Catholics Divided Over Global Warming
Partisan Differences Mirror Those Among General Public
On the eve of a forthcoming encyclical by Pope Francis on the environment and climate change, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that U.S. Catholics’ views on global warming are broadly reflective of American public opinion writ large; a solid majority believe that Earth is warming, but there is much more division over the cause and seriousness of climate change. Moreover, the poll shows that climate change is a highly politicized issue that sharply divides American Catholics, like the U.S. public as a whole, mainly along political party lines.
About seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics (71%) believe the planet is getting warmer. Nearly half of Catholic adults (47%) attribute global warming to human causes, and a similar share (48%) view it as a very serious problem.
But more than eight-in-ten Catholic Democrats say there is solid evidence that Earth is warming, compared with just half of Catholic Republicans.1 And while six-in-ten Catholic Democrats say global warming is a man-made phenomenon and that it poses a very serious problem, only about a quarter of Catholic Republicans agree.
Among the U.S. public as a whole, belief that global warming is occurring is nearly twice as common among Democrats as Republicans (86% vs. 45%). The view that global warming is caused by human activity is roughly three times as common among Democrats as among members of the GOP (64% vs. 22%), as is the view that it represents a very serious problem (67% vs. 21%).
The survey also finds large differences in views on global warming between Hispanic Catholics and white, non-Hispanic Catholics. Hispanic Catholics are much more inclined than white Catholics to say that global warming is occurring, is mostly a consequence of human activity and is a very serious problem. Here again, these patterns mirror differences by race and ethnicity seen among the general public.
Generally speaking, Catholics express higher levels of belief in global warming and concern about its effects than do Protestants, but lower levels than people who are religiously unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics and those whose religion is “nothing in particular”). However, analysis of the survey findings shows that political party identification and race/ethnicity are much better predictors of environmental attitudes than are religious identity or observance.
These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research Center survey, conducted May 5-June 7, 2015, on landlines and cellphones among a national sample of 5,122 adults, including 1,016 self-identified Catholics.
The survey also shows that, aside from a brief dip in early 2014, the share of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that the planet is getting warmer and that warming is mainly caused by human activity has remained relatively steady between 2013 and today.
However, more people now view global warming as a very serious problem than in 2013, when the question was last asked in a nationwide Pew Research Center telephone survey. Nearly half of U.S. adults (46%) now hold this view, up from a third in 2013 (but on par with the share who expressed such concern in 2007 and 2008).
This shift has occurred among most major religious groups in the U.S., including Catholics. Among the public as a whole, the view that global warming represents a very serious problem has grown much more among Democrats (from 48% to 67%) than among the GOP (from 14% to 21%) between 2013 and 2015.
The new poll finds that roughly two years into his papacy, Pope Francis remains very popular among U.S. Catholics. Fully 86% of Catholics say they view Francis favorably, and nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say he represents a major change for the better for the Catholic Church – the same share who said this a year after his election.
In addition, the survey sought to explore what Catholics like – or don’t like – about the pope by asking whether Francis exhibits three positive and three negative qualities. Roughly nine-in-ten or more say they think Francis is “compassionate,” “humble” and “open-minded.” About one-in-five Catholics (19%) describe him as “too liberal,” while one-in-seven (15%) consider him “naïve” and one-in-ten (11%) think he is “out of touch.”
Pope Francis also gets high marks for his handling of specific tasks, with most Catholics giving him either “excellent” or “good” ratings on a wide range of responsibilities, from promoting good relations between major religions to addressing the sex abuse scandal. He earns the highest praise for spreading the Catholic faith and for addressing the needs and concerns of the poor, with about four-in-ten giving him an “excellent” rating in each of these areas (41% and 42%, respectively).
Somewhat fewer Catholics give Francis an excellent rating for addressing the needs and concerns of families. A few months before the pope’s scheduled trip to the U.S. in September to participate in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, 35% of Catholics give Francis an “excellent” rating for his work so far on behalf of families, while 44% say he has done a “good” job in this area.
