Will 'Francis Effect' Sway U.S. Catholics on Climate Change Crisis?: Pew researchers look at continued popularity of the pope and likely impact of his hotly anticipated encyclical on the environment

Although a new Pew Research Center study shows that Pope Francis remains just as popular as ever among Catholics across demographic and political lines (86 percent view him favorably), its recent polling suggests his hotly anticipated encyclical on the environment may only impress about half his U.S. Catholic audience. According to Pew researchers, about seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics (71 percent) believe the planet is getting warmer. Nearly half of Catholic adults (47 percent) attribute global warming to human causes and a similar share (48 percent) view it as a very serious problem. Though he gets high marks from U.S. Catholics in other areas of his ministry—especially “for spreading the Catholic faith and for addressing the needs and concerns of the poor” (79 percent favorable)—just 53 percent of them give the pope a favorable rating for his work addressing environmental issues.

Pew researchers report that 18 percent of Catholics believe Pope Francis has done an “excellent” job on environmental issues so far and 35 percent more say he has done a “good” job in this area. The remainder rate his performance “only fair” (25 percent) or “poor” (4 percent) or express no opinion (18 percent). Catholic Democrats give Francis slightly more positive marks on his attention to the environment than Catholic Republicans; 21 percent of Catholic Democrats say Francis has done an excellent job addressing environmental issues, compared with 13 percent of Catholic Republicans. 

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Pew found that overall Catholics express higher levels of belief in global warming and concern about its effects than do Protestants, but lower levels than people who are religiously unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics and those whose religion is “nothing in particular”). According to the report, however, “analysis of the survey findings shows that political party identification and race/ethnicity are much better predictors of environmental attitudes than are religious identity or observance.”

The survey found that Hispanic Catholics are much more inclined than white Catholics to say that global warming is occurring, is mostly a consequence of human activity and is a very serious problem.

Among the U.S. public as a whole, belief that global warming is occurring is nearly twice as common among Democrats as Republicans (86 percent vs. 45 percent). The view that global warming is caused by human activity is roughly three times as common among Democrats as among members of the GOP (64 percent vs. 22 percent), as is the view that it represents a very serious problem (67 percent vs. 21 percent).

According to the survey, U.S. Catholics’ views on global warming are broadly reflective of American public opinion; that is, “a solid majority believe that Earth is warming.” But, like the U.S. general public, among U.S. Catholics, “there is much more division over the cause and seriousness of climate change.” The Pew survey reports that climate change “is a highly politicized issue that sharply divides American Catholics, like the U.S. public as a whole, mainly along political party lines.” 

More than eight-in-ten Catholic Democrats say there is solid evidence that Earth is warming, according to Pew researchers; just half of Catholic Republicans agree. Six-in-ten Catholic Democrats say global warming is a man-made phenomenon and that it poses a very serious problem, only about a quarter of Catholic Republicans agree. 

Pew also reports that aside from a brief dip in early 2014, the share of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that the planet is getting warmer and that warming is mainly caused by human activity has remained relatively steady between 2013 and today. But more people now view global warming as a very serious problem than in 2013.

Nearly half of U.S. adults (46 percent) now hold this view, up from a third in 2013 (but on par with the share who expressed such concern in 2007 and 2008). “This shift has occurred among most major religious groups in the U.S., including Catholics. Among the public as a whole, the view that global warming represents a very serious problem has grown much more among Democrats (from 48 percent to 67 percent) than among the GOP (from 14 percent to 21 percent) between 2013 and 2015.”

Pew researchers also looked at the continuing popularity of the world’s first South American pope, finding that roughly two years into his papacy, Pope Francis remains very popular among U.S. Catholics—86 view Francis favorably, and nearly seven-in-ten (69 percent) say he represents a major change for the better for the Catholic Church—the same share who said this a year after his election. 

Roughly nine-in-ten say they think Francis is “compassionate,” “humble” and “open minded.” Despite that positive impression, some U.S. Catholics express some reservations about Pope Francis. About one-in-five describe him as “too liberal,” while one-in- seven (15 percent) consider him “naïve” and one-in-ten (11 percent) think he is “out of touch.” 

Pope Francis also gets high marks for his handling of specific tasks. Pew reports that just over half of U.S. Catholics say Pope Francis is doing an excellent or good job addressing the sex abuse scandal (55 percent); about one-in-ten (12 percent) say he is doing a poor job on this issue; and 22 percent say he has done only a fair job. The survey was conducted just weeks before the unprecedented resignations of three U.S. bishops because of their poor handling a cases of sexual abuse by priests within their dioceses and the scheduling of a Vatican criminal trial for a defrocked former nuncio accused of sexual crimes and possession of child pornography.

Pew added, “A few months before the pope’s scheduled trip to the U.S. in September to participate in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, 35 percent of Catholics give Francis an ‘excellent’ rating for his work so far on behalf of families, while 44 percent say he has done a ‘good’ job in this area.”

While Catholic Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to express positive views of the pope, as are both conservative and liberal Catholics, Pope Francis does have a stronger fan base among specific groups, Pew reports. “More Catholic women than men say they view the pontiff very favorably (57 percent vs. 46 percent). And Catholics who report attending Mass at least once a week are more likely than those who attend less regularly to hold a very favorable view.” That result defies expectations that the “Francis effect” holds the greatest appeal for “cultural Catholics,” those whose connection to the church is more tenuous and whose Mass attendance is less consistent.

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