Pope Francis: Is He, Or Any Pope, Relevant to Millennials?


The world just welcomed a new leader of the Catholic Church. He is Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, but he will be known hereafter as Pope Francis. The former archbishop of Buenos Aires is the first pope from the Americas!  *cricket* *cricket*… (And now is the part when you click something else to read.) 

Still here? Okay, the chances are still fairly great that you don’t really care, especially if you are between the ages of 18 and 29, born and living in the U.S., well-educated, and making (or hoping to make) a decent living. If you meet this criteria, then you are most likely not Catholic and perhaps have no religious affiliation at all.

So why is every major news outlet, every social media and social networking site, and almost every taxi driver in Los Angeles carrying on so much about a new pope? Even the U.S. Congress came together yesterday to extend a hearty welcome to Pope Francis.  According to USA Today, House Speaker John Boehner — the highest ranking Catholic in Congress — offered his congratulations to the first pontiff from South America. "I'm happy that they were able to come to a choice as quickly as they did. I think that reaching out beyond the traditional continent of our church is another big step in the right direction of our church." (If only Boehner and the rest of Congress could emulate the Vatican’s organizational efficiency. But I digress… )

Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodoxy) is still the biggest religion in the world with approximately 2 billion faithful, and in the U.S. it is by far the predominant choice among believers. But for Christians, Catholicism is the Rowley to Greg Heffley at the middle school dance. (Please, you know you read the Wimpy Kid diaries…) Roughly a quarter of Americans identify themselves as Catholic today, but almost a third say they were raised Catholic. This apparent loss of Catholics represents a trend among all Christian religions in America, but perhaps more so with Catholics. Ironically, the numbers of Catholics in the U.S. are at about the same levels they were in the 1970s/80s, in spite of recent U.S. defections. U.S. "losses" are apparently being made up by an ever-growing immigrant population of Hispanic Catholics.

But amongst millennials, 1 in 4 are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). Compared with older Americans today, fewer millennials say that religion is very important in their lives. So do you really care who the next pope is? And will he make any difference in your life or the lives of anyone you care about?

Okay, the pope tweets and has a website. Facebook is aflutter with the news of Pope Francis. I’m writing about him now, and you’re reading this about him. But will this pope or any pope be actually relevant in today’s world? Is all the attention to the pageantry and splendor of the "making of the pope" more important than say, the confirmation of the Most Reverend Justin Welby as archbishop of Canterbury last February? If the leader of the largest Christian flock can’t get the amount and scope of coverage as the pope, what does it say about the impact of "celebrity" on our culture?  Even in our world’s religion, it appears we are more concerned about the personality than the policy.

And that is the bottom line policy.  Pope Francis is expected to be a "status quo" Catholic leader. According to NBC News, "Pope Francis will likely keep to Catholic teachings that reject abortion and same-sex marriage."  In the same news story, Miranda Leitsinger quotes Bernard Schlaeger of the Public School of Religion saying the new pope has also said gays and lesbians should not be allowed to adopt. This worldview is definitely out-of-step with young Americans.  In a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, millennials are more likely to support same-sex marriage as Gen X’ers and Boomers, and almost twice as likely as Americans born from 1928 to 1945 to support it.

So why all the pomp and circumstance over a religious leader who watches over an American flock of diminishing numbers and conflicting idealism? Maybe the question shouldn’t be "is the pope relevant?" Maybe the question should be "why does corporate America make the pope relevant?"  Is the pope just good reality TV???

The views expressed here by the author are his own.