While just over half of U.S. Catholics say Francis is doing an excellent or good job addressing the sex abuse scandal (55%), about one-in-ten (12%) say he is doing a poor job dealing with this matter, 22% say he has done only a fair job and 11% express no opinion.
In advance of the encyclical on climate change, just 53% of Catholics give the pope a favorable rating for his work addressing environmental issues. The survey, conducted in May and early June before the publication of the encyclical, finds that 18% of Catholics think Francis has done an “excellent” job on environmental issues so far. An additional 35% of Catholics say Francis has done a “good” job in this area, while the remainder rate his performance “only fair” (25%) or “poor” (4%), or express no opinion (18%). Catholic Democrats give Francis slightly more positive marks on this issue than Catholic Republicans; 21% of Catholic Democrats say Francis has done an excellent job addressing environmental issues, compared with 13% of Catholic Republicans.
Many Catholics See Global Warming as a Serious Problem
Overall, about seven-in-ten Catholics (71%) believe there is solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, and nearly half (47%) believe this change is due to human activity, such as burning fossil fuels. Roughly one-fifth of Catholics (22%) say there is no solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer. This latter group is divided between those who assert that we just do not know enough yet to be sure that the planet is getting warmer (12%) and those who say Earth is not warming (10%).
Roughly three-quarters of Catholics say that global warming is a problem, with about half saying it is a “very” serious problem (48%) and a quarter saying it is “somewhat” serious (26%).
Overall, Catholics’ views on global warming line up very closely with the views of the general public. And among both the general public and Catholics, views on whether global warming is occurring and whether it is caused by human activity have remained relatively steady in recent years. Among Catholics, the same shares now say global warming is occurring (71%) and that it is caused mainly by human activity (47%) as said this in an August 2014 Pew Research survey. But the share of Americans, including Catholics, who say global warming is a very serious problem has grown since that question was last asked in 2013.
In 2013, one-third of Americans said global warming was a very serious problem, compared with 46% who now hold this view. Catholics’ views on this question have moved in the same direction, rising from 32% who said global warming was a very serious problem in 2013 to 48% who hold that view today.
Americans who identify as Democrats or political independents are more likely than Republicans to say global warming is a very serious problem (67% of Democrats and 45% of independents, compared with 21% of Republicans). While growing shares of all three groups express this view, recent change has been more pronounced among Democrats and independents than among Republicans.
The share saying that global warming is a very serious problem has grown by 20 percentage points among Catholic Democrats (from 44% in 2013 to 64% today) and 10 points among Catholic Republicans (from 14% to 24%).
Catholics are somewhat more concerned about global warming than are Protestants, and somewhat less concerned than the religiously unaffiliated. In general, Catholics’ views on global warming tend to resemble the views of the public as a whole, both in their overall level of concern and in the sharp differences of opinion between political and demographic subgroups.
Catholic Democrats are far more likely than Catholic Republicans to believe global warming is occurring (85% vs. 51%), to say it is caused by human activity (62% vs. 24%) and to view it as a serious problem (64% vs. 24%). Similar gaps are seen between Democrats and Republicans in the population as a whole.
Similarly, Hispanic Catholics are significantly more likely than white Catholics to say they believe Earth is getting warmer (82% of Hispanic Catholics vs. 64% of white Catholics), to say it is mostly due to human activity (60% vs. 39%) and to say global warming is a very serious problem (63% vs. 39%). These differences closely match those found between whites and Hispanics in the overall population.
Analysis of the survey findings shows that political party identification and race and ethnicity are far more closely linked with views on global warming than religious affiliation. Statistical modeling, called regression analysis, that simultaneously examines correlations between a variety of demographic factors and views of global warming shows that Catholics are more likely than evangelical Protestants to say global warming is occurring, even taking into account the partisan and racial/ethnic differences between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. And Catholics are slightly less likely than the religiously unaffiliated to say global warming is caused by human activity. But the modeling confirms that the differences between Republicans and Democrats and between whites and Hispanics are far more important for understanding views of global warming than are the differences between Catholics and people of other religious faiths.
