It’s official: Pope Francis will visit Ireland to preside over the concluding days of the World Meeting of Families in August. Organisers are doubtless counting on the “Francis effect” to bolster the faith and galvanise the faithful in the country, where the Church is reeling from scandal and beset by challenges to its cultural and social leadership.

The question is whether the Francis effect is still what it was in the days after Francis’s election.

Five years into his pontificate, Pope Francis has begun to face significant scrutiny for certain decisions he has made as governor of the Universal Church. His handling of the ongoing clerical abuse crisis has been criticised in both ecclesiastical and secular quarters that are generally well disposed towards him. Mainstream news outlets have also begun to look more closely at Francis’s record of leadership, especially regarding the reform of the Church’s central governing apparatus, the Roman Curia, and the Pope’s choice of men to spearhead that reform effort.

Globally, however, Pope Francis remains a popular figure. In the United States, for example, a Pew Research Center poll of Catholics returned an 84 per cent favourability rating, with 58 per cent saying they continue to believe the Holy Father represents a change for the good.

More interesting in this regard is the number of US Catholics with a net “only fair/poor” rating of specific issues, such as his handling of the abuse crisis. There, his “excellent” rating dropped from 55 per cent to 45 per cent, while his “only fair/poor” rating climbed from 34 per cent to 45 per cent.

Favourability ratings are fine and good, and even important signposts for politicians who need popular support for their policy initiatives and election campaigns. Popes’ concerns with popularity are not precisely those of popularly elected officials. Nevertheless, popes cannot be indifferent to popular sentiment.

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