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Pope Francis smiles at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, April 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

(RNS) — U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.

Pew Research Center, in a report released Friday (April 12), found that three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (75%) have a favorable view of Francis, with nearly 9 in 10 Catholic Democrats and those who lean Democrat (89%) expressing favorable views, and just under two-thirds of Catholic Republicans and those who lean Republican (63%) saying the same. 

While the favorability rating from the Democratic camp was roughly in line with recent years, the Republican and Republican-leaning favorability rating represented a decline, creating the largest partisan gap in approval of Francis since his papacy began.

Of the 14 times Pew has asked about Francis’ popularity, the new survey records the pope’s second lowest favorability rate. The only time he received lower scores was in September 2018 — a factor possibly influenced by the survey being taken right after Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò alleged that he had warned Francis of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexually predatory behavior and that Francis had ignored the warning.

Francis’ highest favorability rating reached 90% in February 2015, just months after he had confirmed he would be visiting the U.S. during 2015.

According to the Pew survey, Catholics who view Francis unfavorably were more likely than Catholics who view him favorably to say he represents a major change in direction for the church, with just over half of Catholics who view Francis unfavorably (54%) holding that view compared with 4 in 10 Catholics who view him favorably (41%).

In the days before last October’s Synod of Bishops, Francis prayed the assembly would be a place where the Holy Spirit would “purify the church” from “polarization.” The October assembly followed a multiyear global consultation of the Catholic faithful, a process that church reformers hoped and traditionalists feared would lead to sweeping changes in the church.

Last month, the Vatican announced that, instead of addressing controversial issues at the concluding assembly next October, study groups have been formed to address those issues, and they will finish their work by June 2025.

The Pew survey revealed that majorities of U.S. Catholics supported church reform measures, although Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more supported these reforms at lower rates than Catholics who attend less frequently. Just over a quarter of U.S. Catholics (28%) said they attend Mass weekly. 

More than 8 in 10 U.S. Catholics (83%) expressed support for the church to allow birth control use, with 62% of weekly Mass attenders saying the same. Three-quarters (75%) expressed support for allowing unmarried Catholics who are living with a romantic partner to receive Communion, with 57% of weekly Mass attenders agreeing.

In terms of reform to the priesthood, 69% of adult U.S. Catholics expressed support for allowing married priests, with a little more than half of weekly Mass attenders (53%) saying the same. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. Catholics (64%) supported ordaining women priests, with 41% of weekly Mass attenders saying the same.

As for recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, more than half of U.S. Catholics (54%) expressed support, including a third of weekly Mass attenders (33%).

Beyond the divides in responses based on Mass attendance, there were differences in support for church reform based on partisan affiliation, with Democrats and those leaning Democratic showing significantly higher support for church reform. While smaller majorities of Catholic Republicans and those leaning Republican supported all church reforms studied, the exception was in recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, with only 36% of Catholic Republicans expressing support.

The study also showed racial and ethnic differences in party affiliation among U.S. Catholics. Six in 10 Hispanic Catholics (60%) said they were aligned with the Democratic Party, while a similar percentage of white Catholics (61%) said they were aligned with the Republican Party.

While majorities of white and Hispanic Catholics across age demographics supported every church reform surveyed, older Catholics (aged 50 and older) and white Catholics were more likely to support church reform measures than the younger cohort and than Hispanic Catholics — except when it came to recognizing gay and lesbian marriages. On that question, Catholics aged 18-49 and Hispanic Catholics were slightly more supportive, with 56% and 57% supporting respectively compared to 53% supporting among the age 50+ group and 52% supporting among white Catholics.

The question on recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples also revealed a substantial gender gap — under half of Catholic men (47%) supported recognizing those marriages, while 6 in 10 Catholic women (60%) expressed support. 

Catholic men were a few points higher than Catholic women across most other church reform questions, except for on the question of allowing birth control, where 86% of Catholic women expressed support compared with 79% of Catholic men. Majorities of Catholic men and women supported every surveyed church reform, aside from the minority support among Catholic men for recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

On a question highly contested in U.S. politics, the difference between weekly Mass attenders and all Catholics was also visible in support for legal abortion in all or most cases. While 6 in 10 U.S. Catholics (61%) said they supported legal abortion, only about a third of weekly Mass attenders (34%) said the same.

There was also a substantial Catholic partisan divide in support for legal abortion, with Catholic Democrats supporting legal abortion at much higher rates. However, Catholic Democrats and those who lean Democratic were more likely to oppose legal abortion (22%) than all U.S. Democrats (15%), while Catholic Republicans and those who lean Republican were slightly more likely to support legal abortion (43%) than all U.S. Republicans (40%).

The differences between white and Hispanic Catholics on legal abortion views were narrower, with 63% of Hispanic Catholics supporting legal abortion in all or most cases compared to 59% of white Catholics. Pew did not report the views of Catholics of other racial and ethnic groups.

The Pew survey also reaffirmed previous research about the changing demographics of U.S. Catholics, who represent 20% of U.S. adults. A third of U.S. Catholics (33%) are now Hispanic, a 4 percentage point increase since 2007. White non-Hispanic Catholics, who represent 57% of U.S. Catholics, have declined 8 percentage points in the same time frame. Black non-Hispanic Catholics make up 2% of the Catholic population and Asian non-Hispanic Catholics make up 4%.

Hispanic Catholics are also younger on average than their white counterparts — only 43% of Hispanic Catholics are 50 or older, compared with 68% of white Catholics. Hispanic Catholics are the majority group in the western U.S., while white non-Hispanic Catholics make up the majority in the Northeast and the Midwest. In the South, 49% of Catholics are white non-Hispanic and 40% of Catholics are Hispanic.

White Catholics are much more likely to be college graduates than Hispanic Catholics. Four in 10 white Catholics (39%) have a bachelor’s degree, while only 16% of Hispanic Catholics do.

While roughly the same percentage of white and Hispanic Catholics said they attend Mass weekly, Hispanic Catholics were more likely to say religion is important in their lives (48%) and that they pray daily (55%), compared with white Catholics, where 44% and 49% agreed respectively.

The survey included 2,019 adult U.S. Catholics and was fielded from Feb. 13-25. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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