The People's Pope: A popular Pope Francis raises expectations for change

POPE STAR. Students from the Gaming, Austria, campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, show some love for Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, March 5.

A year has past in a heartbeat, but the papal honeymoon shows no sign of letting up. Pope Francis remains immensely popular among American Catholics and is widely seen as a force for positive change within the Roman Catholic Church. That’s according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. Pew reports that more than eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff, including half who view him very favorably. The percentage of Catholics who view Francis “very favorably” now rivals the number who felt equally positive about Pope John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s, though Francis’ overall favorability rating remains a few points shy of that of the long-serving Polish pope.

While it is no surprise that 85 percent of U.S. Catholics have a favorable opinion of their pope, Francis' popularity is not limited to Catholics—60 percent of non-Catholics also view the pontiff favorably. Just 4 percent of Catholics say they have an unfavorable opinion of the pope.


Seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics also now say Francis represents a major change in direction for the church, a sentiment shared by 56 percent of non-Catholics. And nearly everyone who says Francis represents a major change sees this as a change for the better. Though some in Catholic media have suggested that Francis derives much of his popularity from Catholics who take their faith obligations less seriously than others, Pew found that more Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis express "very favorable" views of the pope, compared with Catholics who attend Mass less often (61 percent vs. 47 percent). And while Pope Francis' popularity has been associated with his effect on young people, Pew researchers found that older Catholics were more likely to say they have a "very favorable" opinion of Francis than are Catholics in their 20s and 30s.

The survey found growing numbers of Catholics who now expect that in the near future the church will allow priests to get married; 51 percent think the church will make this change by the year 2050, up 12 percentage points from the days immediately following Francis’ election a year ago. But there has been less change in Catholics’ expectations about other church teachings. Roughly four-in-ten Catholics think that in the coming decades the church either definitely or probably will allow women to become priests, about the same number who held this expectation a year ago. And 56 percent of Catholics think the church will soon allow Catholics to use birth control, very similar to the 53 percent who said this last year.

According to Pew, support for these changes remains high among American Catholics. Nearly eight-in-ten say the church should allow Catholics to use birth control, while roughly seven-in-ten say the church should allow priests to get married and allow women to become priests.

By comparison, support for the church sanctioning same-sex marriages is lower. Half of U.S. Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, while 43 percent say it should not. That may not mean, however, that Catholics strongly resist a civil marriage right for gay and lesbian people. According to a recent , nearly 60 percent of Americans now believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, and 50 percent agree that they have a constitutional right to wed.

Pope Francis himself said in an interview on March 5 with Italian media that the Catholic Church could tolerate some types of nonmarital civil unions as a practical measure to guarantee property rights and health care. He also said the church would not change its teaching against artificial birth control but should take care to apply it with "much mercy."

The favorable numbers only confirm the apparent widespread popularity of the new pope, but Pew researchers were unable to tease out convincing evidence of a “Francis effect,” a discernible change in the way U.S. Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. And the survey finds no evidence that larger numbers of Catholics are either going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities.

On the other hand, Pew reports that “there are other indications of somewhat more intense religiosity among Catholics.”

According to the report, about a quarter of Catholics (26 percent) say they have become “more excited” about their Catholic faith over the past year (outnumbering the one-in-ten who have become less excited). Four-in-ten Catholics say they have been praying more often in the past 12 months (compared with 8 percent who say they have been praying less often). And somewhat more Catholics say they have been reading the Bible and other religious texts more frequently (21 percent) than say they have been doing so less frequently (14 percent). Pew noted that none of these questions about religious practices were explicitly tied in the survey to Francis’ papacy.

Pew reports that Pope Francis gets positive ratings on a range of papal responsibilities, though one of his lower ratings is in an area U.S. Catholics have named as a top priority: addressing the clergy sex abuse scandal. The new pope gets his highest marks for spreading the Catholic faith—81 percent of Catholics say he is doing an excellent or good job of this; standing up for traditional moral values—81 percent rate him "excellent/good"); and addressing the needs and concerns of the poor—76 percent rate him "excellent/good." A Pew survey one year ago found that 39 pecent of Catholics said that spreading the faith should be “a top priority” for the new pope and 49 percent said the same about standing up for traditional moral values. (The 2013 survey did not ask whether addressing the needs of the poor should be a top priority for the new pope.)

Six-in-ten Catholics give Francis positive marks for reforming the Vatican bureaucracy. Francis gets his lowest ratings for his handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis (54 percent "excellent/good") and for addressing the priest shortage (50 percent "excellent/good"). Last March, 70 percent of Catholics said addressing the sex abuse scandal should be “a top priority” for the new pope, far more than said the same about any other issue.

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