[Pope Francis met Italian nurses on 3 February, 2018. (Vatican Media)]
Washington: Five years into the papacy of Pope Francis, the vast majority of U.S. Catholics continue to have a favorable opinion of the Argentinian pontiff, and most say he represents a major – and positive – change for the Roman Catholic Church.
At the same time, a new Pew Research Center survey finds signs of growing discontent with Francis among Catholics on the political right, with increasing shares of Catholic Republicans saying they view Francis unfavorably and that they think he is too liberal and naïve.
Currently, 84% of American Catholics say they have a “favorable” view of Pope Francis, which is virtually identical to the share who expressed a positive view of the pope after the first year of his pontificate. Furthermore, roughly nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics describe Pope Francis as “compassionate” and “humble.” And though the share of Catholics in the U.S. who think Pope Francis represents a “major change” for the better is down from a high point in 2015, nearly six-in-ten still express this view.
But while Francis remains quite popular, there are signs that American Catholics are less enamored with him than was once the case. For instance, the share of American Catholics who say Pope Francis is “too liberal” has jumped 15 percentage points between 2015 and today, from 19% to 34%. And about a quarter of U.S. Catholics (24%) now say he is naïve, up from 15% in 2015, the latest Pew Research Center survey says.
Over the same period, the share of American Catholics who give Pope Francis “excellent” or “good” marks for his handling of the sex abuse scandal dropped from 55% to 45%. (The survey was conducted before the recent papal visit to Chile and Peru, which prompted new questions and media coverage about the pope’s handling of this issue.) And there have been similar declines in the share of Catholics who give the pope positive marks for “spreading the Catholic faith” and “standing up for traditional moral values,” though on balance he continues to garner more praise than criticism on these fronts.
The survey also finds signs of growing polarization along partisan lines in Catholics’ views of Francis. The share of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics who say Pope Francis is “too liberal” has more than doubled since 2015 (from 23% to 55%). Similarly, one-third of Catholic Republicans now say Francis is “naïve,” up from 16% who said this in 2015. Among Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholics, by contrast, there has been no statistically significant change in opinion on either of these questions.
In addition, while most Republican Catholics continue to express a favorable view of Francis, the share who have a favorable view of the pontiff is down compared with four years ago, at the end of his first year as pope. At that time, there was no discernible difference between the share of Catholic Republicans (90%) and Democrats (87%) who expressed a favorable view of Francis. Today, by contrast, the pope’s favorability rating is 10 points higher among Catholic Democrats (89%) than among Catholic Republicans (79%).
Over the same period, the share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a major, positive change for the Catholic Church has declined from 60% to 37%. By contrast, there has been little movement since the end of Francis’ first year as pope in the share of Catholic Democrats who view him as a major change for the better (71% today vs. 76% in 2014).
These are among the key findings of a new national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted Jan. 10 to 15 among 1,503 adults, including 316 Catholics. Among the U.S. public as a whole (including both Catholics and non-Catholics), roughly six-in-ten say they have a favorable view of Pope Francis, which is on par with the share of Americans who gave Francis a favorable rating in the early summer of 2015 (just before his visit to the U.S.), and slightly below the peak of 70% who rated him favorably in February 2015 and again in early 2017. Compared with Francis, Pope Benedict XVI generally earned lower favorability ratings from the U.S. public (except in April 2008, immediately following his U.S. trip), while Pope John Paul II earned higher ratings from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s.
While Francis is quite popular with Americans overall, analysis of Pew Research Center surveys conducted since he became pope finds no evidence of a rise in the share of Americans who identify as Catholic (22% in 2012, 20% in 2017), and no indication of a Francis-inspired resurgence in Mass attendance. In surveys conducted in 2017, 38% of Catholic respondents say they attend Mass weekly. By comparison, in the year before Francis became pope, 41% of U.S. Catholics reported attending Mass weekly.
There are, however, a number of changes occurring within American Catholicism that were underway before Francis became pope and have continued during his pontificate. For instance, the share of U.S. Catholics who are Hispanic has grown from 32% in the year before Francis became pope to 36% today. The share of U.S. Catholics who favor allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry has grown from 54% in 2012 to 67% in 2017. And while there has been little change in the partisan composition of Catholic voters as a whole, white Catholic registered voters have continued to trend in a Republican direction. As of today, 54% of white Catholic voters identify with or lean toward the GOP, up from 50% in 2012 and early 2013, the Pew Research Center survey says.
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