March 18, 2013

U.S. Catholics Happy with Selection of Pope Francis

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In the days immediately following the selection of Pope Francis as the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, nearly three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (73%) say they are happy with his selection, including 31% who say they are very happy. One quarter of Catholics do not yet have an opinion about Francis’ selection, while just 2% express unhappiness.

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Francis is the first Jesuit and the first Latin American to be elected pontiff. But in these early days, Catholics are divided over how big a change Francis represents for the church. Four-in-ten Catholics (41%) say the selection of Pope Francis represents a “major change,” while a roughly equal number (44%) see his selection as “only a minor change” for the church.

When asked about a list of possible priorities for the new pope, seven-in-ten Catholics say that addressing the sex abuse scandal should be “a top priority” for Francis. U.S. Catholics as a whole attach less importance to other possible priorities on the list. But among Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, roughly equal numbers cite “standing up for traditional moral values” (65%) and “addressing the sex abuse scandal” (63%) as top priorities for the new pope. By contrast, among Catholics overall 49% say that standing up for traditional moral values should be “a top priority” for Pope Francis. Roughly four-in-ten Catholics or fewer think that spreading the Catholic faith (39%), addressing the priest shortage (36%) and reforming the Vatican bureaucracy (35%) should be top priorities for the new pope.

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The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted March 13-17 among 1,501 adults (including 325 Catholics), also finds that majorities of Catholics want the church to change some of its teachings and policies. Three-quarters of Catholics (76%), for example, say the church should allow Catholics to use birth control. Nearly two-thirds of Catholics (64%) say that priests should be allowed to get married, and six-in-ten (59%) endorse the idea of allowing women to become priests.

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By comparison, fewer Catholics think that these changes will happen anytime soon. About half of U.S. Catholics (53%) say the church definitely or probably will change its position over the next 40 years or so to allow Catholics to use birth control. And roughly four-in-ten Catholics expect that by the year 2050 the church will allow priests to marry (39%) and will allow women to become priests (37%).

Reactions to the New Pope

Roughly three-quarters of Catholics say they are happy with Francis’ selection as pope, including 31% who are very happy. One quarter of Catholics (26%) say they have not heard enough to say whether they are happy with the selection or express no opinion. Very few Catholics are unhappy with the choice of Francis as pope (2%).

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Nearly nine-in-ten Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week are happy with Francis’ selection (87%). By comparison, 62% of Catholics who attend Mass less often express happiness with the selection of Francis; about one-third of Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week (35%) express no opinion.

Catholic women are happier than Catholic men about the ascension of Francis to the papacy (80% vs. 65%); more men than women express no opinion (34% vs. 18%). Catholics age 50 and older express greater happiness about the selection than younger Catholics do (82% vs. 66%). Nearly one-third of Catholics under 50 have no opinion (31%), compared with roughly one-in-five Catholics age 50 and older (18%).

Compared with Catholics, members of other religious groups are more uncertain in their reactions to the selection of Francis as pope. Among both Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, roughly six-in-ten express no opinion on the matter, saying they don’t know or haven’t heard enough to say.

Half of Hispanics – many of whom are Catholic – are happy with the selection of Francis, the first pope from Latin America. Whites express a similar level of happiness (45%). Compared with Hispanics, blacks express somewhat less happiness (35%) about Francis’ selection; two-thirds of blacks (64%) express no opinion.

Catholics are divided over whether the selection of Francis as pope represents a major change or a minor change for the church; 41% of Catholics say this is a major change, while 44% say it is a minor change. The view that Francis’ selection is a major change is more common among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week (50%) than among those who attend Mass less often (34%).

Compared with Catholics, members of other religious groups are less inclined to see Francis’ selection as a major change for the church. Less than one-third of Protestants (28%) and just one-fifth of the religiously unaffiliated (21%) say Francis’ elevation to the papacy represents a major change.

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Roughly four-in-ten U.S. Hispanics (43%) say Francis becoming pope is a major change for the church; fewer blacks (30%) and whites (26%) express this view.

Three-quarters of Catholics say they followed the selection of the new pope very (39%) or fairly closely (36%). The selection of the pope garnered less attention among the public as a whole, with about half of all U.S. adults saying they followed the story very closely (21%) or fairly closely (28%).

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Priorities for New Pope

The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church remains a major concern among U.S. Catholics. Seven-in-ten (70%) say addressing the scandal should be “a top priority” for Pope Francis. Of five potential issues listed, this is the only one that most U.S. Catholics agree should be a top priority. The next most commonly named priority, standing up for traditional moral values, is seen as a top priority by about half of U.S. Catholics (49%). Fewer Catholics say spreading the faith (39%), addressing the priest shortage (36%) and reforming the Vatican bureaucracy (35%) should be top priorities for the new pope.

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Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week are as inclined to see standing up for traditional moral values as “a top priority” for the new pope (65%) as they are to say addressing the abuse scandal is “a top priority” (63%). By contrast, just four-in-ten Catholics who attend Mass less often (38%) say standing up for traditional values should be a top priority for Pope Francis. There also is a generation gap on this issue. Six-in-ten Catholics age 50 and older say standing up for traditional moral values should be a top priority for the new pope, but only four-in-ten Catholics under 50 (39%) express this view.

Regular Mass-attending Catholics also are more inclined than Catholics who attend Mass less often to say spreading the faith and addressing the priest shortage should be top priorities for the new pope.

Catholics’ Views on Married Priests, Women Priests and Birth Control

Most Catholics support expanding eligibility for the Catholic priesthood. Roughly six-in-ten U.S. Catholics say the Catholic Church should allow priests to get married (64%), and about as many (59%) say the church should allow women to become priests. The survey also finds that three-quarters of Catholics (76%) think the church should permit its members to use birth control.

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On these issues, there is less support for change among Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly than among those who attend Mass less often. But even among regular Mass-attending Catholics, there is considerable support for change. Half of weekly Mass-goers say the church should allow priests to marry (53%) and allow women to become priests (49%). And 62% of regular Mass attenders say the church should permit the use of birth control.

There is little in the way of generational or gender divisions among Catholics on these issues.

When asked whether or not the church will allow priests to marry by the year 2050, about four-in-ten Catholics say they think this either definitely will happen (7%) or probably will happen (32%). Similar percentages say the church will definitely (6%) or probably (31%) begin ordaining women to the priesthood by the year 2050. Catholics’ predictions about these matters have not changed significantly since 1999, when 43% said they expect to see married priests and 45% said they expect to see women priests by 2050.

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About half of Catholics think the church will change its position on family planning to allow birth control by the year 2050 (53%).

About the Surveys

Most of the analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted March 13-17, 2013, among a national sample of 1,501 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (750 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone and 751 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 385 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by Abt SRBI. 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. All questions were asked for the duration of the March 13-17 field period except Q.98-99, which were only asked March 14-17.

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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 March 14-17, 2013, among a separate national sample of 924 adults 18 years of age or older living in the continental United States (512 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone and 412 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 197 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Universal Survey Center and 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. 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.

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