March 6, 2014

U.S. Catholics View Pope Francis as a Change for the Better

Views of the Pope After His First Year

pope-francis-one-year-0One year into his pontificate, Pope Francis remains immensely popular among American Catholics and is widely seen as a force for positive change within the Roman Catholic Church. More than eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff, including half who view him very favorably. The percentage of Catholics who view Francis “very favorably” now rivals the number who felt equally positive about Pope John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s, though Francis’ overall favorability rating remains a few points shy of that of the long-serving Polish pope.

Seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics also now say Francis represents a major change in direction for the church, a sentiment shared by 56% of non-Catholics. And nearly everyone who says Francis represents a major change sees this as a change for the better.

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pope-francis-one-year-2But despite the pope’s popularity and the widespread perception that he is a change for the better, it is less clear whether there has been a so-called “Francis effect,” a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. And the survey finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often.

But there are other indications of somewhat more intense religiosity among Catholics. About a quarter of Catholics (26%) say they have become “more excited” about their Catholic faith over the past year (outnumbering the one-in-ten who have become less excited). Four-in-ten Catholics say they have been praying more often in the past 12 months (compared with 8% who say they have been praying less often). And somewhat more Catholics say they have been reading the Bible and other religious texts more frequently (21%) than say they have been doing so less frequently (14%). None of these questions about religious practices were explicitly tied in the survey to Francis’ papacy; the questions dealing with attitudes toward Francis came elsewhere in the questionnaire.
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The survey also finds growing numbers who expect that in the near future the Catholic Church will allow priests to get married; 51% think the church will make this change by the year 2050, up 12 percentage points from the days immediately following Francis’ election a year ago. But there has been less change in Catholics’ expectations about other church teachings. Roughly four-in-ten Catholics think that in the coming decades the church either definitely or probably will allow women to become priests, about the same number who held this expectation a year ago. And 56% of Catholics think the church will soon allow Catholics to use birth control, very similar to the 53% who said this last year.

pope-francis-one-year-4However, support for these changes remains high among American Catholics. Nearly eight-in-ten say the church should allow Catholics to use birth control, while roughly seven-in-ten say the church should allow priests to get married and allow women to become priests.

By comparison, support for the church sanctioning same-sex marriages is lower. Half of U.S. Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, while 43% say it should not. Roughly one-in-three – including 21% of those who do not think the church should accept same-sex marriages – say they expect the church will recognize such marriages by 2050.

These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research Center survey, conducted Feb. 14-23 on landlines and cellphones among a national sample of 1,821 adults (including 351 Catholics). The survey also finds that eight-in-ten Catholics give Pope Francis excellent or good marks for spreading the Catholic faith and standing up for traditional moral values, and three-quarters say he has done an excellent or good job addressing the needs and concerns of the poor. But Francis gets lower marks for his handling of the sex abuse crisis, with 54% of Catholics giving him an excellent or good rating for his handling of the issue. One year ago, 70% of U.S. Catholics said that addressing the sex abuse scandal should be “a top priority” for the new pope, far more than said the same about standing up for traditional moral values, spreading the Catholic faith or other issues.

Evaluations of Pope Francis

pope-francis-one-year-5Currently, about two-thirds of the public overall (including 60% of non-Catholics) has a favorable opinion of Pope Francis, up significantly from the period immediately following his election by a conclave of cardinals on March 13, 2013, when he was rated favorably by 57% of the public overall and 51% of non-Catholics. Francis is now rated somewhat more favorably by non-Catholics than was his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI; at the height of his popularity in April 2008, shortly after his visit to the United States, Benedict was rated favorably by 55% of non-Catholics. But Francis is viewed favorably by fewer non-Catholics than was John Paul II, who was viewed positively by 71% of non-Catholics in June 1996.

pope-francis-one-year-6Not surprisingly, Pope Francis is considerably more popular among Catholics than among non-Catholics. Fully 85% of Catholics rate Francis favorably, while just 4% of Catholics say they have an unfavorable opinion of the pope. Catholics today express more favorable opinions of Francis than they tended to express about Benedict. The one exception to this pattern is an April 2008 poll, when 83% of U.S. Catholics rated Benedict favorably.

Catholics from a wide variety of backgrounds view Francis favorably. Roughly equal portions of men and women give him favorable marks, as do Catholics in all age groups. Older Catholics, however, are more likely to say they have a very favorable opinion of Francis than are Catholics in their 20s and 30s. Similarly, more Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis express very favorable views of the pope, compared with Catholics who attend Mass less often (61% vs. 47%).

pope-francis-one-year-7There also is broad consensus among Catholics that Francis represents a major change in direction for the church, and that this is a change for the better. Large majorities of men and women, Catholics in all adult age groups, and both regular Mass attenders and more infrequent Mass-goers express this view.

