church there were 431 diocesan ordination in the United States (…again forget that the rest of the world exists). In 2015, with Pope Francis leading the Church there were 548. Electing Pope Francis has clearly made the Catholic Church more successful at ordaining priests in this single country (by 27%). Pope Francis is 79. I’m not sure how long his papacy may last. However, if he can remain in office to mid-century and continue the trend shown in the data below then CARA research “suggests,” that there will be a whopping 1,577 diocesan ordinations in the United States in 2050. Francis Effect confirmed! No? You need more data?

If essentially beginning to reverse the American decline in priests is not impressive enough look at the figure below. Since Pope Francis began to lead the Catholic Church fewer Catholics in the United States have been dying. Pope Francis did the best in 2014 with only 391,131 deaths compared to 403,886 in 2012 (a decline in mortality of 3.2%). You are probably alive today because of Pope Francis. The data above “suggests” that if Pope Francis is able to continue leading the Church through the year 2128, Catholics will essentially be immortal in the U.S. (I’m sure Catholics elsewhere in the world will be fine too).

Need a third measure? Since you apparently only need to cite three different types of research to be published in The New York Times… The number of American parents naming their sons Francis has risen dramatically since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down. According to the Social Security Administration, from 2008 to 2012, the average popularity rank for the name Francis was #643. Under Pope Francis it has risen each year and averaged #488 and in 2015 came in at #482. If Pope Francis can continue to serve into 2030, in all likelihood, Francis will be the #1 name for boys in the United States.

In all seriousness now, after reading Schmitz’s piece I felt CARA needed to clarify that its data do not “suggest that there has been no Francis Effect.” There is not even any point or logic to asking if Pope Francis has failed in 2016. Schmitz notes, “Perhaps it is too soon to judge?” You think? Further, focusing on a few bits of data from the United States alone to measure a Pope’s failure in leading a global Church seems remarkably insufficient.

We’ve posted some global data here in the past. One of the biggest challenges is the lag in data availability. For example, the most current Vatican statistics are for 2014. Someday in the future, after Pope Francis has served more than a few years it will be possible to review data about the world’s Catholics and fairly ask if Pope Francis has succeeded or failed in many things. I can guarantee that there will be Church data that turn negative, some that are unchanged, and others shifting positive.

Even then, the most difficult thing will be to actually empirically attribute those changes to Pope Francis. While many people imagine the Catholic Church as this hierarchical organized institution directed by the pope. For example, former restaurant critic Frank Bruni penned the following portrait on the opinion pages of The New York Times in 2013, “The Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide organization with enormous financial resources; with a network of charities and agencies that provide crucial help to the downtrodden; and with parishes in which the prayerful nurture their relationship with God. And the pope is its C.E.O., ultimately responsible for where the money flows and for the placement and policing of its staff.”

The Pope absolutely does not function as the Catholic Church’s C.E.O. as if he is running Wal-Mart (we’ve covered this before). Instead, the Church continues to operate in a quasi-feudal manner with heavy doses of decentralization and autonomy for local leaders. Pastors are responsible for parishes, bishops for dioceses, and the pope for a global Church. Administrators run Catholic hospitals, deans lead colleges, charities are run by executives. With that said, there is indeed a map room where Pope Francis is saying, “Close that school. Open a parish here. Does that charity have enough in their food bank? How is that parish’s new marriage preparation team doing? How many candidates am I interviewing for the new surgeon at this Catholic hospital?” That room is in Frank Bruni’s head and not in Vatican City.

You’ve likely heard the phrase “All politics is local.” Catholicism in many ways is as well. The Pope’s impact is most often felt in broad agenda setting—emphasizing the most important issues as he sees them. Popes are most effective at this when they are well liked. Go back and take a look at how pessimistic journalists and commentators were about the future of the Church before the selection of Pope Francis. For example, Paul Elie suggested in a New York Times opinion piece that it was time to give up the Church. He writes, “We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.” Did anyone writing before the selection of Pope Francis imagine that the next pope would be named Time’s Person of the Year (for good reason) or for that matter that he would also appear on the cover of Rolling Stone in short order?

In three years Pope Francis has not been able to fix the problems of the Catholic Church. But I think most would agree that he has put the institution on a better path than where it was headed when he got it. People are listening. People who would have never done so before. In some countries sacramental practice and population indicators are pointing up, in others they are stable, and elsewhere there are declines. Often the reasons for these changes have nothing to do with who is pope. As I recently noted, many young former Catholics in the U.S. say they left the Church because they are unable to reconcile what they know about their faith with what they are learning about in science. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Pope Francis’ comments cited by Schmitz as “denunciations” of Catholics. Schmitz asks, “Why join a church…whose members like to throw stones?”

Throwing a stone is writing an Op-Ed asking “Has Pope Francis Failed?” in The New York Times and then declaring “there has been no Francis Effect” with insufficient empirical evidence. Pope Francis should not be judged a success or a failure with the assistance of a few pieces of survey data that actually show mixed trends in one country. In time we will be able to ask and answer whether Pope Francis has failed. I have no problem with Matthew Schmitz asking that question when that time comes. The part of that answer that is grounded in data should come from researchers (understanding margins of error, statistical significance, etc.) examining the global church rather than a literary editor who somehow got his personal gripes about Pope Francis published in The New York Times.

Schmitz provides this portrait of a pope who would succeed, “Those who wish to see a stronger church may have to wait for a different kind of pope. Instead of trying to soften the church’s teaching, such a man would speak of the way hard disciplines can lead to freedom. Confronting a hostile age with the strange claims of Catholic faith may not be popular, but over time it may prove more effective.”

So when that happens we’ll finally have a pope who hasn’t failed? Millennials will finally be slightly more likely (beyond margin of error) to receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday in the United States. Catholics in places like Nigeria, Vietnam, Mexico, and all over the world will be in such awe that their pope can finally reach American Millennials and convince them to go to Mass on a day they have no obligation to do so. 

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