February 21, 2013

U.S. Catholics Divided On Church’s Direction Under New Pope

As the pontificate of Benedict XVI winds down, many American Catholics express a desire for change. For example, most U.S. Catholics say it would be good if the next pope allows priests to marry. And fully six-in-ten Catholics say it would be good if the next pope hails from a developing region new-pope-1like South America, Asia or Africa.

At the same time, many Catholics also express appreciation for the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. While about half of U.S. Catholics (46%) say the next pope should “move the church in new directions,” the other half (51%) say the new pope should “maintain the traditional positions of the church.” And among Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, nearly two-thirds (63%) want the next pope to maintain the church’s traditional positions.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Feb. 13-18 among 1,504 adults (including 304 Catholics) also finds that nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics have heard a lot (60%) or at least a little (30%) about Benedict’s resignation. Just one-in-ten Catholics say they have heard nothing at all about his resignation.

In a separate national survey conducted Feb. 14-17 among 1,003 adults (including 212 Catholics), three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (74%) express a favorable view of the pope. Benedict’s ratings among Catholics now stand about where they were in March 2008 (just before his U.S. visit) and are lower than they were in April 2008, when 83% of U.S. Catholics expressed favorable views of him. Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was rated favorably by upwards of 90% of U.S. Catholics in three separate Pew Research polls in the 1980s and 1990s.

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new-pope-3U.S. Catholics voice dissatisfaction with Benedict’s handling of the sex abuse scandal in the church. Among Catholics who say they followed news of the pontiff’s resignation, nearly two-thirds (63%) think he has done a poor or “only fair” job of addressing the sex abuse scandal, while 33% give him excellent or good ratings for his handling of the issue. Benedict gets better marks for his handling of interfaith relations; 55% of Catholics say he has done a good or excellent job promoting relations with other religions, while 37% say he has done a poor or “only fair” job in this area. But the public is more negative now than in 2008 in its views both on Benedict’s handling of the sex abuse scandal and on his handling of interfaith relations. Immediately following his 2008 visit to the U.S., 49% of American Catholics gave the pope good or excellent ratings for his handling of the sex abuse scandal, and 70% said he was doing a good or excellent job promoting interfaith relations.

A Look Ahead to the Next Pope

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Half of U.S. Catholics (51%) say the next pope should maintain the traditional teachings of the church, while about the same number say the next pope should move the church in new directions (46%).

But among Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, nearly two-thirds (63%) say the new pope should maintain the traditional positions of the church, while about one-third (35%) say the new pope should move the church in new directions. By contrast, among those who attend Mass less often, 54% say the next pope should move in new directions while 42% prefer to maintain the church’s traditional positions.

Six-in-ten Catholics who are college graduates say the next pope should move the church in new directions, compared with 38% who say the pope should maintain the church’s traditional positions. This balance of opinion is reversed among Catholics with some college or less education, among whom 56% want the church to maintain its traditional positions and 41% would like it to move in new directions.

There is little evidence of a generation gap on this question. Among Catholics under age 50 and those ages 50 and older, opinion is closely divided as to whether the new pope should move in new directions or maintain the church’s traditional positions.

Catholics who say the next pope should move the church in new directions were asked to describe, in their own words, in what new directions they would like to see the church go. (Since some respondents gave more than one answer, the percentages in the table below cannot simply be added together.)new-pope-5

About one-in-five Catholics who think the next pope should move the church in new directions say simply that the church should become more modern (19%). And 15% want the next pope to do more to end sex abuse in the church and punish the priests involved.

In addition, roughly one-in-five mention issues regarding the priesthood, including 14% who say priests should be allowed to marry and 9% who say women should be allowed to serve in the priesthood.

Others mention a desire to see the church become more accepting and open in general (14%), and 9% say they want to see the church become more accepting of homosexuality and gay marriage in particular. Of Catholics who want a pope who will move the church in new directions, 7% specifically mention birth control, mainly indicating a desire for a lessening of the church’s opposition to the use of contraception.

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In response to a closed-ended question, nearly six-in-ten Catholics (58%) say it would be good if the next pope allows priests to get married, while 35% say this would be bad. Support for allowing priests to marry is much more common among Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week (66%) than among those who attend Mass regularly (46%).

Six-in-ten Catholic women (61%) say allowing priests to marry would be a good thing — about twice as many as say it would be a bad thing (30%). Men are more inclined than women to say that allowing priests to marry would be a bad thing (41% vs. 30%).

College graduates express more support than those Catholics with less education for allowing priests to marry (71% vs. 53%). There is little generational difference on this issue.

A majority of Catholics (60%) say it would be a good thing if the next pope is from a developing region of the world, like South America, Asia or Africa. Only 14% say this would be a bad thing, while one-in-five say it would not matter either way (20%).

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Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week and those who attend less often express similar views on this issue. The view that it would be a good thing if the next pope is from a developing region is more common among college graduates (71%) than among those Catholics with less education (56%).

Views of Pope Benedict

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Currently, about three-quarters of U.S. Catholics express either a very favorable (32%) or mostly favorable (41%) opinion of Benedict; roughly one-in-six U.S. Catholics (16%) express an unfavorable opinion. Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week are far more likely to express a favorable opinion of Benedict than those who attend less often (87% vs. 64%).

Benedict’s favorability rating among U.S. Catholics has declined since April 2008, when it reached 83% immediately following the papal visit to the United States. The percentage of U.S. Catholics expressing a favorable opinion of Benedict has now settled back to levels seen in March 2008, prior to his visit. By contrast, in Pew Research polling conducted between 1987 and 1996, John Paul II was consistently rated favorably by upwards of nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics.

Of U.S. Catholics who have followed the news of the pope’s resignation, 55% say that Benedict has done a good or excellent job in promoting relations with other religions. Like the pontiff’s overall favorability rating, this number has declined in the past five years; it is down 15 points since the pope’s visit to the United States in 2008. Currently, 37% of U.S. Catholics give the pope poor or “only fair” marks for his handling of interfaith relations.

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Most Catholics who have followed news of the pope’s resignation (63%) rate Benedict’s handling of the sex abuse scandal as “only fair” or poor; one-third say he has done an excellent or good job addressing the scandal. Current evaluations of the pope’s handling of the scandal are comparable to those seen in 2010 and are significantly more negative than in April 2008.

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About the Surveys

Most of the analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 13-18, 2013, among a national sample of 1,504 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (752 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone and 752 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 364 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about the survey methodology, see http://people-press.org/methodology/

The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and nativity and region to parameters from the 2011 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and population density to parameters from the Decennial Census. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size among respondents with a landline phone. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the unweighted sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:

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Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

Some of the analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 14-17, 2013, among a national sample of 1,003 adults 18 years of age or older living in the continental United States (502 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone and 501 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 276 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Universal Survey Center under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older.

The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and region to parameters from the 2011 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and population density to parameters from the Decennial Census. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status, based on extrapolations from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size among respondents with a landline phone. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the unweighted sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:

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Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

Photo Credit: Luigi Vaccarella/Grand Tour/Corbis