Pope Francis gets positive ratings on a range of papal responsibilities, though one of his lower ratings is in an area U.S. Catholics have named as a top priority: addressing the clergy sex abuse scandal.

pope-francis-one-year-8The new pope gets his highest marks for spreading the Catholic faith (81% of Catholics say he is doing an excellent or good job of this),  standing up for traditional moral values (81% excellent/good), and addressing the needs and concerns of the poor (76% excellent/good). One year ago, 39% of Catholics said that spreading the faith should be “a top priority” for the new pope, and 49% said the same about standing up for traditional moral values. (The 2013 survey did not ask whether addressing the needs of the poor should be a top priority for the new pope.)

Six-in-ten Catholics give Francis positive marks for reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, a task ranked as a top priority by 35% of Catholics last year. Francis gets his lowest ratings for his handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis (54% excellent/good) and for addressing the priest shortage (50% excellent/good). Last March, 70% of Catholics said addressing the sex abuse scandal should be “a top priority” for the new pope, far more than said the same about any other issue.

Evidence of a “Francis Effect”?

Many commentators have speculated about Francis’ effect on Catholics in the U.S. and around the world. The survey finds he is widely admired, but has his leadership sparked increased devotion among the faithful or inspired former Catholics to return to the church?

pope-francis-one-year-9The evidence on this question is mixed. Pew Research surveys conducted since Francis was elected find no change in the share of U.S. adults who identify as Catholics: 22% of Americans describe themselves as Catholic today, identical to the 22% who did so in the year preceding Francis’ election. Aggregated data from Pew Research surveys also find no change in self-reported rates of Mass attendance among Catholics. In the year since Francis became pope, 40% of U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass at least once a week, unchanged from the months immediately preceding the papal transition.

pope-francis-one-year-10The new survey also finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are volunteering more or going to confession more often than in the past. Roughly one-in-eight U.S. Catholics (13%) say they have been volunteering more in their church or community over the past year, but 23% say they have been doing this less often, and 59% say their level of volunteering has not changed. Just one-in-twenty Catholics (5%) say they have been going to confession (also known as the sacrament of penance and reconciliation) more often over the last 12 months, while 22% say they have been going to confession less often, and 65% say their frequency of confession has not changed very much.

pope-francis-one-year-11At the same time, one-quarter of Catholics (26%) say they have become more excited about their Catholic faith over the past year, with far fewer (11%) saying they have become less excited about their faith. And fully 40% of Catholics say they have been praying more in the past year, compared with just 8% who say they have been praying less often. One-in-five Catholics (21%) say they have been reading the Bible or other religious materials more often in the last 12 months, compared with 14% who say they have been doing this less often.

Increased excitement and devotion is most pronounced among Catholics who attend Mass regularly. Four-in-ten of those who attend Mass at least once a week say they have become more excited about their faith in the past year, compared with 19% of Catholics who attend Mass less often. Half of weekly Mass-goers say they have been praying more, compared with 36% among Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week. And twice as many regular Mass attenders as less-frequent attenders say they have been reading religious materials more often (30% vs. 16%). Since the share of Catholics who report attending Mass regularly has not changed since Francis’ election, this suggests that if there has been a “Francis effect,” it has been most pronounced among Catholics who already were highly committed to the practice of their faith.

pope-francis-one-year-12Nearly six-in-ten U.S. Catholics (56%) say they think the church will definitely or probably change its position and allow Catholics to use birth control by the year 2050. And 51% say they think the church will begin allowing priests to get married in the next few decades, up sharply from the 39% who said this a year ago, in the days immediately following Francis’ election. Four-in-ten Catholics (42%) say they think the church soon will allow women to become priests, and roughly one-in-three Catholics (36%) say the church definitely or probably will recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples in the decades to come.

There is widespread support for change on most of these issues among U.S. Catholics. Regardless of their expectations about what the church will do, large majorities of Catholics say the church should allow Catholics to use birth control (77%), allow priests to get married (72%) and ordain women as priests (68%). Half of Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

pope-francis-one-year-13Support for change on these matters is much stronger among Catholics who attend religious services less than once a week than it is among weekly Mass attenders. Still, even among Catholics who report attending Mass regularly, nearly two-thirds express support for allowing Catholics to use birth control (63%), while 57% say the church should allow priests to get married and 54% say the church should ordain women as priests. One-third of weekly Mass attending Catholics say the church should recognize same-sex marriages.

About the Survey

The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 14-23, 2014, among a national sample of 1,821 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, including an oversample of young adults ages 18-33 (481 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 1,340 were interviewed on a cellphone, including 786 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 cellphone random digit dial samples were used. In order to increase the number of 18-to 33-year-old respondents in the sample, additional interviews were conducted with that cohort by screening a separate random digit dial cell sample. Both the landline and cellphone 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 our survey methodology, see http://people-press.org/methodology/.

The combined landline and cellphone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and nativity, and region to parameters from the 2012 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 cellphones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2013 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cellphones 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 discussed in the report and accompanying detailed tables.

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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.

© Pew Research Center, 2014

Cite this publication: Joseph Liu. “U.S. Catholics View Pope Francis as a Change for the Better.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 6, 2014) http://www.pewforum.org/2014/03/06/catholics-view-pope-francis-as-a-change-for-the-better/, accessed on July 23, 2014.