Five years in, Americans’ love of Pope Francis remains strong
American Catholics still love Pope Francis as he approaches the fifth anniversary of his election next week—though Catholic Republicans increasingly describe him as “too liberal” and less than half of U.S. Catholics believe he is adequately handling clerical sexual abuse.
According to a new Pew Research Center poll released on Tuesday, 84 percent of U.S. Catholics hold a “favorable” view of Pope Francis, a number nearly unchanged from the early days of his pontificate. Huge majorities of U.S. Catholics also agree that the pope is humble (91 percent) and compassionate (94 percent).
The percentage of U.S. Catholics who rate Pope Francis favorably has been consistently about five to 10 points higher than in similar polls taken during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, who retired in 2013. Pope John Paul II regularly received higher favorable ratings than both of his successors, with more than nine in 10 U.S. Catholics rating him favorably. (Pew notes in its report, however, that its polls during John Paul’s papacy were conducted before widespread reporting about sexual abuse by Catholic priests.)
According to a new Pew Research Center poll, 84 percent of U.S. Catholics hold a “favorable” view of Pope Francis.
But the political polarization rampant in U.S. culture also affects the church, with some differences in how Catholic Democrats and Republicans view the pope.
More than half of Catholic Republicans (55 percent) say Pope Francis is “too liberal,” up 32 points from 2015. Roughly a third of Catholic Republicans say Pope Francis is “naive.” Still, 79 percent of Catholic Republicans give Francis a favorable rating, compared with 89 percent of Catholic Democrats.
And the share of Catholics who believe Francis is changing the church for the better has fallen.
More than half of Catholic Republicans (55 percent) say Pope Francis is “too liberal.”
Fifty-eight percent of U.S. Catholics say Pope Francis represents a change “for the better,” down 10 points from 2014. The share of U.S. Catholics who say he represents a change “for the worse” grew 5 points to 7 percent over the same time.
Some of the pope’s critics have taken issue with his teaching on family issues, many of which are contained in his 2016 pastoral letter “Amoris Laetitia.”
The Pew poll did not ask about the letter specifically, but it found that 26 percent of U.S. Catholics believe Pope Francis has done “a lot” to make the church more accepting of divorce and remarriage and 33 percent believe he has done “a lot” to make the church more accepting of homosexuality.
The share of American Catholics who say Pope Francis is “excellent” or “good” on how he handles the church’s struggle to address sexual abuse by clergy has fallen 10 points from 2015 to 45 percent. It is possible that number could drop further, as the poll was conducted prior to the pope’s visit to Chile, which raised questions about his handling of clergy sexual abuse. There, victim advocates accused the pope of siding with a bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse by a notorious priest. After public outcry, the pope agreed to send an envoy to investigate claims.
The report says there is no evidence of a “Francis effect.”
The report says there is no evidence of a “Francis effect,” at least in terms of Mass attendance or growth in the percentage of the population that identifies as Catholic. And trends in the U.S. church that began before Pope Francis continue, the report found. The church here is increasingly Hispanic (36 percent) and Mass attendance remains about the same as reported by Pew in 2012. The number of U.S. Catholics who say they attend Mass “weekly or more” is 38 percent, according to the report, significantly higher than studies by other polling organizations that place that number at about 25 percent. On social issues, the number of Catholics who support same-sex marriage continues to grow, up to 67 percent in 2018 compared to 54 percent in 2012, while U.S. Catholics remain about split on abortion, with 53 percent believing it should be legal in “all or most cases.”
And while the number of U.S. Catholics who believe Francis represents a major change in the church has fallen since his elevation as pope, many U.S. Catholics praise his influence in making the church more welcoming to L.G.B.T. people, highlighting threats to the environment and reaching out to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Most U.S. Catholics (58 percent) praise the men the pope has chosen to serve as bishops and cardinals during his pontificate. Francis has created more than 60 cardinals during his five years as pope, including three Americans: Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the former bishop of Dallas who now heads the Vatican’s family and laity office.
Americans who are not Catholic also continue to admire Pope Francis.
Majorities of white evangelicals (52 percent), white mainline Protestants (67 percent), black Protestants (53 percent) and unaffiliated Americans (58 percent) view the pope favorably. White evangelicals increasingly are skeptical of the pope, with those viewing him unfavorably up from 9 percent in 2013 to 28 percent in 2018. The group where Francis has seen the biggest gains is unaffiliated Americans. Fifty-eight percent of them rank the pope favorably, up from 39 percent in 2013—though a drop-off from the January 2017 high when 71 percent ranked the pope favorably.
The poll was conducted in mid-January and included the views of 1,503 adults, including 316 Catholics, with a margin of error among Catholics of 6.4 percentage points.