Pope Francis Viewed Positively by the U.S. Public and Catholics
Among U.S. adults overall, more than six-in-ten (64%) express a favorable view of Pope Francis. While this is lower than the high of 70% who gave Francis a favorable rating in February of this year, the share of Americans expressing an unfavorable view of Francis also has ticked down (10% now, compared with 15% in February). Making up for these differences: The share of people who say they cannot rate the pope has increased from 15% earlier this year to 27% now.
A large majority of U.S. Catholics (86%) say they have a favorable view of Pope Francis, comparable to the 90% registered in a Pew Research Center poll earlier this year. Throughout his two-year papacy, Francis’ favorability ratings among Catholics have tended to be higher than those of his immediate predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, and they have approached the very high ratings given to Pope John Paul II in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Trends in Papal Favorability Among U.S. Catholics
John Paul II
1978 - 2005
2005 - 2013
2013 - Present
Source: Pew Research Center survey, May 5-June 7 2015. Figures may not add to 100% due to rounding. Wikimedia Commons (images).
While Catholics in general express highly favorable views of Pope Francis, some subgroups are even more enthusiastic than others. For example, more Catholic women than men say they view the pontiff very favorably (57% vs. 46%). And Catholics who report attending Mass at least once a week are more likely than those who attend less regularly to hold a very favorable view.
Non-Catholic Americans also give Pope Francis largely positive ratings. Seven-in-ten white mainline Protestants have a favorable view of Francis (69%), as do majorities of black Protestants (59%) and those with no religious affiliation (58%). White evangelical Protestants express a somewhat less positive view, with roughly half (51%) saying they have a favorable view of the pope, down from 60% in February of this year. But the share of white evangelicals who express an unfavorable view of Francis also has dropped by eight percentage points since February, while the share of evangelicals who offer no opinion of the pontiff has grown by 16 points.
A large majority of Catholics (74%) continue to view Pope Francis as representing a major change for the Catholic Church. And most who hold this view also say that Francis represents a change for the better. Indeed, about seven-in-ten Catholics (69%) say the pope represents a major, positive change. Only 3% of Catholics see Francis as a change for the worse. About one-in-six Catholics (17%) say Francis does not represent a major change for the Catholic Church.
When Catholics are asked whether a series of words or phrases describe Francis, about nine-in-ten or more say the terms “compassionate,” “humble” and “open-minded” describe him.
Catholics who describe themselves as conservative are more likely than liberal Catholics to say Pope Francis is “too liberal” (25% vs. 16%). And Hispanic Catholics are twice as likely as white Catholics to say Pope Francis is “out of touch” (17% vs. 8%). Still, large majorities in all groups say these negative terms do not describe the pontiff.
Overall, about two-thirds of Catholics (65%) say only positive terms describe Pope Francis – saying he is compassionate, humble or open-minded (or some combination of the three) and not saying he is naïve, out of touch or too liberal. Roughly one-third of Catholics (35%) express mixed views of the pope, saying that he is naïve, out of touch or too liberal (or some combination) but that he is also compassionate, humble or open-minded. Fewer than 1% of Catholics say that only negative terms describe Francis.
Pope Francis continues to receive positive ratings from Catholics on a variety of papal responsibilities. Fully 84% of Catholics give the pope a high rating for spreading the Catholic faith, including 41% who say Francis is doing an excellent job and 43% who say he is doing a good job. Roughly eight-in-ten also say Francis is doing a good or excellent job standing up for traditional moral values (80%), addressing the needs and concerns of the poor (79%), addressing the needs and concerns of families (79%) and promoting good relations between the Catholic Church and other major religions (78%).
On other issues, however, more Catholics appear to see room for improvement. Smaller majorities say Pope Francis is doing a good or excellent job addressing the needs and concerns of women (65%), reforming the Vatican bureaucracy (63%) and addressing the sex abuse scandal in the church (55%). About half (53%) say he is doing a good or excellent job addressing environmental issues.
Across the board, Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week give Francis more positive job performance ratings than do Catholics who report attending Mass less often.
- In the current survey, 34% of Catholics describe themselves as Democrats, 24% describe themselves as Republicans and 31% describe themselves as political independents. ↩